The FX of ’79 – 1941
By Kyle Anderson on March 10, 2014
Kyle is looking at the Oscar nominees for visual effects in 1979, a landmark for the form. This week: Steven Spielberg’s 1941.
As critically derided as some of the movies nominated for best visual effects were at the time (and are still), perhaps none of them was as celebrated a failure as Steven Spielberg’s 1941. If just hearing the premise and those involved, you might well think the movie is a sure-fire winner, what with the director having just come off of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, writers being the team who would eventually make Back to the Future, and starring some of the best comedic actors in the world, plus a couple of the best actors, full stop. What we actually get, though, is a big, loud, messy, sexist, racist, and ultimately dumb movie that has some excellent special effects in it. It might be no wonder Spielberg never directed another out-and-out comedy.
It seems as though everybody wants to forget about 1941, even the parts of it that are noteworthy, which explains why it’s been next to impossible to find pictures or clips showcasing the film’s impressive visuals. The trailer depicts a scene where Robert Stack says “No bombs will be dropped here,” which is of course hilariously ironic because an errant U.S. bomb happens to be rolling right towards him. This is, without doubt, Spielberg’s lowest-performing film in the U.S., failing to even recoup its production cost. Why was it such a misfire? Why is it a sad footnote in an otherwise illustrious film career? Why, oh why, can’t I find any clips of the things I want to talk about?
The film, as the title suggests, takes place immediately following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, in which America’s West Coast became very concerned at the likelihood of further Japanese aggression. Turns out, they were right to be scared, because a Japanese submarine is heading toward California, looking for Hollywood. Elsewhere in Los Angeles, several different groups of armed servicemen are either patrolling or getting ready to hit up the USO and dance with their “best gal.” Even the no-nonsense Colonel (Stack) wants to enjoy himself by seeing Dumbo for the 10th time. Unfortunately (or fortunately), everyone is an idiot on both sides of the war and things get entirely blown out of proportion very quickly.
There’s far too many characters and people to really describe, but in one of the main threads, you have a young Zoot Suiter who is in love with a clean-cut girl and they want to go dance, but she’s being pursued by, let’s face it, a rapist (Treat Williams), who fights the poor kid and manhandles the girl and nobody does anything about it, no matter how much she screams. Elsewhere, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Mickey Rourke, and others go around in a tank. On the Santa Monica coast, Ned Beatty and Lorraine Gary try to defend their home and country from the Japanese sub. John Belushi plays a probably-clinically insane fighter pilot who’s been following the sub all the way down from San Francisco. Tim Matheson is a scrubbed-out pencil pusher in the army who tries to get in Nancy Allen’s pants because she can only have sex in an airplane that’s flying. And Warren Oates is in this, too. I mean, it’s just a mess, you guys.
The film begins with a girl running down the beach, tossing off her clothes, and diving into the water. Slowly, John Williams’ score begins to sound very Jaws-ish and she is finally met with something coming up from the water, only instead of a shark, it’s a submarine. This is the most directly self-referential Spielberg ever got, even using the same actress from the beginning of Jaws to meet the similar, although sillier now, fate. The script was written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, who’d go on to do the Back to the Future films, and the story was collaborated on with John Milius, who the same year wrote Apocalypse Now. Why, then, is this movie’s script so deaf? There are outward racist and sexist moments (blame the time period all you want; this was 1979 and that stuff isn’t okay), there’s just rampant buffoonery and destruction, and it’s 2 hours long, which, I’m sorry, is just way too lengthy for comedy. Brevity is the soul of wit, someone famous once said.
The effects are very good, though. Eventually, all of the plot threads converge on the streets of Hollywood, where Matheson and Allen, in an unmarked, radioless airplane, get chased and shot at by Belushi, and they’re both shot at by Aykroyd and the troops on the ground. Beatty tries to fire an anti-aircraft gun at the Japanese Submarine while the sub fires at the Santa Monica pier. This is the section with the impressive visual effects, and they are quite impressive. Whole big models of Hollywood at night were constructed, complete with landmarks like the Roosevelt Hotel, the Broadway Hotel, and Hollywood & Vine. The two airplanes fly very low overhead and the shots really look magnificent. The soft-focus cinematography (which also got an Oscar nomination) makes the effects look so much more realistic, and the night sky coupled with the lights of the buildings give a cool and sort of old-timey quality to the whole thing.
The final bit, depicting the sub’s demolition of Santa Monica, is also done in miniature, and I actually was able to find a clip of this. You’ll be hard pressed to find any shot that is CLEARLY a model, even though we know this was all done with models.
The Ferris wheel rolling down the pier into the drink is a fantastic shot, and actually the whole of the hillside and ocean were built in miniature with a tank of water. It looks positively real. The only unrealistic thing about it is Eddie Deezen and his irritating dummy that is alive, I guess.
Does anything else work in the movie? Actually, the direction is quite good for the action set pieces. There’s a huge swing dance/chase/bar brawl in the middle that is a work of perfect choreography. Also, some of the performances are great. Interestingly, the best in the movie are the actors who aren’t known for comedy and are hence playing it straight. The aforementioned Robert Stack is brilliant, as are the legendary Toshiro Mifune and Christopher Lee as the Japanese sub captain and his Nazi attache. One running gag that actually works is that Mifune only ever speaks Japanese and Lee only ever speaks German yet they understand each other perfectly because they’re both bad guys.
Ultimately, though, 1941 was trying to be too many things at once. A comedy about WWII could work, but they were actively trying to replicate the success of John Landis’ Animal House by casting so many of the actors from it (Matheson, Allen, Belushi, and Landis himself in a cameo role), and by having people like Aykroyd and Candy, they were attempting to cater to the alt-comedy crowd of the time. It ends up just being completely all over the place.
Next week, we head back to outer space for a movie that has also all but been written off by its studio and most people who’ve seen it, but that I actually think is pretty great despite its faults. This is Gary Nelson’s The Black Hole, Disney’s response to Star Wars from a script that was in response to 2001: A Space Odyssey.