1941 (1979): Spielberg’s First (and Biggest) Commercial Flop

One of Spielberg’s few commercial failures, “1941” is an attempt at a satirical comedy of both WWII and Hollywood’s genres of the War and Disaster movies.

Set in December 1941, the tale depicts the various reactions of California residents to the War, ranging from sincere patriotism to defend the country to panic in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The diffuse, sharply uneven plot is comprised of several story threads of a wannabe original movie, a historical comedy that’s also a satire of the Disaster genre.

Among the characters are young officers (Tim Matheson) and civilians (Bobby Di Cicco) who share in common their womanizing tendencies.
Comedian John Belushi plays Wild Bill Kelso, a fighter pilot who follows Japanese fighters along the California coast. he is contrasted with the clumsy tank crew member (John Candy) and the stiff Sergeant Tree (Dan Aykroyd).

Among the civilians is Ned Beatty, well cast as homeowner Ward Douglas, a patriotic citizen who, despite misgivings of his wife (Lorraine Gary), volunteers their front yard as a place for the anti-aircraft guns.

Representing the Japanese side is a submarine that has gotten all the way to the California coast under the command of its captain (Toshiro Mifune) and a German officer observer (Christopher Lee), only to realize they don’t have the basic elements of compass or usable maps. Its captain won’t leave until they have attacked a militarily target, which is Hollywood.

Cut to New Year’s Eve, when these characters crisscross in a comedy of errors, mistaken identities, false perceptions, and mass destruction.

Inevitable comparisons were made between “1941” to the better and funnier “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” due to the overlapping cast members, who represented the era’s best comedians.

For a comedy, the movie is way overlong, and it’s also overproduced, indicating the disparity between the small, intimate scale of the narrative and the epic size of the set-pieces.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale.

Oscar Nominations: 3
Cinematography: William A. Fraker
Sound: Robert Knudson, Robert J. Glass, Don MacDougall, Gene Cantamessa
Visual Effects: William A. Fraker, A.D. Flowers, Gregory Jein.

Oscar Awards: None