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1941 Reviews

A massive, spectacular, all-star, notoriously big-budgeted slapstick comedy in the IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD vein, 1941 is loaded with slam-bang sight gags and action, but comedy isn't director Steven Spielberg's forte and the movie isn't nearly as funny as it might have been. Taken from an inspired script by Robert Zemeckis (who went on to direct BACK TO THE FUTURE and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT), Bob Gale, and John Milius, 1941 is very loosely based on a real event that came to be known as the "Great Los Angeles Air Raid" and occurred on February 26, 1942, as mass hysteria broke out in southern California after a Japanese submarine was spotted off Santa Barbara. With the date changed to December 13, 1941, and the event turned by the screenwriters into a situation ripe for broad comedy, the plot juggles as many as seven different story lines simultaneously and features dozens of characters. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Gen. Stilwell (Robert Stack) is appointed commander of the West Coast and ordered to repel any Japanese invasion. Tanks are placed in downtown Los Angeles; anti-aircraft guns are deployed on the roofs of buildings; along the beaches, 40mm cannon are positioned, one of them placed outside the seaside home of Ward Douglas (Ned Beatty), a patriotic private citizen. When the submarine of Commander Mitamura (Toshiro Mifune) is spotted surfacing off Santa Barbara, all hell breaks loose in LA, as gung-ho fighter pilot Wild Bill Kelso (John Belushi), an Army tank crew (with the likes of Dan Aykroyd and John Candy aboard), and a bevy of private citizens rise to Hollywood's defense. Star-studded and loaded with millions of dollars' worth of state-of-the-art special effects (Hollywood Blvd. was re-created in miniature), 1941 is hilarious at times, but not consistently so. Spielberg admitted that his grasp of subtle comedic timing was tenuous at best, so the director opted to assault the viewer with one spectacular gag after another, presented at a breathless pace. The result is merely numbing, and with the exception of a few genuinely eye-opening scenes, most of 1941 is remarkable only for its fiscal decadence. While the all-star cast of young comedians perform familiar shtick (Belushi's Kelso is just a retread of his Bluto from ANIMAL HOUSE), the funniest moments come from such veteran character actors as Slim Pickens, Warren Oates, Beatty, Murray Hamilton, Christopher Lee, Mifune, Elisha Cook, Lionel Stander, and Dub Taylor. Spielberg's expensive pyrotechnics may dazzle the easily impressed, but the lasting memories of 1941 are of the smaller moments, as when Mifune's Japanese commander and Lee's Nazi observer bicker aboard the submarine, when Pickens is captured by an enemy who doesn't know what to make of him, and when Stack, as General Stilwell, sits awestruck and misty-eyed watching DUMBO in a theater. Nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Cinematography, Best Sound and Best Visual Effects.