Steven Spielberg had never failed on this level before. In fact, he’d never really failed before.
He’d been given some advice about the movie from John Wayne, who had declined to act in it due to ill health. Spielberg would recall that the Duke “said he felt it was a very un-American movie, and I shouldn’t waste my time making it. He said, “You know, that was an important war, and you’re making fun of a war that cost thousands of lives at Pearl Harbor. Don’t joke about World War II.” Charlton Heston also turned down a role in the movie. They were the lucky ones.
While only the fifth full-length film Spielberg would release theatrically, he was already growing self-referential, with Susan Backlinie getting nude and reprising her role as the first victim (just like Jaws), the gas station from Duel showing up and reusing Lucille Benson in a similar role.
Spielberg would later cede that personal arrogance is why the movie failed. That and the fact that he gave up control over the second unit and effects shots would be lessons he’d take with him for the rest of his career.
The movie begins six days after Pearl Harbor, as a Japanese submarine surfaces off the coast of Califonia. This is somewhat based in fact, as there was an event that has come to be referred to as the Great Los Angeles Air Raid of 1942. The commander of that sub, Commander Mitamura ( Toshiro Mifune, in the only Western movie where he used his real voice and wasn’t dubbed by Paul Frees) and Nazi general Wolfgang von Kleinschmidt (Christopher Lee!) have come to America to destroy Hollywood.
Later that morning, the 10th Armored Division M3 Lee tank crew, consisting of Sergeant Frank Tree (Dan Aykroyd), Corporal Chuck Sitarski (Treat Williams) and Privates Foley and Reese (John Candy and Mickey Rourke) are having breakfast where Wally and Dennis (Bobby Di Cicco and Perry Lang, who was in The Hearse) work as dishwashers. They all get into a fight, which Sitarski breaks up, because he can’t stand Americans fighting Americans.
Meanwhile, the maniacal United States Army Air Forces Captain Wild Bill Kelso (John Belushi, who fell off his plane at one point and was in the hospital for a while; it was so funny that it’s in the movie) lands his Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter near that aforementioned Duel gas station and blows it up real good. And, if you’re still paying attention, Major General Joseph W. Stilwell (Robert Stack) is trying to calm the public who is convinced that World War II has come to America. Because, well, it is, a point hammered home when the romantic hijinks of Captain Loomis Birkhead (Tim Matheson) and press agent Donna Stratton (Nancy Allen) releases a bomb on the stage.
There’s a lot to keep track of.
While all this is happening, Ward Douglas (Ned Beatty) and his wife Joan (Lorraine Gary, also of that shark blockbuster) are allowing the military to install a gigantic gun on their front lawn. His daughter Betty dates Walter, who we met before, but now she’s only allowed to dance with soldiers. Oh yeah — Wendi Jo Sperber shows up as well, as she did in nearly every movie after 1979 that had a curvy best friend role.
Of course, all hell breaks loose, ending with a house going into the ocean as Robert Stack intones, “It’s going to be a long war.” Dude. It was a long movie and I’ve only summarized part of it.
This movie is overloaded with actors, like Murray Hamilton (are you sick of actors who were in that shark film yet?), Warren Oates, Eddie Deezen, Slim Pickens, Patti LuPone, Penny Marshall, Frank McRae (who pretty much invented the angry police captain role that every 80’s movie stole), Lionel Stander from Hart to Hart, Lenny and Squiggy as Willy and Joe (better known as Michael McKean and David Lander), Iggie Wolfington (who is also in Hex, a movie I love that no one remembers), Count Floyd himself Joe Flaherty, Lucille Benson (Mrs. Elrod!), Elisha Cook Jr. (Rosemary’s Baby), directors Samuel Fuller and John Landis, Robert Houston (who not only was in The Hills Have Eyes, but also made the bootleg Lone Wolf and Cub remix Shogun Assassin), frequent Clint Eastwood co-star Jack Thibeau, Andy Tennant (who would go on to direct Ever After and Fools Rush In), an uncredited James Caan, Jerry Hardin (Deep Throat from The X-Files) and, of course, Dick Miller.
The Japanese submarine crew was made up of laid-back Southern California dudes who were hired just because they were Asian. Mifune was infuriated by their attitudes, so he asked Spielberg if he could speak to them. An actual Japanese World War II veteran and one of the greatest actors of all time, Mifune spoke to them about getting in line before he became screamed and slapping them around, Needless to say, he was in charge from then on.
There’s a really awesome comic book adaptation of this that Heavy Metal released, with story and art by future Swamp Thing talents Steve Bissette and Rick Veitch. I had a copy as a teenager and much like how I saw most movies as Mad Magazine stories before the actual films, it’s how I experienced this movie for a long time.
Spielberg even wrote the intro to the comic, in which he said, “Columbia and Universal forced me to spend $30 million on 1941. The film’s actual cost was $12.5 million. The rest of the budget was spent on prostitutes and drugs. I can see 1941 more as a cleansing experience. The one possible way I can make you forget all the good things I’ve done in motion pictures. Be merciful.” You can still buy it directly from Heavy Metal.
So was it a bomb? Not according to co-screenwriter Bob Gale: “It is down in the history books as a big flop, but it wasn’t a flop. The movie didn’t make the kind of money that Steven’s other movies, Steven’s most successful movies have made, obviously. But the movie was by no means a flop. And both Universal and Columbia have come out of it just fine.”
That’s true — it made $92 million on a $35 million dollar budget. That seems like a success to me, at least financially. For his part, Belushi found the whole thing hilarious and was seen wearing a t-shirt that said, “Steven Spielberg 1946-1941.”
Perhaps the best review of the film came from Kubrick, who said that the movie was great. But it really wasn’t funny. Spielberg would agree and say that it would have been better marketed as a drama.
If this movie gave us anything, it’s this: Robert Stack remarked, after meeting Belushi for the first time, “That’s the craziest SOB I’ve ever met.”