1941: Steven Spielberg’s War Spoof Full of Hysterics

Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in 1941. Photo credit: Universal Pictures

Led by some of the biggest names in comedy at the time, 1941 is Steven Spielberg’s most underrated film of all time.

Following the success of National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1978, filmmakers were looking to capitalize on the success.  Why wouldn’t they?  The film brought in a lot of money!  Some of the comedies that would follow in 1980 included Caddyshack, The Blues Brothers, and the joke-a-minute Airplane.  One film that didn’t quite hit so well when it was released in theaters at the end of 1979 was the Steven Spielberg-directed 1941.

I don’t know if Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis or Bob Gale intended to capitalize on the success of Animal House with this film.  Frankly, that’s beside the point.  Each film should stand on the merit of its own making without having to be compared to other films.  That said, both Tim Matheson and John Belushi are the only actors to have been involved with the aforementioned 1978 comedy hit.  Belushi receives the third billing in the film but feels so underused compared to others.

At the start of the film, Spielberg pays homage to his earlier film, Jaws, using the exact same actress, Susan Backlinie.  Rather than sharks going after her, she’s caught by the Japanese submarine.  It’s a fun gag and it works to the benefit of the film.

Sergeant Frank Tree (Dan Aykroyd), Corporal Chuck “Stretch” Sitarski (Treat Williams), and Privates Foley (John Candy), Reese (Mickey Rourke), and Hinshaw (Walter Olkewicz) are dining at a restaurant where Wally Stephens (Bobby Di Cicco) is practicing for a dance contest.  Wally is planning to enter said contest with Betty Douglas (Dianne Kay), much to the dismay of her dad, Ward Douglas (Ned Beatty).  In any event, Sitarski isn’t a fan of Wally so the two of them get into it.

Major General Joseph W. Stilwell (Robert Stack) has been placed in charge of defending Southern California.  While Stilwell tries to keep people calm, Captain Loomis Birkhead (Tim Matheson) gets intimate with the general’s secretary, Donna Stratton (Nancy Allen).  This scene is so full of gags involving the plane.  With the way it’s shot and edited, the end result is so predictable.

At the Douglas home, the tank crew shows up to install an armored gun on the front lawn.  Sitarski’s feud with Wally isn’t over and the two of them go at it again.  Whatever happened at the restaurant between the two of them sets up a sense of animosity.  This later pays off during and after the dance contest.

Meanwhile, the Japanese, led by Cmdr. Akiro Mitamura (Toshirō Mifune), are working with Capt. Wolfgang von Kleinschmidt (Christopher Lee).  They are so unhappy that nothing is working correctly.  They’re nowhere near Los Angeles and send a party to land in search of Hollywood.  Rather than find Hollywood, they find Hollis “Holly” Wood (Slim Pickens) instead.

As the Americans are parading in fear, Captain Wild Bill Kelso (John Belushi) shoots down a plane commanded by Birkhead.  The sight of Birkhead’s plane leads to a lot of people shooting at the plane.  As for Kelso, his plane gets mistaken for a Japanese plane by some spotters on the ferris wheel, Claude Crumn (Murray Hamilton) and Herbie Kazlminsky (Eddie Deezen).

One of the film’s major flaws is the fact that Belushi’s Captain Wild Bill Kelso never has a single scene with Aykroyd’s Sergeant Frank Tree in which the two of them talk.  The only time in which the two of them interact is a salute between the two of them shortly before Kelso boards the Japanese sub toward’s the end of the film.  While the two were both on Saturday Night Live, 1941 should have seen them interacting more times together!  The film should have capitalized on their fame.

Following the commercial flop, Spielberg reworked the film.  The theatrical release was just shy of two hours.  The extended cut is  over two hours long but full of hysterics.  John Williams’ score for the film may not reach the iconic levels as his other Spielberg collaborations but the 1941 march is memorable.  The catchy tune is featured throughout the film.

There’s a lot of other positives to like about the film.  The cinematography a combo of William A. Fraker and Frank Stanley is brilliant.  Fraker may have been fired late in production but was nominated for an Oscar.  It wouldn’t be a war spoof without a massive number of visual effects with all the shooting and bombings.  The effects were upgraded so as to take advantage of the modern technological advances in recent years.

Steven Spielberg’s 1941 may be an underrated film but it’s not a film that deserves to be dismissed,

DIRECTOR:  Steven Spielberg
SCREENWRITERS:  Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale
CAST:  Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, John Belushi, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Christopher Lee, Tim Matheson, Toshirō Mifune, Warren Oates, Robert Stack, Treat Williams, Nancy Allen, John Candy, with Joe Flaherty

Universal Pictures and Columbia Pictures released 1941 in theaters on December 14, 1949.  A Blu-ray was released in 2015.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

2 thoughts on “1941: Steven Spielberg’s War Spoof Full of Hysterics

  1. Nice review.

    Though I will say, I’ve always felt Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (another underrated film) was a much better version of what Spielberg was trying to do with 1941. Both films kind of throw everything in the kitchen sink, have over the top physical farce, and a relentless feel.

    Only difference is that Spielberg was still able to make Temple of Doom into a cohesive piece, whereas 1941 is kind of a mess (but a very fun one).

Leave a Reply