1941. How did Spielberg handle a genre that was unusual for him?

“1941” debuted in 1979. Spielberg delivered to audiences a wonderful spectacle of madness, brimming with front-loaded gags.


30 April 2024


In the late 1970s, Steven Spielberg, basking in the successes of “Jaws” (hailed as the first blockbuster in cinema history) and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” decided to treat audiences to something fresh by delving into comedy, a genre with which he had not previously had much experience (although his films always featured humorous elements). “1941” debuted in 1979. Spielberg delivered to audiences a wonderful spectacle of madness (in the most positive sense of the word), brimming with front-loaded gags and a gallery of eccentric characters shining on screen.

The story revolves around the panic that erupts on the West Coast of the USA after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The local population, terrified by the expected enemy onslaught, prepares to repel the hostile forces. However, this all sounds serious. The first scene, in which Spielberg parodies the prologue of “Jaws” (essentially parodying himself!), provides a good insight into what this film will be like. Later, we encounter several intertwining but ultimately loose storylines.

The script was written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, the same duo who later gave the world the “Back to the Future” trilogy. They were assisted by John Milius (“Conan the Barbarian”), and the cast assembled on set was a veritable who’s who of actors (an ensemble cast, as the Anglo-Saxons aptly put it), including Dana Aykroyd, John Belushi, John Candy, Ned Beatty, Toshirô Mifune, and Christopher Lee, to name just a few. At one point, the director reveals his penchant for musicals by presenting, much like in the second installment of the Indiana Jones adventures, a dance sequence. Spielberg had always wanted to film a music-filled title, which he finally realized in the form of the “West Side Story” remake. Of course, we must mention the excellent theme by none other than John Williams. The melody perfectly blends grandiose military marches with a light, slightly frivolous touch, enhancing the joyful, uninhibited atmosphere seeping from the screen.

The multitude of storylines gives the film a highly episodic character, but each story possesses enough comedic potential to captivate the audience. Whether it’s the efforts of the Japanese submarine crew preparing to torpedo Hollywood, a young captain’s attempts to seduce a general’s secretary losing control aboard an airplane, or the adventures of a couple whose home is installed with an anti-aircraft battery. However, the pièce de résistance is the unforgettable John Belushi, in the role of “Wild” Bill Kelso, a crazed fighter pilot zealously chasing imaginary Japanese planes in the airspace over California. Every appearance of Belushi is a bravura display of the actor’s talent, cemented a year later in John Landis’ “Blues Brothers.”

Although the script was inspired by real incidents, such as the Japanese bombing of a refinery off the coast of Santa Barbara, there is never a doubt that “1941” is from start to finish a product of imagination and joyful cinema. The film received mixed reviews. It was not a financial failure, as some might mistakenly believe, but Spielberg was criticized for allegedly trivializing the heroism of veterans and generally “making fun” of serious subjects. However, there is no mocking of human tragedy or portrayal of suffering in a distorted mirror. Instead, there is a very difficult-to-create on-screen impression of complete chaos with planes flying between skyscrapers, explosions, brawls, fireworks, and a Ferris wheel rolling along the pier, torn from the Devil’s Wheel. This is something you have to see!

Over the years, the film has gained cult status and has not aged a bit. It’s worth checking out for yourself how Spielberg handled a genre that was unusual for him.

Written by Piotr Zymelka



We're movie lovers who write for other movie lovers!

See other posts from this author >>>