Welcome to our first entry in our new “The Soft Spot” category. This category is designed to highlight box office flops and oft-hated movies that, to us, have a special place in our hearts and minds. Kinda like guilty pleasures but without the guilt.
I grew up loving Steven Spielberg. I also loved Saturday Night Live especially the original “Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time” players. So interest in this zany and funny period romp set during World War II was high. I’ve seen this movie a lot when I was younger because it’s easy for a kid to watch, it has a great John Williams score and it’s funny as hell.
It was and still is considered a flop by industry standards even though it made a lot of money for the studios at the time. But because it didn’t make Jaws or Close Encounters of the Third Kind kind of dough it was considered lame. However, I feel like this movie gets a real bad rap and maybe it’s because it’s the oddest Spielberg movie in his oeuvre. It’s technically his only comedy. Sure most of his movies have humor and light-heartedness but they are really more of “dramedies” than anything else. The closest other comedy he made would be Hook and I really don’t think that is a comedy at its core.
But looking back now I’m glad he took the chance to do a zany spoof. Since then all his flicks are dramatic or movie spectacles always setting the bars higher in cinema. But when he was brash young auteur he took greater chances and 1941 is a prime example. He not only gives homage to his early films like Duel but he also spoofs them like having the same actress, Susan Backlinie, as an ocean victim but instead of a great white, it’s now a Japanese submarine. And this is another example of having some of the greatest comedic actors of my generation in the same movie like Dan Akyroyd, John Candy, John Belushi and Joe Flaherty just to name a few. John Belushi especially kills in this as an off-the-wall batshit crazy air force pilot. This was one of the few movies that me and my parents could watch together and enjoy. There’s something about watching your folks laugh and enjoy silly comedy when you’re a kid.
I also have to point out that this was written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale who gave us one of the best film franchises: Back to the Future. And their concept for a spoof is fantastic and also based on real-events. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, there really was panic along the west coast of California for fear of other attacks by the Japanese. Of course nothing ever came about this fear and that’s why it’s a decent event to make light of. Spielberg received some complaints about making such a comedy about WWII but it’s not like he’s mocking the many who perished in Pearl Harbor. But even as I write this I find it hard to defend completely but again I like how he took such a chance creatively on such a heavy-handed subject like WWII. I think he all but made up for showing the heroism in his other WWII-centric films like Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan. After all “Nothing like a little judicious levity.” as Robert Louis Stevenson once said. Black comedy is essential to the patch-work of our creative expression and no subject matter should be verboten.
So while this may be one of the least-favorite or least-mentioned of all of Spielberg’s works, I think that’s a shame. If I were to rank 1941 among his other 28 films I would have this in my top-ten for sure. Add nostalgia to the factoring in and it could make the top five but my point is that he has many other duds like The Terminal, A.I. and War Horse that should be more forgotten. Maybe it’s because Spielberg made 1941 right after his two massive blockbuster hits so early in his career. The man invented the summer blockbuster and I can easily see the audience and critics not loving a spoof comedy from the guy who gave them Jaws and Close Encounters.
1941 will always have a soft spot in my heart, not just because I grew up with it and love the comedy but because I think it’s a rare form of movie not often seen these days. Deadpool was just released recently on home video and that too is in the same vein of black comedy. Granted, comic book assassins aren’t really serious subject matter but it’s close enough to a black comedy in an otherwise action/adventure-centric genre. If you never seen 1941 go see it. I think you’ll really enjoy it too. And where else can you see scenes with Eddie Deezen and Murray Hamilton together with a ventriloquist dummy? Or Slim Pickens with Toshirō Mifune and Christopher Lee?