Spielberg: 1941 part 1

Everyone knows that 1941 is flawed. Spielberg knows it, the screenwriters know it, the studios that released it know it, most audiences know it. The question I wish to address here is why it is flawed. What is wrong with 1941, and how could it have been a better movie?

But before I get to that, a tangent. 1941 is currently available only on DVD in what Universal is calling a “collector’s edition,” meaning in this case, I think, that only “collectors” will be interested in seeing this DVD. I last watched it two years ago, and it was a headache-inducing nightmare. The transfer quality is abysmal, like the studio pointed a consumer-level video camera at a television playing a VHS copy of the movie. I had to check the box several times to see if perhaps I had gotten some kind of bogus bootleg copy of 1941, but no, this is a genuine studio release of an incredibly crappy DVD transfer. The other thing about the “collector’s edition” DVD is that the movie is about 20 minutes longer than it was in the theaters, and most the “restored footage” is quite bad — poorly timed scenes that lack focus and would normally be found in the “deleted scenes” file of a normal DVD. So my last experience watching 1941 was a crappy transfer of a flawed movie, now with extra bonus badness.

For this journal entry, I got out that abysmal DVD (there is no other version available) and watched the movie again. I did some research and found that this longer cut is, in fact, the cut Spielberg prefers, so I tried watching it again to see if perhaps, somehow, there was something I had missed in my prejudice against abysmal DVD transfers. I found, in fact, there was. The deleted scenes, while not making 1941 a “better” movie per se, point toward the movie 1941 was trying to be, a movie that seems to have gotten lost somewhere in the development process.

End of tangent.

Where are the flaws of 1941? How did it go wrong? Anyone familiar with this journal will be able to guess my answer — the director took his eye off the protagonist. Everything wrong with 1941 stems from a decision made, early on in the process, to stick a bunch of stuff in the narrative that has nothing to do with the protagonists’ pursuit of their goals.

Who is the protagonist of 1941? As it stands, there are several — three, by my count. The “restored” version indicates a stronger argument for a more classical single protagonist, and the “making of” documentary that fills out the DVD backs this up. The single protagonist of the original screenplay was Wally, the jitterbug-crazy kid who wants only to win a dance contest with his girlfriend and who winds up becoming a war hero. This is a perfectly decent character arc and would have formed the spine of a much better movie.

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? As it stands, the movie has three protagonists I can identify. They are Wally, Lt. Birkhead and Cmdr Mitamura. Wally wants to win the jitterbug contest, Lt. Birkhead wants to bang this one girl, and Cmdr Mitamura wants to achieve “honor” by destroying Hollywood.

Now then: there are problems even here. Lt. Birkhead’s story conks out at the end of Act III, which makes him a minor protagonist at best, and we find, in Act IV, that Mitmura is, in fact, Wally’s antagonist, somethingthat neither character realizes until the beginning of Act IV. A protagonist who doesn’t even know he has an antagonist until Act IV is a very sad protagonist indeed, which is why I’m going to go ahead and call Mitamura a second protagonist. That, and there is a serious lack of antagonists in 1941. There is only Sitarsky, the meathead soldier who stands in Wally’s way of his goal, and Von Kleinschmidt, the Nazi who hangs out with Mitamura. Neither functions terribly well as an antagonist, which is another slight problem the movie has. 1941‘s lack of serious antagonists indicates a central problem of the movie — it has a generally sunny, light-hearted, forgiving, generous view of humanity, a stance in direct opposition to its screenplay.

Let’s go back to Wally for a moment. Wally has a girlfriend, Betty, whom he wants to take to a dance and win a jitterbug contest. Wally has a number of forces arrayed against him: he’s not a soldier (which makes him a second-class citizen), he wears a zoot suit (which casts him in an unfavorable light and means he can’t get in to the “soldiers only” dance hall, which has been converted into a USO), Betty’s father doesn’t approve of him, and there’s this guy Sitarsky who wants to muscle in on his action. Wally’s story arc goes like this: he steals a zoot suit from a department store by creating a fake air raid, he goes to Betty’s house to meet her and instead confronts Sitarsky, who beats him up and sends him packing. In Act II, Wally goes to the big dance contest, steals an army uniform to get in, finds Betty, and is confronted by Sitarsky again. A fight ensues, one that is interrupted by a real air raid. (It’s not a real air raid, but Wally doesn’t know that.) In Act III Wally, by dint of comic happenstance, bests Sitarsky, gets the girl and takes command of a tank. In Act IV Wally, now a tank commander and filled with patriotic fervor, drives his tank out to Santa Monica to do battle with Mitamura.

Here is Lt. Birkhead’s story: Lt. Birkhead is a young, randy general’s aide. He’s got his eye on Donna Stratton, a comely wench with a thing for airplanes. Birkhead knows that if he can get her up into an airplane, Donna can be his. In Act I, he tries to make it with Donna in a parked airplane and fails miserably. In Act II he journeys with Donna to Barstow, where a small airplane in the care of an insane army colonel is located. In Act III he gets Donna up in the air and, after some initial jitters, succeeds in getting a leg over with the comely wench. He is also, however, mistaken for a Japanese plane by the army, which sets off the air raid that disrupts Wally’s arc in Hollywood. In addition to being shot at by anti-aircraft guns in the streets of Hollywood, Birkhead is pursued by Capt. Wild Bill Kelso, a deranged, trigger-happy pilot, and is shot down into the La Brea Tar Pits. Birkhead’s story ends with the conclusion of Act III.

Here is Mitamura’s story: Mitamura is, for reasons unclear, commanding a submarine off the coast of California. He has taken it upon himself to destroy Hollywood. He has a number of forces arrayed against him: his ship is old and falling apart, his crew is incompetent and he’s got this Nazi on board who’s a pain in his ass. In Act I Mitamura, searching for Hollywood, first finds a skinnydipper, then a man named Hollis Wood, neither of whom helps him in the pursuit of his goal. In Act II he kind of isn’t in the movie much, in Act III he locates Santa Monica and settles on that as a substitute for Hollywood and does battle with Ward Douglas, Betty’s father, who happens to have an anti-aircraft gun stationed in his front yard. In Act IV Mitamura battles with Kelso, who comes at him after shooting down Birkhead, and Wally, who arrives with his newly acquired tank. Mitamura shoots down Kelso, blows up Wally’s tank and destroys the amusement park on the Santa Monica pier. He then tosses the Nazi overboard and sails back to Japan, contentthat he has achieved his goal of honor. As he leaves, he also acquires Kelso, who climbs into his submarine.

So far, so good. Three protagonists with neatly interlocking storylines and a coherent “vision” of wartime madness. Everyone in the movie operates under false pretenses, there is never any real threat from anywhere and the protagonists achieve their goals, if only in their own minds.

There are minor protagonists in the movie. There is Joan Douglass, Ward’s wife, whose goal is to keep order in her house. Not only is her goal uninteresting, her pursuit of it is passive and ineffective. She suffers, which is common enough in real life, but a weak arc for a comedy spectacle. There is General Stillwell, whose goal is to keep order in Los Angeles, which for him means going to see Dumbo in Hollywood. Stillwell is an interesting character but a passive, reactive protagonist. And there is Claude Crumm, whose goal is to watch out for submarines from the top of the Ferris Wheel in Santa Monica. He has been saddled with an antagonist in the form of Herbie Kazlminsky, an annoying, hyperactive teen and is, like the others, passive and reactive.

But wait, I hear you cry. Aren’t the stars of this movie John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd? That’s what the cover of the DVD says. Sadly, no. Belushi and Ackroyd play, respectively, Capt Kelso and Sgt Tree. Kelso is a minor antagonist in Lt. Birkhead’s storyline, and Sgt Tree is a minor plot-point in Wally’s storyline. Kelso is there to shoot down Birkhead and Tree is there to get knocked silly during the fake air raid, so that Wally can take command of the tank and become a war hero.

And there, dear readers, is the key to understanding what the primary problem is with 1941. Someone (all signs point to Spielberg) lost track of the protagonist of the movie (that is, Wally) and re-shaped the screenplay to devote significant screen-time to peripheral characters. Here’s what happens: the screenwriters have this minor character, Kelso, whose job it is to be a little trigger-happy and shoot down Lt. Birkhead over Hollywood. Spielberg casts John Belushi, the biggest comedy star on the planet at the time, in the role, and thus decides to expand the part into a major role. Problem is, there isn’t that much more that Kelso can contribute to the narrative. So we have, instead, in Acts I and II, numerous scenes of Kelso flying around, acting crazy and shooting at things, and in Act IV a totally superfluous attack on Mitamura’s submarine. Some of these scenes are indeed spectacular and some are even funny, but none of them contribute to the narrative and thus the audience finds them confusing and they contribute to the movie feeling overlong and unwieldy. Sgt Tree presents another problem which I will get to later.

Then there is the sad case of Hollis Wood. The role of Hollis Wood is, narratively speaking, a minor glitch in Mitamura’s pursuit of his goal. He sends his men ashore to find Hollywood, and they end up with Hollis Wood’s radio. That is all the character is required to do — to provide a radio for Mitamura. Spielberg cast beloved character actor Slim Pickens in the role and so the screenplay needed to be re-shaped to provide something for Hollis Wood to do — in this case, be kidnapped by Japanese soldiers dressed as Christmas trees, be interrogated by Mitamura, swallow a compass found in a box of Cracker Jack (“Popper Jacks” in the movie, for some reason) and be threatened with a prune-juice-informed bowel movement. None of this works for a number of different reasons and at the end of their encounter Hollis Wood gets away, Mitamura doesn’t get his compass (but does get his radio, which is all he needed) and Act I of 1941 is slowed down to a crawl.

(Having cast Pickens in the role, Spielberg could not resist inserting a reference to Dr. Strangelove, when Hollis Wood itemizes, Maj. Kong-style, the contents of his pockets. And for whatever reason, the joke had gone by me the previous 10 times or so I’ve seen this movie. When I did “get” it, it didn’t make the scene better for me — it made it worse. Because I suddenly realized that Spielberg had put Toshiro Mifune (who plays Mitamura), the quintessential Kurosawa star, and Slim Pickens, the icon of one of Kubrick’s greatest moments, in a scene together, put one of them in his underwear, and then had them discuss bowel movements. At one point in the scene, Mitamura turns to the camera and says, woefully, “This has not been honorable,” and all I could think was “I feel your pain, brother.”)

There is much more to say about this intriguing and complex misfire, but this will have to do for now. I will pick this up later, where I will discuss the missed opportunities of the movie and the “shadow movie” that exists beside the existing one.



20 Responses to “Spielberg: 1941 part 1”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Do you think part of the problem is that Spielberg may simply be incapable of doing comedy?

    Yes, he can do moments of humor wonderfully as a respite from unrelenting action or drama, but sustained comedy may simply be something that’s beyond him (which may also explain part of the problem with Hook).

    1941 is pretty much Spielberg’s only comedy in his resume, innit?

    • Todd says:

      When Spielberg concentrates on character, comedy flows naturally and uproariously. There are scenes in Close Encounters, for instance, where I remember missing significant chunks of dialogue because everyone was laughing too loud. In 1941 he concentrates on on characters but on gags and the comedy suffers for it. But I will get into this more tomorrow.

    • curt_holman says:

      It probably depends on whether you consider ‘The Terminal’ a comedy, which is probably is, kinda sorta.

  2. greyaenigma says:

    It could have been a better movie if only there were more Go playing scenes.

  3. ndgmtlcd says:

    I saw 1941 a long time ago. I’ve never seen the cover of the DVD. If you’d asked me, before I refreshed my memory, who were the protagonists of 1941 I would have said, without hesitating, Captain Kelso and Sargeant Tree.

  4. curt_holman says:

    From MST3K: “He’s Deezening!

    I was 14 years old when 1941 came out, which is probably the ideal way to see it. I saw it twice in theaters and howled all the way through it. I have fond memories of parts of it, like the jitterbug contest and ensuing fight scene, and Eddie Deezen.

    I wonder if it’s available on VHS. (It’s not on the shelves in my local library system in any form.) Do you have anything as primitive as a “videocassette player” in your house?

    I was thinking about 1941 in comparison to another plane-based comedy of the era, Airplane!. Airplane would seem to fit your criteria of having well-defined protagonists, and I’m sure that’s all to the good. But when I think about what I like about Airplane, I think of dumb jokes done quickly with straight face, and when I think of what I don’t like about 1941, I think of dumb jokes done laboriously with outrageous mugging. I don’t deny the importance of character in all this, but I’m not sure I understand how it fits. I suspect your discussion of gags will illuminate things.

    • Todd says:

      Re: From MST3K: “He’s Deezening!

      I’m sure that Airplane! weighed heavily on Spielberg’s mind while making 1941 — I’m sure that’s why he cast Robert Stack as Gen. Stillwell. The thing about Airplane! is that it would work even without a plot, whereas 1941 is a mess without one. Airplane! also follows what I consider a primary rule of comedy, which is that the more money you spend on a comedy, the less funny it is. There are exceptions to this rule, but 1941 is not one of them.

      I do have a VCR in my home, but haven’t seen 1941 on video in many a year. Although I am told that the quality of the VHS image is compatible with the current DVD transfer.

      • craigjclark says:

        Re: From MST3K: “He’s Deezening!

        Actually, 1941 was released a full year six months before Airplane!, so that throws that theory right out the window.

        • Todd says:

          Re: From MST3K: “He’s Deezening!

          In the making-of documentary, Spielberg mentions casting Stack because of his role in Airplane!, so either he’s confused or he was aware of what the movie was before it came out.

          • craigjclark says:

            Re: From MST3K: “He’s Deezening!

            The funny thing about that is you’d think 1941 would have been the one with the longer post-production schedule.

  5. planettom says:

    I have to mention the oddity here that “1941”, though a failed movie, produced a surprisingly good comic-book, “1941: THE ILLUSTRATED STORY.”

    It was printed on good paper, like a modern graphic novel, and produced by HEAVY METAL magazine.

    It wasn’t just a panel-adaptation of the screenplay, it really made use of the comic-book format. A friend of mine in high school, an artist, raved about it, and loaned it to me.

    Fairly recently, I hunted down a copy on eBay, and, it stood the test of time, it was still pretty good.

    • Todd says:

      I have heard repeatedly that the comics adaptation is better than the movie.

      • Anonymous says:


        Have you ever seen the original Heavy Metal animated movie from 1981? That movie changed my life.

        And now with a modern version being produced with David Fincher heading the project . . . good times.


        • Todd says:

          Heavy Metal has eluded my attention up to this point. I wasn’t much of a fan of the magazine when I was younger.

          • Anonymous says:

            It’s an decent attempt at a not-intended-for-pre-teens cartoon before the ubiquity of anime.

            Worth a look, perhaps as a “Movie Night with Urbaniak” (especially apropos since the look of the zombified Major Tom from the Venture Bros. episode “Ghosts of the Sargasso” is almost certainly inspired by the “B-17” segment of the movie).

            • Anonymous says:

              South Park’s most recent ep is a take off on the 1981 “Heavy Metal” movie. Very funny.
              Don’t hold your breath re: the new incarnation of “HM”. Sounds more like a vehicle/ploy of Paramount’s to keep a contract obligation.

  6. Ah yes, Herbie Kazlminsky played by the “modern day Jerry Lewis” Eddie Deezen!

    I remember seeing him in the overlooked gem, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and thinking, well that guy’s playing a funny character. And then seeing him do the same things in 1941, and then again in ever other live action performance…….

    Well, at least he has seemed to find a niche doing animation voices (Mandark)

  7. Anonymous says:

    Hey there

    Got here from a search nice blog, i like the layout of your site any ideas where i can get simliar for a new blog im going to start?
    Thanks appreciated.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Hey there

      Glad you like it. All the layout here comes standard from a list of choices you get when you join Livejournal. It’s free and easy!

  8. Anonymous says:

    I agree with your analysis

    As much as I like 1941 and its over the top I do agree with your argument and I think that’s what makes the movie falls short on its objective. Like you said it had no goal whatsover in the movie’s case too many. Even in big comedies like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World there was a clear goal to the madness to race across country to dig up some large sum of money. Here there too many passive and reactive characters even (though I like most of them) for the film to totally work. The original cut I give it 3 1/2 out of 5 stars and the director’s cut I give it 4 out of 5 stars.