The Set of 400: #294 – My Favorite Rolling Ferris Wheel

Today! Because I fought your kind in the Great War, and we kicked the living shit out of you –

1941 (1979)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Starring John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd (x3), Ned Beatty (x2), Christopher Lee (x4), Tim Matheson, Toshiro Mifune (x2), John Candy (x4), Nancy Allen, Lorraine Gary (x2), Warren Oates, Slim Pickens, Robert Stack, Treat Williams, Murray Hamilton (x3), Elisha Cook Jr., Patti LuPone, Eddie Deezen, Perry Lang, Wendie Jo Sperber, Joe Flaherty, David L. Lander, Michael McKean (x3), Don Calfa, Susan Backlinie, Jerry Hardin, Audrey Landers, Dick Miller (x3), Mickey Rourke

For those of you unfamiliar with this movie – can you believe the above cast got together in ’79 and put on an epic war comedy? And under the direction of the king, Steven Spielberg, following his massive success with Jaws and Close Encounters? Doesn’t it make you want to run out and see what this movie could possibly be?? How have you avoided it all these years? Do it!

And for those of you already familiar with this movie, SHUT UP.

I’m not Titanic-level defensive about 1941, but that’s because most people either didn’t see it or don’t remember it enough to argue about it. And look, I know there is a lot wrong with this movie. It only sort of functions as a comedy – it’s like a less funny It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World with explosions and extended choreographed fistfights – and sort of functions as a war movie. But the premise is solid enough and the cast is terrific that, even though it doesn’t totally deliver, it’s still a pretty entertaining movie.

Is it too long? Oh my, yes. Does the cast overwhelm the screenplay? Sure. There just isn’t enough to do to justify all the stars littering the edges of this movie. And given the extended running time for a comedy (it’s not It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World long, but still clocks in right around two hours), you’d think they could’ve churned more laughs out of it. But part of the issue is the tone – Spielberg clearly wasn’t much of a comedy director then, so the style jumps wildly between moderate satire to all-out farce from one scene to the next. The performances follow suit – for every Robert Stack deadpanning his General Stillwell you have John Belushi over-the-top as Wild Bill Kelso. The result never had much chance to hold together, but the disparate pieces – taken by themselves – are pretty fun.

Sometimes simultaneously!

If you only saw this movie once, I can understand writing it off as a giant failure. 1979 audiences sure did. But when you give it another try, you start to unearth all the fun little roles, and appreciate the sly references, so that by the time the lunatic finale gets underway, you aren’t totally fed up with the unevenness of the film. At least, that’s been my experience. Is it vintage Spielberg? No. Does it deserve a wider appreciation? Maybe not, but I genuinely don’t think this movie is as bad as people make out.

1941 was nominated for three Academy Awards – Cinematography, Visual Effects, and Sound, so it’s not like it was across-the-board despised in its time, but it’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. (the two Spielberg movies that followed it). Come on, four of the five movies Spielberg made from ’75 to ’82 are all-time classics – don’t you think it’s worth it to revisit that middle film? Maybe we’re downgrading it as a people specifically because of when it was made, amidst all these staples of American cinema?

Oh what, fighter pilot Belushi doesn’t interest you?

And with this huge cast, it’s natural we have a bunch of new Two- and Three-Timers – Ned Beatty (#305 Superman), Toshiro Mifune (#394 Seven Samurai), Lorraine Gary (#353 Jaws 2), Dan Aykroyd (#378 Sneakers & #331 Twilight Zone: The Movie), Murray Hamilton (Jaws 2 & #311 The Graduate), Michael McKean (#373 Planes, Trains, and Automobiles & #389 Memoirs of an Invisible Man), and Dick Miller (Twilight Zone: The Movie & #325 Gremlins 2: The New Batch). But, finally, we have club founding Four-Timers to announce! It took 107 movies to get there, but at last – two inductees at the same time to advance our phase – Christopher Lee (Gremlins 2, #362 The Hobbit, and #307 The Return of Captain Invincible) and John Candy (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, #357 JFK, and #326 Delirious)!

Lee, with Spielberg and Mifune on the 1941 set

One of my all-time favorite pictures – Second City Toronto group Eugene Levy, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Rosemary Radcliffe, and John Candy

Coming Monday! Why a spoon, cousin? Why not an axe?

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