30th Anniversary of the Movie “1941”

December 14, 2009

Is a Red Ryder BB gun not enough to meet your Christmas cinematic ordnance needs? How about a 45 MM anti-aircraft cannon in your front yard?

Steven Spielberg’s  “1941”  is the most unconventional sort of “Christmas film” – one set in the middle of December 1941 and the hysteria enveloping Los Angeles and its surrounds at the outset of WWII. Yet there are enough Christmas trees, lights, santas, and wreaths to make it thematic enough to have an excuse to go out and rent it.

Released on December 14, 1979, it may not be in the hall of the greatest films ever made, yet it is far from the alleged flop and forgotten film it has become, and deserves to be reconsidered.

Perhaps it’s most known today for (and indeed what I first knew it for) the incredibly catchy march that John Williams wrote for it (and used t0 great effect as the leitmotif for the character Wild Bill Kelso). Yet that is only the tip of a deeper, more rewarding, if somewhat loud and insane, iceberg.

I will admit it is confusing (but still not quite as bad as “The Big Sleep”) – it only took a few watchings to fully get down the basics. Part of this general aura stems from the original cut, which cut out many of the smaller subplots, but also from the sheer presence of so many subplots (beginning with four – then splitting into at least seven distinct subplots at the outset of the climax!) – and the majority crossing paths at some point or another

The other part that is likely lost is the historical humor, both the 1940s when it is set and the late 1970s when it was made (such as when the Japanese submariner’s remark “We need to learn to make these things smaller”). Added is that the film lampoons, satirizes or makes fun of just about everyone – the army, soldiers, sailors, marines, civilians, Zuit Suiters, the USO, civil defense, the Germans. General Stillwell (a real-life figure), rises above and manages to see the insanity around him, yet partakes in his own guilty pleasures (watching a newly released Walt Disney film). The Japanese, while portrayed surprisingly sympathetically and competent, still nontheless suffer from a mistake of fact in the end.

Some of the performances alone are worth seeing the film – not by the romantic leads, but but by the assortment of character actors. John Belushi as the crazy Wild Bill Kelso, who steals most scenes he is in. There is also Toshiro Mifune (of Kurosawa samurai fame), Christopher Lee (you think he is intimidating in English – imagine him speaking entirely in fluent German as an arrogant Kriegsmarine officer), Slim Pickins, Ned Beatty. And John Candy and Dan Aykroyd thrown in for good measure.

I’ve seen it at least four times (both the theatrical cut and the expanded cut), and am still noticing small details – all pretty much consistent – which goes to show how rich a film it is.

In conclusion, if you want some eccentric, bizarre comedy set in the WWII era, give “1941” a try.

[P.S. – even if you don’t like the film itself, it’s historical significance can’t be underrated – it marked the pairing (though not the first) of one Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis as the screenwriters, who several years later would pair up again: to make the “Back to the Future” trilogy. That effort is hinted at by the running concept of Stretch hating egg yet getting covered in it – foreshadowing the Tannen’s and manure. Incidentally, the actress who played Donna’s soldier-chasing friend Maxine also played Marty McFly’s sister…]

[P.P.S. – Yes, Belushi’s character’s name is Wild Bill Kelso. No relationship, though it’s begging to be done as a joke, to famous archaeologist Bill Kelso of Jamestown fame.]

[Trivia not found on IMDB: Ignatius Wolfington, the actor who played the RKO talent scout, was probably the highest-decorated veteran amongst the entire cast, even those playing military characters – with a silver star and a purple heart.]


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