(1979) dir. Steven Spielberg
Oddly, this film was one of the first ones that I queued back in 2002 when I first started using Netflix. And then it finally made it to the top when I was using it in my “numbers” movie fest, which I abandoned. Though, I did finally get to see it.
In film school, Steven Spielberg is not seen with the laudatary rapture with which popular media views him. I actually would say that he’s overly criticized in film school. And by film school, I should say that I mean in theory and criticism, not production. The reasons are many, but largely go in the direction of ideology and so forth, not to mention the overpowering scores of John Williams and Spielberg’s sappy handling of children. Also, there is this whole thing with the Nazis.
But I had just seen his Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001) and Minority Report (2002) and was appreciating his strengths, which of all films is most crystalized in his fantastic Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and I was contemplating this film, 1941, which was considered his first commercial flop, and I also found it interesting that it was the first of his many films about WWII. It also is apparently his only pure comedy. It seemed interesting. Even though I had always heard that it was considered pretty bad by pretty much everyone on every side.
And it is. It’s a combination of an Animal House (1978) style of National Lampoon comedy mixed with Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) style satire and genuine period ardor for the 1940’s and the swing scene. Written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, straight out of film school, the film is based on a humorous enough conceit, an overzealous paranoia in California just after the attack on Pearl Harbor and an actual Japanese submarine off the coast of California in a legitimate attack on American soil.
It’s just that the whole thing is about as unfunny and painfully so as you can imagine. This comes early on in a self-parody in the beginning of the film in which a late night skinnydipper encounters the submarine instead of a shark. Is it funny that Spielberg is self-referential to his iconic blockbuster Jaws (1975) of only a couple of years prior?
Obviously, if one is to do a true analysis of Spielberg’s films, this film does well fit in within several parameters. The only thing is that it’s not really worth it. It’s only in the strange little ways that this film foreshadows Raiders of the Lost Ark that I found it amusing, in its setting, airplanes, and even some of the visual gags. And actually, I do think that Spielberg falls somewhere between the disdain of the intellectual and the reverence of the popular. But I give him his credit when it’s due.