Sunday 7 June 2009

1941 (1979)

Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, John Belushi, Lorraine Gary, Bobby Di Cicco, Murray Hamilton, Christopher Lee, Tim Matheson, Toshiro Mifune, Warren Oates, Robert Stack and Treat Williams

Everyone in my generation knew Steven Spielberg before he started making serious films like Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List and Amistad. We know him from comedies and light hearted action material, something that he did very well indeed (yeah yeah, there was The Color Purple too, but we never saw it). In fact with Jaws, one of the best such films ever made, he single handedly invented the Hollywood blockbuster. So when this opens seriously with a historical note about 7th December, 1941, when the Imperial Japanese Fleet took out Pearl Harbor, my generation doesn't expect a serious war film.

And then we begin. It's now the 13th, almost a week after Pearl Harbor, and we're at the coast watching Susan Backlinie strip naked and swim out into the Pacific Ocean. We could be forgiven for wondering if we're in the wrong Spielberg movie even before that memorable John Wiliams shark theme kicks in. But no, this isn't a shark, it's a Japanese submarine, and stuck naked on the crow's nest she overhears these Japs and Nazis talk about how they've ventured too far into American waters. They decide to try to find something honorable to destroy in Los Angeles before heading home and the only thing they can think of is Hollywood.

Now after something unprecedented like Pearl Harbor, California was understandably next on the Japanese target list in the minds of many of its paranoid residents. But hey, paranoia is pretty justified when they're really out to get you. And who plays these residents is how we really discover the real tone of this film: they're people like Tim Matheson, John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, even John Belushi, who arrives in the film by landing his plane next to a Death Valley gas station and asking the owner to fill it up. Of course even though he's Capt Wild Bill Kelso, he's also John Belushi a year after Animal House and so the gas station doesn't last long.

This is very much the missing link between Animal House and Raiders of the Lost Ark: the humour of the former thrown into the traditional filmmaking of the latter, all stunts and old school special effects. Spielberg had the integrity to attempt the film with only effects from the time which makes it look a lot better today than if it had been crammed full of 1979 CGI. What is crammed full of is stars, more stars than can comfortably be imagined. Whole scenes full of small parts are full of people we know and I didn't even find Dick Miller, John Landis, Mickey Rourke, James Caan and Sam Fuller,

Up in the skies there's not just John Belushi but also Tim Matheson trying to get it on with Nancy Allen, which single minded objective causes much of the chaos in this film. The rest comes through waiter Bobby Di Cicco trying to win a contract with RKO by winning a jitterbug contest at the USO Crystal Ballroom with his best girl who has been stolen by Treat Williams. The ensuing riot is a peach, with Dan Aykroyd famously breaking it up by hurling out a patriotic speech about not wanting to see Americans fighting Americans.

One scene has a bunch of mechanics deliver a large gun to a house in a strategic location on the coast: that's John Candy, Dan Akyroyd and Treat Williams delivering to Ned Beatty. Another has a couple of guys getting sent up to the top of a ferris wheel to look out over the ocean. It's Lionel Stander (Max from Hart to Hart) sending up Eddie Deezen (the quintessential nerd from movies like Wargames and Teenage Exorcist) and his ventriloquist's dummy. Out in the desert at the 501st Bomb Disbursement Unit is a lunatic colonel reminiscent of Jack D Ripper in Dr Strangelove. This time out he's played by Warren Oates and he's convinced that the Japs have a hidden airfield in the alfalfa fields of Pomona.

Best of all are the scenes with the lost Japanese submarine trying to find Hollywood. With their instruments shot, they kidnap the first man they can find to give them directions. Through some of the most genius casting in the history of filmmaking, that means that we see Japanese sub commander Toshiro Mifune and resident Nazi Christopher Lee interrogate Slim Pickens, playing a lumberjack by the unfortunate name of Hollis 'Holly' Wood. Whoever was responsible for this screen magic deserves an Oscar all on their own.

Now when Warren Oates shouts at John Belushi, 'To Hollywood and glory!' he wasn't forseeing the success of the movie. It bombed. Big time. And to be brutally frank there's very little story here and from one perspective not much beyond a lot of recognisable faces and a lot of explosions. There are lots of explosions here, along with the fights and riots and chaos: we even get a ferris wheel rolling down a bridge and a house falling into the sea. Anyone who believes that action films should have explosions should watch this. Maybe we can blame it for the eighties.

But today it plays out very well indeed as a live action cartoon. The cast are only part of the success, because after all the cast don't really count for a heck of a lot in a cartoon. What it really works as is that stop gap I mentioned: the precursor to Indiana Jones. Raiders of the Lost Ark took the scale of this but focused it; kept the stunts and the explosions but took them to the next level; and more than anything else it added a real story and made a film that works, like this, as a ride, but also has other dimensions that this one lacks.

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