It is December 1941, six days after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. American citizens are getting paranoid about when the next attack is to take place - are their fears justified by the appearance of a Japanese submarine off the coast of California? And will they be able to get their act together and repel the attackers?
You know, it's easy to forget that Steven Spielberg's first war epic was this big budget comedy flop from the late seventies. It was scripted by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, with help from John Milius (who was also one of the producers) and, if nothing else, is a testament to the fact that throwing millions of dollars at your film won't necessarily make the public go and see it. Even if some of them might actually enjoy it.
The large cast is made up of fashionable Saturday Night Live comedians, up and coming talent of the day, and seasoned pros. All of them show a tendency to overact, in an attempt to match the overwhelming size of the project. I suppose it's appropriate that, being a war film, most of the comedy is built around large scale destruction and violence - only in this battle, no one dies.
There's too much shouting, an over-reliance on blowing things up and broad slapstick for laughs, but 1941 does have its moments: father Ned Beatty takes his daughter aside before she goes out to tell her that the soldiers have only one thing on their minds... so she should "show them a good time"; General Robert Stack is more interested in seeing Dumbo than doing anything about the chaos outside; Eddie Deezen winding up Murray Hamilton as they watch for an invasion fleet.
The Japanese themselves aren't really much of a threat, more akin to the villains you'd see in comic war movies of the forties, and the Americans end up doing more fighting amongst themselves than with the enemy. But despite the irreverent air, 1941 is a patriotic film at heart, and when pushed the Americans come together and do their best for their country - see Dan Aykroyd's rousing speech, which is a nice scene.
The high spirits on show can be infectious, even if some of the script is painfully contrived (Nancy Allen's aeroplane fetish for one thing), and Spielberg's efforts to turn the action into a live action Tex Avery cartoon are strained. But with a film as big as this, you can't look away; as the mass hysteria builds and the movie piles setpiece upon setpiece it's never boring. Music by John Williams (of course). Also with: Dianne Kay, Wendie Jo Sperber, Samuel Fuller, John Landis, Dick Miller, Sidney Lassick, Elisha Cook Jr. Try to see the director's cut.
His best films combine thrills with a childlike sense of wonder, but when he turns this to serious films like The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich and Bridge of Spies these efforts are, perhaps, less effective than the out-and-out popcorn movies which suit him best. Of his other films, 1941 was his biggest flop, The Terminal fell between two stools of drama and comedy and one-time Kubrick project A.I. divided audiences; Hook saw him at his most juvenile - the downside of the approach that has served him so well. Also a powerful producer.
Nice touch of trivia - the 'Polar Bear Club' girl at the start of the movie, who swims naked and suddenly realises that she's not alone in the water, is a certain Susan Backlinie, who played pretty much exactly the same scene - although with a very different outcome - in Jaws....