1941 (1979)

day 68, 1941

1941 (1979) Three-and-a-half stars
I have a general rule: Any movie featuring Slim Pickens, Christopher Lee, and Toshiro Mifune in the same scene will automatically be given a positive review, so Steven Spielberg’s 1941 has that going for it right off the bat.

I am sure you remember Pickens, Lee, and Mifune.

Pickens (1919-83) played many, many supporting roles in Westerns, but he also had a great role in Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE as Major T.J. “King” Kong that incorporated his cowboy flair.

Lee (1922-2015) played Count Dracula seven times, I do believe, in Hammer productions like TASTE THE BLOOD OF COUNT DRACULA and later appeared in one James Bond, five Tim Burton, two STAR WARS, and three LORD OF THE RINGS films. There’s a story that Lee was once pulled over by a Hollywood traffic cop, who asked Lee if he should be driving in daylight.

Mifune (1920-97) appeared in over 150 movies during his career and none are more famous than his 16 collaborations with director Akira Kurosawa (ordered from last to first): RED BEARD, HIGH AND LOW, SANJURO, YOJIMBO, THE BAD SLEEP WELL, THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, THE LOWER DEPTHS, THRONE OF BLOOD, I LIVE IN FEAR, SEVEN SAMURAI, THE IDIOT, RASHOMON, SCANDAL, STRAY DOG, THE QUIET DUEL, and DRUNKEN ANGEL.

All three actors are each speaking different languages.


Pickens, Lee, and Mifune appear together early on in 1941 and we get the first shark victim in JAWS (actress and stuntwoman Susan Backlinie) as bonus opening scene treat.

1941 is the bastard child on Spielberg’s filmography, seemingly the film that even he doesn’t like all that much.

Just how much of a bastard child?

John Wayne and Charlton Heston were both offered the role of General Stilwell and turned it down because they believed 1941 to be unpatriotic.

I believe Wayne even told Spielberg that he should be ashamed … and called the script the most anti-American piece of drivel he ever read.

Robert Stack took on Stilwell and looking at photos of the real Joseph Stilwell, the actor looks just like the real person.

1941 came between CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK in Spielberg’s filmography, so of course the $94 million worldwide gross of 1941 would be considered a huge bust compared to $300 million for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and $390 million for RAIDERS.

It’s an oversized, loud comedy that mostly fails on that intended level, but succeeds in other ways. That’s very strange and yes, 1941 is very strange indeed.

Spielberg himself said, “Some people think (1941) was an out-of-control production, but it wasn’t. What happened on the screen was pretty out of control, but the production was pretty much in control. I don’t dislike the movie at all. I’m not embarrassed by it. I just think that it wasn’t funny enough.”

Spielberg has said that Robert Zemeckis, who co-wrote the picture with Bob Gale, should have directed the picture.

Though I don’t laugh at the vast majority of 1941, I am never bored and I end up smiling through a lot of the picture.

I’ve already mentioned Pickens, Lee, Mifune, and Stack, and that just scratches the surface of the star power on board.

We also have Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, John Belushi, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Tim Matheson, Warren Oates, and Nancy Allen, and several more familiar faces in Treat Williams, Bobby DiCicco, Eddie Deezen, Wendie Jo Sperber, Perry Lang, Penny Marshall, Michael McKean, Joe Flaherty, Mickey Rourke, and John Candy.

In addition to Pickens, we have a couple more of the great old-time character actors in Dub Taylor and Elisha Cook Jr.

Williams, DiCicco, Dianne Kay, and especially Sperber are particularly delightful and basically steal the movie away from the bigger names. They are fun, fun, fun, that’s for sure, and their work peaks at the USO club sequence, by far the best part of the movie that incorporates a dance contest and a brawl. This sequence found inspiration from both a film and real life: Universal Pictures’ HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941) and the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943. I rate this sequence with any Spielberg’s ever done throughout his nearly five-decade career; Spielberg thought about making 1941 an old-fashioned musical, but he said he didn’t have the guts to go through with it at the time.

There’s just a lot of enjoyable moments during 1941, plain and simple.

For example, Stilwell watched DUMBO twice in real life during the month of December 1941 when he was a commander in the Los Angeles area. Stilwell, I believe, even cries watching DUMBO in 1941. Sure difficult being a cinephile.


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