I finally managed to watch the film 1941. Before, I had never made it more than a half hour in because the beginning is so tedious. But now that I’ve seen the whole thing, I can say that in addition to the first half hour of tedium, there is also another two hours of tedium. It doesn’t really matter where you come into the film, you will see exactly the same thing: overcrowded, comedic action sequences that are hard to follow, and almost completely lacking in any wit. And each one of those sequences goes on for at least three to four times as long as anyone could be expected to watch.
What’s interesting about the film is that it is actually well made. It looks great and the acting is wonderful. This makes it all the more bizarre that with such onscreen comedic talent, the film could so consistently avoid being funny. John Belushi spends the whole film doing Bluto from Animal House but without anything to do that is actually funny. In the end, it isn’t clear at all who his character is supposed to be. But the same thing could be said for pretty much all the characters in the film. There are an enormous number of them and mostly, if it weren’t for costumes, it would be impossible to tell them apart. Indeed, Wally goes from zoot suit to navy uniform to army uniform and it takes some time to understand that he is the same character.
It is hard to fault the script, because I doubt it was written to be two and a half hours long. Some of the scenes in between the interminable action sequences are very funny. The best involve Joe Flaherty as the bandleader Raoul Lipschitz. There is a nice joke with the name. A woman asks him what his name is and he answer, “Raoul.” She says, “I knew it!” — apparently excited that he is a hot blooded Latino. Then he finishs, “Lipschitz.” But even better, after a (typically outrageous) brawl destroys the USO club, he signs off his radio broadcast with only a hint of sarcasm:
But such bits are swamped by the rest of the film. And it isn’t just that the action sequences are long. They are mostly pointless. Much of the destruction that takes places is gratuitous. Army personnel shoot into crowds for no reason — of course no one dies. I’ve often complained about characters acting in odd ways for the sole purpose of furthering a plot. Well, that’s about all that happens in 1941. Things must be destroyed, so the characters act stupidly. Ned Beatty as Ward Douglas shoots a cannon at a submarine through his house rather than, I don’t know, moving the cannon a yard or two to the right.
Ultimately, what most misses in the film is that no one is well enough developed to actually care about. So it is just a bunch of action sequences and stunts that work in a technical sense but fail in any emotional sense. And the tragic thing is that the film could have been a hundred times better with a budget that was one-fifth. If there is a primary narrative in the film it is Wally and Betty’s forbidden love and the evil Corporal Sitarski’s apparent rape efforts. But nothing really comes of any of that, just like nothing comes of the narratives about any of the characters.
It is, however, curious how a film with so much comedic content could be so barren in terms of laughs. I think it is the editing. I think that Spielberg had the film cut as though it were just an action film. But even if there had been real life and death drama to pull the viewer along, I doubt it would have worked. Again, the characters are so poorly rendered I literally didn’t care what happened to anyone other than Betty who I may have only cared about because I have fatherly feelings about young women like her.
I wouldn’t have even written about the film, except that it still bothers me how much I didn’t like it. It isn’t that the film is bad. It is just that there is really nothing to grab onto in it. There is no point to it. But when I saw the filmmakers on a documentary on the DVD talking about how the film did well in Europe and how people like it a lot now, I thought these guys must be deluded. They were going for It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. What they made was a cinematic essay about how Steven Spielberg should never be allowed to direct a comedy.