By Marc S. Sanders

Steven Spielberg’s first critical and box office flop, 1941, is a splattered mess of slapstick hysteria set a week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Residents of the California coast line prepare to be the next target.  Ahem!!!!!  Well, that’s it for the story…Goodnight.  Tip your waiters.

Just a year ahead of the Zucker brothers with Abrams comedy team that’ll deliver Airplane!, Spielberg opted to direct a spoof script penned by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (Back To The Future).  1941 is full of gags galore beginning with a reference to the director’s most successful film to date, Jaws.  For me, seeing actress Susan Backline on screen again for another ocean skinny dip only to be intruded upon by a rising Japanese submarine was the second best joke of the film.  Once that was over, I had two hours left to go.  A long two hours. 

I’ve noted before that satire or spoofs are the riskiest genres to produce.  They can succeed with a picture like Dr. Strangelove…, or Network or Airplane!  Satire can be divisive too though, and thus only one half of your audience will appreciate the poke and prod.  Even worse, satire can just be unfunny across the board no matter which side of the aisle you lean on.  That’s 1941.  It plays too much like a Three Stooges series of slapstick violence.  Reader, even Steven Spielberg cannot capture the magic of the Three Stooges.

Zemeckis and Gale opt to poke a little fun at the Puerto Rican zoot suit riots vs the Enlisted men ahead of America’s entry into World War II.  So, when army soldier Treat Williams gets jealous of one handsome zoot suit dancer flirting with his girl, a fight breaks out which eventually populates two thirds of the film as it escalates all the way over to Hollywood Boulevard. Now thousands of stooge wannabe extras are walloping each other from one side of the street to the next. 

To allow a breather from this, the writers sidetrack over to Tim Matheson and Nancy Allen getting frisky in an out of control bi-plane while being mistaken for the enemy by John Belushi doing a very poor resurrection of his Bluto character from Animal House.  As Captain Wild Bill Kelso, Belushi’s pursuit fires upon everything else in sight, especially Hollywood Boulevard, but misses the plane occupied by Matheson and Allen.

The third point of this rectangle concerns Dan Aykroyd with John Candy and a whole platoon opting to set up a military cannon along the ocean view property belonging to Ned Beatty and Lorraine Gary in anticipation of the Japanese invasion.  Ned Beatty is the best stooge of the entire cast as the nerdy resident determined to protect his home while exercising his patriotic duty.  Gary’s response to Beatty’s ineptitude cracked me up as well.  The house wreckage of The Money Pit has nothing on what occurs in 1941.

The fourth storyline focuses on the enemy with a German speaking Nazi portrayed by Christopher Lee debating with the captain of a Japanese submarine (Toshiro Mifune) plotting to bomb Hollywood.  Somehow, each foil understands the other’s language.  These guys are just here to scream at one another.  There’s nothing funny about them.

Oh yeah.  Robert Stack is the Army General who watches Dumbo in the movie theatre while Hollywood Boulevard gets demolished outside.  Ho! Ho!

Often, I compliment Spielberg for his reliance on the sets he provides.  Everything you see on the screen serves a purpose to his films.  It happened as recently as with his remake of West Side Story in 2021, and it’s effectively used in Close Encounters…  He uses the same approach with 1941.  In this film though, there’s no pulse or significance to the props and pieces that are used.  The house is demolished.  So is the storage shed.  So is the movie theatre.  So is the Ferris wheel.  Yes.  What you’ve already seen in endless Looney Toons cartoons occurs here with a miniature model.  The Ferris wheel comes off its hinge and rolls across the beach side dock into the water along with Murray Hamilton and Eddie Deezen in tow.  When it happens, you’ll tell yourself I was waiting for that to happen.  What you expect to happen, happens, but you’re not laughing at it.

None of what you see in 1941 are terrible gags.  If you watch one scene out of context on a four minute You Tube channel, you may chuckle.  The problem is that every scene is treated like throwing spaghetti at a wall and seeing what will stick.  Mashing all of this together is not appetizing.  I like ice cream and I like steak.  I don’t like my ice cream on my steak.  Any idea of development is completely ignored.  The film can’t even work like a collection of skits.  Even Airplane! had a romantic storyline trajectory to perform with.  Here, two jealous guys have a fist fight and it more or less stretches that fight for an entire two hours.  The Three Stooges knew when to eventually quit.  Spielberg, Zemeckis and Gale didn’t. 

As soon as I saw Belushi on screen, I laughed.  It’s Bluto again.  Yet, the appearance wears off very quickly.  He has little dialogue and is limited to chomping on a cigar while grunting and groaning as the fighter plane he occupies wobbles around shooting at everything in sight.  When he eventually crash lands, Belushi continues to chomp on the cigar and grunt and groan.  Only now, he pratfalls as well…badly.

Ned Beatty is the real star here.  The ultimate nerd is also limited in dialogue. Still, to watch his body language with his glasses and bow tie and pear-shaped physique, accompanied with Lorraine Gary’s helpless gasping wife responding to the damage he commits with the cannon is hilarious.  Absolutely hilarious.  Tape all of their scenes together and make it a short to present ahead of the main attraction in a movie house. The audience will have a great time.

Otherwise, the only other fun I got out of 1941 was spotting the stars that were relevant at the time of its release.  Candy, Aykroyd, Frank McRae, Slim Pickens, Christopher Lee, Robert Stack, the cute blonde daughter from Eight Is Enough.  Even Penny Marshall has a quick blink and you miss it moment.  Oh, and look, there’s Lenny and Squiggy!

I think Zemeckis and Gale were on to a real smart idea here.  They maybe should have consulted with Harold Ramis and his National Lampoon’s crew however, because that’s the direction Spielberg’s film was aiming for.  What sets a film like Animal House apart from a 1941 though is in the set up.  Dialogue also helps.  1941 lacks set up.  1941 lacks dialogue.  It’s all visual and noise and more noise and more noise. 

1941 begins at letter A, and stops at letter A, never making it to B, and definitely never reaching Z.  An idea with potential was put down on paper.  The problem is these guys stopped writing after the first sentence.


By Marc S. Sanders

Steven Spielberg’s third film, Jaws, is more than just an adventure or thriller piece of filmmaking. I believe it explores the dichotomy of motivations by man versus the intrinsic behavior of nature. In other words, in the peak season of summertime a great white man-eating shark will never care about how important it is for a small harbor town to sell the necessary amount of ice cream cones or hotel bookings to make an annual profit. You wanna swim with nature, then die by nature.

The New England coastal town of Amity Island has a new Police Chief named Martin Brody (Roy Scheider). When he comes upon what’s left of a girl’s mutilated corpse on the beach, he takes it extremely seriously when he learns the cause of death was a shark attack. The Mayor (Murray Hamilton) cannot afford to be mired with the inconvenience of a large fish just before the always profitable 4th of July weekend. So, the beaches must continue to stay open.

When the town gets a bloody public viewing of the problem at hand, a young, wealthy, educated oceanographer named Matt Hooper (a perfectly cast sarcastic and smart Richard Dreyfuss) is recruited. His knowledge with the science of shark behavior is not very welcome to anyone but Brody.

One dynamic of Hooper is his reliability of technology. Will any of his expensive tools be enough to rid the town of this shark?

As well, will a bounty hunt worth $3,000 satisfy? Any Joe Blow fisherman will take a crack at it. Spielberg’s film explores Hooper’s intellect of sea life, against the buffoonery that follows from others both near and far. Why not randomly toss some sticks of dynamite in the water or bait the animal with a pot roast while you’re at it? Maybe that’ll work. It’s money and technology in the face of one of nature’s most dangerous creations.

Will a sea faring Ahab like fisherman named Quint (Robert Shaw playing one of the greatest characters ever on screen) do the trick? His philosophy stems from his experience with the might of sharks in general. An illustrious monologue from Shaw describing Quint’s harrowing experience aboard the USS Indianapolis confidently tells us he’s seen what sharks can do. He’s floated in the blood red waters that sharks leave behind. Therefore, Quint has devoted his life to hunting one shark after another, boiling their large jaws of teeth for trophy hangings. He’ll win battle after battle, but never will he win the war with the nature of the ocean water.

Brody might be the only sensible guy, though. He fears the water and won’t go near it. He’s over with danger, leaving the cop’s life behind in the city for what he expected of the tranquility of ocean front real estate.

A mounting pressure always exists in Jaws. The townsfolk are hard pressed resistant to allow their businesses to avoid prosperity because of something as silly as a shark that isn’t even known to swim in these waters normally. Money is what matters. Money is what’s needed to live. During the age of quarantining with the spread of Coronavirus, Jaws is a fair allegory for the argument of staying at home or going back to work. You could die, but it’s still expensive to live.

The other argument lies in what’s more appropriate for this problem. Hooper’s technology or Quint’s hunter instinct. A metal “anti shark cage” with a spear of poison vs tying barrels to the predator and drowning him out in the shallows.

Spielberg with a script by Carl Gottlieb adapted from Peter Benchley’s best selling novel proposes no easy answer to ridding an ocean area of a man eating, uncompromising animal. That’s the thrill that keeps Jaws alive for over 45 years. Sharks will never change. Man might, but nature’s creatures will consistently emote the exact same patterns of behavior.

Unlike the fantasies of Jurassic Park or a Friday The 13th picture, a beast born of nature with enormous strength will always be unpredictable performing on God’s purpose. It will never be negotiable. If you’re a raggy fisherman like Quint, your old, leaky boat might keep you afloat for so long, but a shark will also not feel intimidated, no matter how many others of its kind this hunter might have conquered before.

Experience, technology or disregard for the elements of nature will not always win. Something unconquerable will come along.

To maintain the strength of the film’s monstrous antagonist is to watch the movie with your own most frightening, worst case scenario in mind. Hence, Spielberg gratefully never shows the great white until long after half the film is over. Masterful shots occur where his cameras seem positioned just at the surface of the water. When swimmers make desperate runs for the shore, away from danger, it feels as if the viewer is frozen in fear and getting trampled on by the panicked extras cast in the picture. What could be so terrible that these people are swimming and running away from? When Spielberg finally shows the gigantic shark emerge from the water, Scheider’s shock with his suggestion of needing a bigger boat assure you that, yes, this problem is actually this insurmountable.

Additionally, Spielberg uses props to keep the mystery of his beast alive. When the shark pulls a dock off its moorings with his bait, we know the fish is turning around to pursue its next victim as the wreckage now floats in the direction of a man’s panicky, desperate swim.

Most effectively beyond Steven Spielberg’s camerawork, has got to be the pulse pounding and blood curdling soundtrack from John Williams. (Cliche descriptions they may be, but I’d argue Williams’ score created the terms, nonetheless.). Without his music, the narration of the story would be a little lost, I’m sure. John Williams’ repetitive string notes that build, feel like the dialogue of the underwater monster. His music goes beyond the short rhythm everyone is familiar with. Looking at the opening scene with Susan Backline portraying the moonlight skinny dipper in the opening scene of the film, Williams brings in a variety of different sounding instruments that leave an impression of her body being torn apart by something she’s truly not aware of. Splashing, screams, body thrusting and harsh chords of long strings with percussion the emote panic and anarchy make for one of the most memorable opening scenes of any film. Spielberg with a collaboration of cinematography from Bill Butler and Williams orchestration make for an arguably unforgettable and frightening scene on the same level of the shower scene in Psycho.

Jaws transcends generation after generation. Everyone eventually has some kind of familiarity with the film, even if they’ve never seen it. People have seen the poster, heard the music or truly refused to step in the water off a coastline out of fear for what can’t be seen. Few films ever leave a subconscious effect on a viewer or a general public, but Jaws is most definitely one of those exceptions.