There’s an anecdote Spielberg shares on the liner notes to the soundtrack album for 1941, where he describes hearing John Williams conduct the film’s boisterous march for the first time. Spielberg thought it sounded too good, and promptly joined the next session on his clarinet to give the music just the right tone of enthusiastic ineptitude. That’s an apt metaphor for the film as a whole, one that makes up for in enthusiasm and volume what it lacks in, well, pretty much everything else.
Make no mistake, 1941 is a bit of a mess. It’s a film that thinks louder and bigger is funnier and more exciting, that throws dozens of characters on the screen hoping some of them stick, and which seems snickeringly obsessed with the sight of the female garter belt. None of the crisscrossing storylines ever feel very developed, and the whole thing literally ends with the entire cast sort of standing around wondering what to do next. Then they decide to scream their way through the curtain call, which is a fitting way to wrap up all the noise we’ve just seen.
But like the big mutt that tracks mud in the house and jumps up on the couch after knocking over the end table, it looks up at me with those big eyes and that goofy tongue lolling out and I can’t stay mad at it. I love how John Belushi constantly seems like he’s in a different movie, even when he’s interacting with other characters. I love how gloriously straight Robert Stack plays everything, and how by doing so he manages to be funnier than those breaking their backs trying to do so. I love watching Toshiro Mifune and wondering if his disgust at having to listen to Slim Pickens fake a bowel movement is great acting or how he really feels being in this movie. I love every sloppy, messy minute of this thing, even though my brain is telling me I shouldn’t. I probably just can’t hear it over the shouting.
This is also the film I point to (along with the opening to Temple of Doom) when I argue that Spielberg should tackle a full-on musical. His imagery already has a floating, musical quality to it, and he’s long understood the power music and image can have together. Watching how he handles the jitterbug dance scene and how it flows into the brawl the ensues, I’d love to see Spielberg get his hands on a Les Miserables or a Wicked. Too bad those ships have already sailed.
Now, the film does have some actual unabashedly good things going for it. The visual effects are astonishing, especially during the dogfight over Hollywood Boulevard, where they overlap with another winning aspect: the score. Spielberg’s clarinet or not, Williams’ music for this is the perfect pitch of patriotic craziness. Divorced from the film, the main march is worthy of standing with anything Sousa ever threw together. And when it’s used to back the image of two planes chasing each other through downtown Hollywood through panicked anti-aircraft fire, it’s one of the few times the film transcends the noise and becomes a sort of beautiful chaos.
I’ll admit there’s a good bit of nostalgia that plays into my ranking of this film. It made its HBO debut shortly after we first got cable, so I saw it in a time where anything that came flowing out of that magical box was good and pure and worthy. I was also pretty isolated from things like buzz and box office, so the fact that the film was a pretty big critical and financial disaster didn’t have a chance to shape my opinion of it. I was deep in my “Spielberg can do no wrong” phase, a phase that, thanks to his next couple of films, I’d stay firmly embedded in until that film back at #25 that we won’t mention.
Tomorrow: Terrence Malick’s Smokey and the Bandit.