A rare comic effort from Steven Spielberg, 1941 is also one of the director's rare misfires. A big, loud spectacle that recalls an earlier generation of comedy epics like It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and The Great Race, 1941 unevenly combines the broad physical gags of those films with the equally broad satire of wartime paranoia in films such as The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! The premise involves a Japanese sub that surfaces off the coast of California shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, inspiring mass hysteria among the citizens.
The ensemble cast includes such names as Tim Matheson and Nancy Allen as the nominal romantic leads whose amorous escapades in a runaway airplane over Los Angeles precipitate a hysterical reaction from the military and townspeople, John Belushi as crazed fighter pilot Wild Bill Kelso, Dan Aykroyd as no-nonsense Sgt. Frank Tree, Ned Beatty as a meek family man whose backyard is commandeered as the site of anti-aircraft gun, Lorraine Gary as his long-suffering wife, Toshiro Mifune as the Japanese sub commander, Christopher Lee as the German officer, Murray Hamilton and Eddie Deezen as a couple of goofy civilians put on guard duty atop a Ferris wheel, Slim Pickens as the unsuspecting hick who discovers the Japanese sub, and in one of the film's most inspired bits of casting, Robert Stack as Major General Stilwell, who would rather take care of more important business like watching Disney's Dumbo than deal with distractions such as the pending invasion of Los Angeles and riots in the streets. As with his performance in the following year's Airplane!, Stack's stoical, straight man characterization is the perfect complement to the zany goings-on around him.
Unfortunately, none of the performers are ever really on-screen long enough, or given enough to do individually, to make much of an impression. Because of the structure of the script -- by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (who also wrote the story along with John Milius) -- the zany situations piled on top of one another don't add up to much of anything, since the escalating comic chaos is never given much of a chance to build naturally. Instead, it's one forced, manic set-piece after another, with gratuitous slapstick violence that eventually just begins to drag the pace down and feel repetitive. The plane chase scenes through LA are undoubtedly impressively-staged, and are a remarkable achievement for their scale and execution. But as comedy, it quickly begins to feel like overkill.
Spielberg's direction feels unsure and even uncomfortable working with the broad comedy material, which was certainly never his forte in any case. It's difficult to pinpoint just where his direction goes wrong here, but perhaps it is simply too heavy-handed, which works against the lightning-paced cartoon antics called for by the script and even dilutes the effectiveness of the satire due to the total lack of subtlety. John Landis, or the team of Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker, would have been ideal choices for this material, since they could have perhaps reigned in some of the more extravagant excesses that tend to swamp the comedy (even the non-stop parade of sight gags in Airplane! are handled in such a way that the viewer is rewarded for paying attention to the kinds of small jokes which are virtually non-existent here).
As one of our greatest filmmakers, even a lesser Spielberg effort like 1941 is still of interest, if only for an example of the director working outside his comfort zone, exploring new material and trying something different. Even if the result is ultimately a failure, it is an interesting failure.