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1941 - REVIEW

Following the runaway success of both Jaws and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Steven Spielberg directed war-themed comedy 1941 back in 1979 and, although it wasn't technically a box-office bomb, it wasn't exactly a hit and it's only years later that it gained a cult following.

The film is very loosely based on a mix of real yet mostly disconnected events as it explores the growing paranoia post-Pearl Harbor with US citizens fearing that Japan would attempt another attack and dealing with it in various ways. As an enemy submarine slowly tries to make its way to Los Angeles with the unlikely goal of destroying Hollywood, chaos builds in the city and we follow a variety of characters, each of them doing their own thing, with everything culminating in a cartoonish battle around Santa Monica pier. This is very much an ensemble piece in the vein of Dr Strangelove or American Graffiti with some characters having a very clear goal and others just kind of wandering in and out of the plot. Spielberg clearly wanted to focus on the madness of war and how it leads to nothing but mindless destruction so don't expect a Stripes-style comedy: this is an occasionally amusing, often extremely whimsical action/drama. Marketing the film as a hilarious John Belushi vehicle might partly explain why it wasn't the hit it expected to be since Belushi, and all the other comedians in this movie, have very limited screen time and only pop up here and there.

There's enough good stuff in this film that it deserves a viewing. For one thing, the cast is huge and excellent: Slim Pickens, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Ned Beatty, Christopher Lee, literally everyone gives a terrific performance. The cinematography by William A. Fraker definitely deserved its Oscar nomination as the film not only looks beautiful but includes some fantastic miniature work and practical effects. Unfortunately, this film is also completely all over the place and that makes it a bit of a tough sit. The chaos and paranoia is shown blatantly on the screen as epic dance numbers turn into saloon fights, the streets of L.A. become a crowded bag of cats and John Belushi's nutty Captain "Wild" Bill Kelso goes around shooting anything that moves. There are many ways a filmmaker can convey madness and chaos cinematically, Stanley Kubrick was the master at that, and making the film itself messy and cluttered is rarely the best way. 1941 firmly belongs to the 1967 Casino Royale school of overcrowded, loud, convoluted yet occasionally humorous movies. It has its moments but there are just too many pointless characters and subplots distracting you from the incredible talent involved. Even John Williams' great score is hard to hear over the noise half the time.

As it stands, this is a mildly amusing, admittedly visually impressive film that sadly never finds its footing. It loves every minute of its own obnoxious chaos and you want to love it too, but it never lets you. Die-hard Spielberg fans should give it a watch but I can't guarantee that casual viewers will get anything out of it besides a slight headache.

Fascinating farce.

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