1941 (1979) - Rotten Tomatoes


1941 (1979)




Critic Consensus: Steven Spielberg's attempt at screwball comedy collapses under a glut of ideas, confusing an unwieldy scope for a commensurate amount of guffaws.

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Movie Info

It's December of 1941, and the people of California are in varying states of unease, ranging from a sincere desire to defend the country to virtual blind panic in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Thus begin several story threads that comprise the "plot" of this strange period comedy, a sort of satirical disaster movie, from Steven Spielberg. The stories and story threads involve lusty young men, officers (Tim Matheson) and civilians (Bobby Di Cicco) alike, eager to bed the young ladies of their dreams; Wild Bill Kelso, a nutty fighter pilot (John Belushi) following what he thinks is a squadron of Japanese fighters along the California coast; a well-meaning but clumsy tank crew (including John Candy) led by straight-arrow, by-the-book Sgt. Tree (Dan Aykroyd), who doesn't recognize the thug (Treat Williams) in his command; and homeowner Ward Douglas (Ned Beatty), who is eager to do his part for the nation's defense and, despite the misgivings of his wife (Lorraine Gary), doesn't mind his front yard overlooking the ocean being chosen to house a 40 mm anti-aircraft gun. There is also a pair of grotesquely inept airplane spotters (Murray Hamilton, Eddie Deezen) who are doing their job from atop a ferris wheel at a beachfront amusement park; a paranoid army colonel (Warren Oates) positive that the Japanese are infiltrating from the hills; a big dance being held on behalf of servicemen, being attended by a lusty young woman of size (Wendie Jo Sperber) eager to land a man in uniform; and General Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stillwell (Robert Stack), in charge of the defense of the West Coast, who can't seem to get anyone to listen to him when he says to keep calm. And, oh yes, there's also a real Japanese submarine that has gotten all the way to the California coast under the command of its captain (Toshiro Mifune) and a German officer observer (Christopher Lee), only to find itself without a working compass or usable maps. Its captain won't leave until the sub has attacked a militarily significant, honorable target, and the only one that anyone aboard ship knows of in California is Hollywood. By New Year's Eve, all of these characters are going to cross paths, directly or once-removed, in a comedy of errors and destruction strongly reminiscent of the finale to National Lampoon's Animal House (as well as several disaster movies from the same studio), but on a much larger and more impressive scale.

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Dan Aykroyd
as Sgt. Frank Tree
Ned Beatty
as Ward Douglas
John Belushi
as Capt. Wild Bill Kelso
Lorraine Gary
as Joan Douglas
Christopher Lee
as Von Kleinschmidt
Tim Matheson
as Birkhead
Toshiro Mifune
as Cmdr. Mitamura
Robert Stack
as Gen. Stilwell
Diane Kay
as Betty
Patti LuPone
as Lydia Hedberg
Penny Marshall
as Miss Fitzroy
Slim Pickens
as Hollis Wood
Dub Taylor
as Malcomb
Iggie Wolfington
as Meyer Mishkin
Joe Flaherty
as USO M.C.
Perry Lang
as Dennis
Frank McRae
as Ogden Johnson Jones
Gray Frederickson
as Lt. Bressler
Jerry Hardin
as Map Man
Robert Houston
as Maddox's Soldier
John Landis
as Mizerany
Dick Miller
as Officer Miller
Akio Mitamura
as Ashimoto
Gray Fredrickson
as Lt. Bressler
Donovan Scott
as Kid Sailor
Geno Silva
as Martinez
Susan Backlinie
as Polar Bear Woman
Don Calfa
as Telephone Operator
Vito Carenzo
as Vito, Shore Patrol
Andy Tennant
as Babyface
Brad Gorman
as USO Nerd
Frank Verroca
as USO Nerd
John Voldstad
as USO Nerd
Kerry Sherman
as USO Girl
Maureen Teefy
as USO Girl
as Himself
John R. McKee
as Reporter
Mark Carlton
as Stilwell Aide
Galen Thompson
as Stilwell Aide
Jack Thibeau
as Stilwell Aide
Paul Cloud
as Stilwell Aide
Luis Contreras
as Zoot Suiter
Carol Culver
as Anderson Sister
Marjorie Gaines
as Anderson Sister
Trish Garland
as Anderson Sister
Samuel Fuller
as Interceptor Commander
Diane Hill
as Interceptor Assistant
Barbara Gannen
as Interceptor Assistant
Dan McNally
as Reporter
Rita Taggart
as Reporter
Dave Cameron
as Reporter
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Critic Reviews for 1941

All Critics (24) | Top Critics (3)

1941 is perhaps one of those films that should be seen twice, so that disappointed expectations over the wayward behaviour of the slapstick no longer get in the way of pleasure over what goes on alongside it.

January 15, 2020 | Full Review…

It may possibly be that Mr. Spielberg has chosen gigantic size and unlimited quantity as his comedy method in the awareness that he has no gift whatsoever for small-scale comic conceits.

May 9, 2005 | Rating: 1.5/5

Unworkable farce, it maybe, but it is also blessed with the buzz of brilliance.

January 1, 2000 | Rating: 3/5 | Full Review…

A somewhat interminable misfire...

November 2, 2018 | Rating: 1/4 | Full Review…

Led by some of the biggest names in comedy at the time, 1941 is Steven Spielberg's most underrated film of all time.

June 10, 2018 | Full Review…

This wannabe satire of WWII is the first and one of the few commercial flops in Spielberg's otherwise distinguished and popular output.

January 29, 2013 | Rating: D+ | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for 1941


After a gigantic Diplodocus sized dump of success with his first two big mainstream movies, one about a large fish and the other about some annoying little brat that gets kidnapped by aliens in ice-cream cone shaped UFO's, the one and only Spielberg had complete and utter control over everything. Strangely enough, much like his best mate George Lucas, this power went straight to his head and he came up with this odd little feature. Still to this day I'm not really sure what his intentions were or whether I actually like this or not, it certainly doesn't seem or feel like a Spielberg movie, not in the slightest. The plot is an odd mixture really, set in 1941, it basically sees a Japanese submarine led by Toshiro Mifune and Christopher Lee (a Nazi), on course to try and hit the western coast again just after the recent Pearl Harbour attack. The US is on high alert after the bombing, paranoia is running amok but there is a real risk of another attack. During this time we follow multiple storylines involving various characters within the US military that eventually all combine at the finale. You have the unhinged John Belushi as Wild Bill Kelso who flies around in his Curtiss P-40 fighter and...errr little else really. I kinda get the impression Spielberg mainly stuck him in because he was a big star at the time and was virtually a package along with Dan Aykroyd. Meanwhile, a tank crew consisting of Aykroyd, John Candy, Mickey Rourke, Treat Williams and Frank McRae are on their way to a military base or just on patrol due to the recent attacks (not really sure), and getting into all sorts of trouble. Sitarski (Williams) is after a young girl who is also the target of the young whippersnapper Wally (Bobby Di Cicco), both of whom are trying to take her to a local dance contest. Meanwhile!! Major General Stilwell (Robert Stack) is trying to control everything from the general public to his inane troops in the midst of this supposed pending doom from the far east. There is also a love story going on between Tim Matheson and Nancy Allen that flits in and out of the other sub plots, Slim Pickens is kidnapped by the Japs and interrogated on-board their sub, Ned Beatty and Lorraine Gary get an anti-aircraft gun stuck in their backyard, and Eddie Deezen is stuck atop a ferris wheel overlooking the coast for the pending Jap invasion. In short, the entire thing is a horrific muddle of plots that intertwine with each other, and basically they all focus on one thing, the Japs invading the west coast and everyone going crazy with paranoia over it. The only twist is, the Japs actually are and do invade the west coast confirming everyone's paranoia, but it then leads to even more batshit happenings as everyone tries to combat them. Apparently this mishmash of a plot was actually based on some real events from the era. This probably explains why its such a mess, because they based the movie on several different events. The first being the supposed and infamous 'Battle of LA' whereby LA apparently came under attack from a mysterious object in the sky. No one knew what it was, but they shelled it anyway, because hey...Merica! Other events were the bombing of an oil refinery in California, an incident where an anti-aircraft gun was indeed stuck in someone's backyard, and something called the zoot suit riots. Basically lots of migrants flooded the State from Mexico to help the war effort, as did lots of marines and sailors, aaand they all ended up fighting each other. Twas called the zoot suit riots because at the time zoot suits were trendy and many young Mexicans (and others) wore them. In all honesty this movie is such a mess, you really have no clue what's going on and why half the time. Sure there are young blokes in uniform fighting over dames and other crazy blokes in uniform doing silly things, but that's it. The whole thing is like one long long large action sequence, or riot, it doesn't stop! The plot sinks below this constant barrage of high octane hijinks including a lot of fisticuffs, big dance routines, cockpit tomfoolery, sloppy romance, mass destruction of everything, lots of gunfire and loads of screaming into the camera. There is no way in hell you'd think this was a Steven Spielberg movie, not a chance, its like some cheesy, cheeky, high school flick filled with jocks and nerds in a constant raucous. Now even though most of what you see is an absolute headache of noise, it all looks terrific. Overall it may not come across like your typical Spielberg movie, but in terms of visuals and special effects, it definitely has that classic old Spielbergian (dare I even say...Lucas-esque) vibe going on. All the period sets, props and costumes are wonderfully detailed and highly authentic looking. You have all the classic cars, planes, machinery, electronics and weapons spot on from the era too, everything from the radios, the local diners, to the decorations in the dance hall, it all looks gorgeous, far too good for such a throw away flick like this really. I must also give much kudos to the model work on display towards the finale, a full scale town mockup I think, also included were a lot of decent bluescreen shots (for the time), solid interior (exterior) plane and sub sets and I think some matte painting work going in places. The full gamut of special effects wizardry going on which you come to expect from these old action movies, but they still hold up very well. The cast is clearly another big key element and hook with this movie, its like a who's who of the time. You have some epic actors like Lee, Beatty and Mifune alongside crazy comedians like Candy, Aykroyd and Belushi. Much like the movie its a real mishmash of talents that don't really gel together in my opinion. Mifune is clearly taking his role as a Jap sub commander pretty seriously, Lee is also coming across as an eerie Nazi officer (kinda like 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'), but then Spielberg sticks Slim Pickens in a scene with them. Its also evident that the studio wanted more of Aykroyd and Belushi because of their SNL fame at the time, unfortunately there isn't really anything for them to do and it feels like they are just crowbarred in for exactly that reason...their SNL fame. Seriously, Belushi doesn't need to be here at all, his character is good for like...one visual gag. Most everyone else is young and upcoming admittedly so it doesn't feel like overcrowding in that (big name) sense, but there is clearly way too much going on, too many characters jockeying for space, too many little plots going on. Also far too many silly cameos that just weren't needed, it felt like some kind of big variety show or Spielberg giving all his mates sweet little plum bit parts for no real reason. In the end this movie really feels like a misfire, I'm honestly not sure if Spielberg really knew what he wanted to do here. Its suppose to be a zany comedy but its not really very funny at any point, although its zany enough. Plenty of action and pep as everything zips along but its so disjointed and uneven, I'm still not really sure what Wild Bill Kelso was supposed to be doing, or why he's even in the film, and apparently Christopher Lee's Nazi got killed by being thrown into the sea? I guess he couldn't swim? One issue that springs to mind is the fact everything this movie is based on (and sends -up) is the history of California, and virtually unknown to most. Sure you could say that about many things but the events this movie are based around feel even more minor than usual, as though its a big in-joke for the people of California (those in the know). Alas many probably haven't got a clue so it just comes across as a daft, meaningless screwball comedy that just isn't funny. I guess one last plus point now would be the nostalgic factor, looking back at this amazing ensemble cast, won't see anything like that again.

Phil Hubbs
Phil Hubbs

Super Reviewer


Steven Spielberg's star was already assured by the time he made this, this petite monster, garish, crude and loud, hobbled together with elements from other films (like some of the cast of Animal House, some of the madcap of The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, an altered version of Benny Goodman's Sing, Sing, Sing, that wacked out cowboy pilot from Doctor Strangelove, etc., etc., etc.), all in an hope to achieve "zany!" ... which he misses by that much. Pass.

Kevin M. Williams
Kevin M. Williams

Super Reviewer

Steven Spielberg's 1941 is an underrated comedy that is far better than what most people have said about it. The film has its weak points of course, but nonetheless is an amusing and entertaining picture that is sure to amuse anyone looking for a good little flick to watch. 1941 is a good film, one that has enough good material to make it worth seeing. Spielberg has made better films of course, but this is an enjoyable, underrated film from him. I found that there were quite a few comical moments on-screen, even if it wasn't hilarious, it was still nonetheless a funny, entertaining and watchable film that shouldn't be passed up. Although funny, at times, the material could have been better in order to make it a better, more memorable film. Enjoyable for what it is, almost to the point where the gags try to outdo the audacious scope of the film. In turn, some of the comic bits do suffer, and it's not as funny as it should be. I laughed quite a few times, but I really expected something more out of the film. 1941 boasts a great cast of talented actors that elevate the sometimes lacking material and Spielberg's direction more than makes up for what's missing in the movie. If you're looking for a great comedy, you won't find it here. The film, like I said, provides laughs, but leaves a lot to be desired after the credits start to roll. Worth seeing if you love Spielberg, just don't expect a highly memorable comedy. 1941 is fun, but flawed, but in the end, it's not as bad as what everyone has said about it.

Alex roy
Alex roy

Super Reviewer


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