10 "Failures" By Famous Directors (That Are Actually Better Than You Remember)
Steven Spielberg had had an incredible one-two punch in the mid-'70s -- Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind became two of the most successful movies ever made -- and had been declared a "wunderkind", a "genius"; Universal Pictures and Columbia Pictures were ready and willing to bankroll absolutely anything the 33 year old director decided to tackle next. What Spielberg decided to tackle next, in his own words, was "a demolition derby"; 1941, originally a remarkably un-PC script by young up and comers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale entitled "The Night the Japs Attacked", read like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World set during World War 2, overflowing with slapstick gags and insane special effects sequences (a tank battle, an aerial dogfight over Hollywood Blvd., a Ferris Wheel that rolls down the Santa Monica Pier) and screwball comedy characters. Spielberg pushed the project even further, with a script that kept growing and growing and growing to accommodate whatever star Spielberg thought would be willing to do a cameo (Slim Pickens, Christopher Lee, John Belushi...) and a grueling 247 day shooting schedule that inspired crew members to make T shirts: "1941 Forever...and ever...and ever." The film was considered an absolute turkey upon release -- a bloated, overstuffed mess by a director who had clearly gotten so powerful no one could tell him no -- and while it did fine at the box office the reviews were scathing, with most critics comparing the film to (in the words of Pauline Kael) "being stuck in a pinball machine". To be fair to Kael, though, she didn't mean her statement entirely as a criticism; and to be fair to 1941, maybe it's a pinball machine that deserves a second look. Stanley Kubrick famously told Spielberg that 1941 was "good, but not funny", and he might've been onto something there; 1941 is an undisciplined mess of a movie -- Zemeckis and Gale's savagely funny little satire of American jingoism, racism and sexism has clearly been misshapen by an "everything but the kitchen sink" mentality in the shooting -- but especially when seen on video, when you can take the occasional bathroom break during the movie's lengthy running time, 1941's charms reveal themselves much more readily. In the late 1970s, Spielberg was still the young upstart showing off everything he could do with his big budgets and his wonderful toys, and 1941 might darn well be his greatest technical tour de force -- this is a movie overflowing with impressive visual effects (perhaps the greatest miniatures in movie history?), beautifully mounted camera moves (Spielberg was clearly having fun test driving the brand new Louma Crane) and complicated slapstick set pieces that would (dead serious) make Buster Keaton proud and Rube Goldberg blush. And if you can get around the messiness of the storytelling, 1941 is full of hilarious performances and characters: Nancy Allen (the epitome of late '70s hotness) as a woman who gets sexually aroused by airplanes, Robert Stack as the unflappable General Stillwell (who turns out to have a kinship with Dumbo...), Dan Aykroyd as the straight arrow tank sergeant ("If there's one thing I can't stand, it's seeing Americans fighting Americans!"), Joseph P. Flaherty as a sleazy crooner ("...maybe next time we can get a couple negros down here, have a race riot...!"), John Belushi doing that John Belushi thing...I mean, jeezus, as Zemeckis points out, this is a movie where Christopher Lee, Toshiro Mifune and Slim Pickens are all in a scene together, and they're all speaking different languages! That's gotta count for something, right?! Seriously, Stephen King is right -- 1941 is the one Spielberg movie that deserves to earn a weird little cult following.
C.B. Jacobson pops up at What Culture every once in a while, and almost without fail manages to embarrass the site with his clumsy writing. When he's not here, he's making movies, or writing about them at http://buddypuddle.blogspot.com.