1941 (film)

1941 is a 1979 American period war action comedy film[2][3] directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, and featuring an ensemble cast including Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, John Belushi, John Candy, Christopher Lee, Tim Matheson, Toshiro Mifune, and Robert Stack. The story involves a panic in the Los Angeles area after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

Theatrical release poster
Directed bySteven Spielberg
Produced byBuzz Feitshans
Screenplay byRobert Zemeckis
Bob Gale
Story byRobert Zemeckis
Bob Gale
John Milius
StarringDan Aykroyd
Ned Beatty
John Belushi
Lorraine Gary
Murray Hamilton
Christopher Lee
Tim Matheson
Toshirō Mifune
Warren Oates
Robert Stack
Treat Williams
Music byJohn Williams
CinematographyWilliam A. Fraker
Edited byMichael Kahn
A-Team Productions
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
(North America)
Columbia Pictures
Release date
  • December 14, 1979 (1979-12-14)
Running time
118 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$35 million[1]
Box office$94.9 million[1]

Although not as financially or critically successful as many of Spielberg's other films, it received belated popularity after an expanded version aired on ABC and its subsequent broadcasts on cable television and home video reissues, raising it to cult status.[4]

Co-writer Gale stated the plot is loosely based on what has come to be known as the Great Los Angeles Air Raid of 1942 as well as the bombardment of the Ellwood oil refinery, near Santa Barbara, by a Japanese submarine. Many other events in the film were based on real incidents, including the Zoot Suit Riots and an incident in which the U.S. Army placed an anti-aircraft gun in a homeowner's yard on the Maine coast.[5]


On Saturday, December 13, 1941, at 7:01 a.m. (six days after the attack on Pearl Harbor), a Japanese submarine surfaces off the California coast. The sub is commanded by Commander Mitamura. A Nazi General, Wolfgang von Kleinschmidt, is along as an observer. Mitamura wants to destroy something "honorable" in Los Angeles and decides to target Hollywood.

Later that morning, a 10th Armored Division M3 Lee tank crew, consisting of Sergeant Frank Tree, Corporal Chuck Sitarski, and Privates Foley, Reese, and Henshaw, are having breakfast at a cafe where dishwasher Wally and his pal Dennis both work. Wally is planning to enter a dance contest at a club that evening with his girlfriend, Betty Douglas. Sitarski instantly dislikes Wally, particularly his civilian attire, and trips him, causing a fight.

In Death Valley, crazy, cigar-chomping United States Army Air Forces Captain Wild Bill Kelso lands his Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter near a roadside store and gas station; while refueling, Kelso accidentally blows up the station.

In Los Angeles, Major General Joseph W. Stilwell attempts to calm the public who believe California will be attacked by Japan.

At a press conference at Daugherty Field in Long Beach, Captain Loomis Birkhead, Stilwell's aide, meets his old flame Donna Stratton, who is General Stilwell's new secretary. Aware that Donna is sexually aroused by airplanes, Birkhead lures her into the cockpit of a B-17 bomber to seduce her. When his amatory attempts fail, Donna punches him and knocks him out; as he falls, Birkhead accidentally releases a bomb, sending it rolling towards the podium just as the General promises, "There will be no bombs dropped here." The assembled reporters and audience panic and scatter as the bomb strikes the grandstand and explodes, though Stilwell and the crowd are unhurt.

At the Santa Monica ocean side home of Ward Douglas and his wife Joan, Wally is told by Betty and her friend Maxine, who have both just become USO hostesses, that they are only allowed to dance with servicemen as they are now the only male patrons allowed in the club. Wally is forced to hide in the garage when Betty's father Ward, who disapproves of Wally, appears. Sgt. Tree and his tank crew arrive and inform Ward and Joan that the army wants to install an anti-aircraft battery in their yard; Sitarski begins flirting with Betty when Wally falls from the loft where he was hiding. Wally and Sitarski recognize each other from the cafe, and Ward and the soldiers pick up Wally and dump him into a passing garbage truck.

Meanwhile, the Japanese submarine has become lost trying to find Los Angeles after the ship's compass malfunctions. A landing party goes ashore searching for "Hollywood" and instead discovers Hollis "Holly" Wood, a lumberjack, who is selling Christmas trees. After Hollis is taken prisoner aboard the sub, he is searched and the crew is excited to find a small compass which was the toy surprise inside a box of "Popper Jacks". Hollis snatches the compass and swallows it. After the crew attempts to make Hollis pass the compass by forcing him to drink prune juice, he manages to escape from the submarine and swim to shore. Later that evening, Ward's neighbor, Angelo Scioli of the Ground Observer Corps, installs Claude and Herb in the Ferris wheel at the Ocean Front Amusement Park where they have volunteered to spot and report enemy aircraft. Herb has brought his ventriloquist's dummy along, much to Claude's annoyance. Meanwhile, General Stilwell attends a showing of the Walt Disney film Dumbo at a theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Determined to get Donna up in an airplane, Birkhead drives her to the 501st Bomb Disbursement Unit in Barstow, where the mentally unstable Colonel "Mad Man" Maddox shows them the unit's aircraft. The demented Maddox, convinced the Japanese have a secret airbase hidden in the alfalfa fields of Pomona, lets Birkhead and Donna borrow a plane, after Birkhead offers to go on a reconnaissance flight in an attempt to locate the fictional Pomona airfield. Donna, aroused by at last being up in an airplane, eagerly begins to ravish the nervous Birkhead during the flight.

Outside the USO club, Sitarski literally kicks aside Wally and drags Betty into the dance. Wally eventually sneaks in by knocking out a member of the Shore Patrol and stealing his uniform. He snatches Betty from Sitarski, and they end up winning the dance contest whilst evading Sitarski, who is being relentlessly pursued by Maxine. As the contest ends, Sitarski finally punches Wally, setting off a brawl between soldiers, sailors and zoot suiters. The free-for-all spills into the street and becomes a riot.

Sgt. Tree arrives with his crew and breaks up the melee, just as L.A. goes to Red Alert with unknown aircraft sighted over the city. At the Douglas' home, Ward spots the surfaced submarine offshore. Birkhead and Donna, still in the throes of passion, fly over L.A., where anti-aircraft batteries open fire. Kelso pursues Birkhead's plane and shoots it down, causing it to crash into the La Brea Tar Pits. He then spots the submarine near the amusement park, but before he can return to attack, his plane is shot down by Claude and Herb, who are still in the Ferris wheel, mistaking Kelso's P-40 for a Japanese "Zero".

Back on Hollywood Boulevard, Sitarski is dragging away Betty, when she is rescued by Wally, who knocks Sitarski out cold. Kelso, who has crash landed his plane on the street, informs them of the sub near the amusement park. Sergeant Tree, knocked silly during the melee, tells Wally to go after the submarine. Wearing an Army uniform, Wally commandeers Tree's tank and heads toward the amusement park. Back at the Douglas home, Ward begins firing the anti-aircraft gun at the submarine, all but destroying his house in the process. The sub returns fire, hitting the Ferris wheel, which causes it to roll down a pier and into the ocean, sending Claude, Herb and the dummy into the water. The tank fires at the sub and then sinks when the pier collapses and Wally, Dennis, Tree and the crew jump into the ocean. Kelso has stolen a motorcycle and drives it off the pier, and he swims to the submarine, where he is captured by the Japanese; undaunted, he declares, "Turn this tub around! You're takin' me to Tokyo!"

On Sunday morning, December 14, Stilwell and soldiers arrive at the remains of the Douglas home, where the other protagonists have gathered and spent the night. Ward delivers an inspirational speech to everyone present, vowing that their Christmas will not be ruined by the enemy; to symbolize his point, he nails a Christmas wreath to his front door, jarring the unstable house so that it collapses down the hillside. Stilwell, observing the motley disheveled crowd who have begun arguing and fighting, tells Sgt. Tree, "It's going to be a long war", and he walks away.



According to Steven Spielberg's appearance in the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, Kubrick suggested that 1941 should have been marketed as a drama rather than a comedy. The chaos of the events following Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 is summarized by Dan Aykroyd's character, Sgt. Tree, who states "he cannot stand Americans fighting Americans."[5]

1941 is also notable as one of the few American films featuring Toshirō Mifune, a popular Japanese actor. It is also the only American film in which Mifune used his own voice in speaking Japanese and English. In his previous movies, Mifune's lines were dubbed by Paul Frees.[5]

Both John Wayne and Charlton Heston were originally offered the role of Major General Stilwell with Wayne still considered for a cameo in the film. After reading the script, Wayne decided not to participate due to ill health, but also urged Spielberg not to pursue the project. Both Wayne and Heston felt the film was unpatriotic. Spielberg recalled, "[Wayne] was really curious and so I sent him the script. He called me the next day and said he felt it was a very un-American movie, and I shouldn't waste my time making it. He said, 'You know, that was an important war, and you're making fun of a war that cost thousands of lives at Pearl Harbor. Don't joke about World War II'."[6]

Susan Backlinie reprised her role as the first victim in Spielberg's Jaws by appearing as the woman seen swimming nude at the beginning of the film.[5] The gas station that Wild Bill Kelso accidentally blows up early in the film is the same one seen in Spielberg's 1971 TV film, Duel, with Lucille Benson appearing as the proprietor in both films. Inadvertent comedic effects ensued when John Belushi, in character as Captain Wild Bill Kelso, unintentionally fell off the wing of his airplane, landing on his head. It was a real accident and Belushi was hospitalized for several days, but Spielberg left the shot in the movie as it fit Kelso's eccentric character.[7]

During the USO riot scene, when a military police officer is tossed into the window of a restaurant from the fire truck, Belushi plays the patron eating spaghetti. He is in makeup to resemble Marlon Brando in The Godfather, whom he famously parodied in a sketch on Saturday Night Live. Belushi told Spielberg he wanted to appear as a second character and the idea struck Spielberg as humorous.[5] At the beginning of the USO riot, one of the uncredited "extras" dressed as a sailor is actor James Caan. Making his first screen appearance in 1941 is Mickey Rourke as Private First Class Reese of Sgt. Tree's tank group.[8]

The M3 tank Lulu Belle (named after a race horse) and fashioned from a mocked-up tractor, paid homage to its forebear in Humphrey Bogart's 1943 movie Sahara where an authentic M3 named Lulubelle was prominently featured.[9]

Renowned modelmaker Greg Jein worked on the film, and would later use the hull number "NCC-1941" for the starship USS Bozeman in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Cause and Effect".[10] Paul De Rolf choreographed the film.[11]

1941 is dedicated to the memory of Charlsie Bryant, a longtime script supervisor at Universal Studios. She had served in that capacity on both Jaws and Close Encounters, and would have reprised those duties with this film had she not unexpectedly died.[12]

Special effects

The Oscar-winning team of L.B. Abbott and A.D. Flowers were in charge of the special effects on 1941. The film is widely recognized for its Academy Award-nominated special-effects laden progressive action and camera sequences.[13][N 1]


The advance teaser trailer for 1941, directed by the film's executive producer/co-story writer John Milius, featured a voice-over by Aykroyd as Belushi lands his plane and gives the audience a pep-talk to join the armed forces, else they will find one morning that "the street signs will be written in Japanese!"[15]

Musical score and soundtrack

The musical score for 1941 was composed and conducted by John Williams. The titular march is used throughout the film and is perhaps the most memorable piece written for it. (Spielberg has said it is his favorite Williams march.) The score also includes a swing composition titled "Swing, Swing, Swing" composed by John Williams. In addition, the score includes a sound-alike version of Glenn Miller's "In the Mood", and two 1940s recordings by The Andrews Sisters, "Daddy" and "Down by the Ohio". The Irish tune "The Rakes of Mallow", is heard during the riot at the USO.

The LaserDisc and DVD versions of the film have isolated music channels with additional cues not heard on the first soundtrack album.

In 2011, La-La Land Records, in conjunction with Sony Music and NBCUniversal, issued an expanded 2-CD soundtrack of the complete John Williams score as recorded for the film, plus never-before-heard alternative cues, source music, and a remastered version of the original album. Disc One, containing the film score, presents the music as Williams originally conceived based on early cuts of the movie.[16][17][18]

Home media

The film was previewed at approximately two and a half hours, but Columbia Pictures and Universal Studios, which both had a major financial investment, felt it was too long to be a blockbuster. The initial theatrical release was edited down to just under two hours, against Spielberg's wishes.[19] After the success of his 1980 "Special Edition" of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg was given permission to create his own "extended cut" of 1941 to represent his original director's cut. This was done for network television (it was only shown on ABC once, but it was seen years later on The Disney Channel). It was first released on VHS and Betamax in 1980 from MCA Videocasette Inc. and from MCA Home Video in 1986 and 1990. A similar extended version (with additional footage and a few subtle changes) was released on LaserDisc in 1995. It included a 101-minute documentary featuring interviews with Spielberg, executive producer John Milius, writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, editor Michael Kahn, composer John Williams and others involved. This set also included an isolated music score, three theatrical trailers, deleted scenes, photo galleries, and reviews of the movie. This cut was later released on VHS in 1998, and later on DVD in 1999.[20] The DVD includes all features from the 1995 Laserdisc Set. It was released again on DVD in 2000 in a John Belushi box set along with the collector's editions of Animal House and The Blues Brothers.

On October 14, 2014, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment released 1941 on Blu-ray as part of their Steven Spielberg's Director's Collection box set. The disc features both the theatrical (118 minutes) and extended version (146 minutes) of the film, a documentary of the making of the film, production photographs (carried over from the LaserDisc collector's edition), and theatrical trailers, although the isolated score that was included on the Laserdisc and DVD releases is not present on the Blu-ray. The standalone Blu-ray version was released on May 5, 2015.

Heavy Metal and Arrow Books produced a magazine sized comic tie-in to the film, by Stephen R. Bissette & Rick Veitch, which rather than being a straight adaptation, varies wildly and humorously from the film.[21]


On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film received an approval rating of 39%, based on 23 reviews, with an average rating of 5.1/10. The critical consensus reads, "Steven Spielberg's attempt at screwball comedy collapses under a glut of ideas, confusing an unwieldy scope for a commensurate amount of guffaws."[22] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 34 out of 100, based on 7 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews".[23]

Writer Bob Gale defended the film in a DVD documentary:

It is down in the history books as a big flop, but it wasn't a flop. The movie didn't make the kind of money that Steven's other movies, Steven's most successful movies have made, obviously. But the movie was by no means a flop. And both Universal and Columbia have come out of it just fine.

Spielberg joked at one point that he considered converting 1941 into a musical halfway into production and mused that "in retrospect, that might have helped."[24] In a 1990 interview with British film pundit Barry Norman, Spielberg admitted that the mixed reception to 1941 was one of the biggest lessons of his career citing personal arrogance that had gotten in the way after the runaway success of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He also regretted not ceding control of 1941's action and miniature sequences (such as the Ferris wheel collapse in the film's finale) to second unit directors and model units, something which he would do in his next film, Raiders of the Lost Ark.[25] He also said "Some people think that was an out-of-control production, but it wasn't. What happened on the screen was pretty out of control, but the production was pretty much in control. I don't dislike the movie at all. I'm not embarrassed by it — I just think that it wasn't funny enough."

Parodies of 1941 have cropped up in a number of unusual ways, including one by Spielberg himself. In an episode of Spielberg's Animaniacs, where Yakko, Wakko, and Dot inhabit a giant video store, a video copy of 1941 is used as a weapon, an exploding bomb.[26]

According to Jack Nicholson, director Stanley Kubrick allegedly told Spielberg that 1941 was "great, but not funny."[27]


The film received three nominations at the 1980 Academy Awards.[28]




  1. Quote: "The special effects are beautifully done."[14]


  1. "1941, Box Office Information." The Numbers, September 27, 2012.
  2. "1941 (1979)". www.allmovie.com. Retrieved 1 September 2019.
  3. "1941". www.rottentomatoes.com. Retrieved 1 September 2019.
  4. "What is Cult Film?". for68.com Beijing ICP. January 13, 2006. Retrieved April 10, 2009.
  5. The Making of 1941, Universal home video DVD
  6. "John Wayne - John Wayne Urged Steven Spielberg Not To Make War Comedy." contactmusic.com. 2 December 2011. Retrieved: December 2, 2011.
  7. Erickson, Glenn. "1941 - A giant comedy, only with guns!" DVD Savant, 1999. Retrieved: December 16, 2012.
  8. Heard 2006, p. 22.
  9. Nelson, Erik. "The Perfect Double Bill:'The Hurt Locker' and Bogart’s 1943 'Sahara'." Salon, January 12, 2010.
  10. "First Person: Greg Jein." CBS Entertainment. Retrieved: October 19, 2011.
  11. Washington, Arlene (2017-06-26). "Paul De Rolf, Choreographer for 'Petticoat Junction' and Spielberg's '1941,' Dies at 74". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 2017-07-20.
  12. "Review of 1941 (1979)." Time Out, New York.
  13. Culhane 1981, pp. 126–129.
  14. Dolan 1985, pp. 98–99.
  15. "Trailer for 1941" on YouTube. Retrieved: October 10, 2012.
  16. "La-La Land Records, 1941." Archived 2011-10-05 at the Wayback Machine La-La Land Records, September 27, 2011. Retrieved: October 8, 2011.
  17. 1941: Complete Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Liner notes by Mike Matessino, La-La Land Records/Sony Music/NBCUniversal, 2011.
  18. "JWFan Exclusive – Interview with Producer Mike Matessino about ’1941′." JWFan.com, September 26, 2011. Retrieved: October 8, 2011.
  19. McBride 2011, p. 298.
  20. Hunt, Bill. "1941 (Collector's Edition)" digitalbits.com, March 23, 1999. Retrieved: September 16, 2011.
  21. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-08-23. Retrieved 2013-09-16.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  22. "1941 (1979)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved May 6, 2018.
  23. "1941 Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved May 6, 2018.
  24. Bonham and Kay 1979
  25. Schickel, Richard (Director) (July 9, 2007). Spielberg on Spielberg (Documentary).
  26. Animaniacs: May 1996. "Animaniacs." Retrieved: February 10, 2007.
  27. Ciment et al. 2003, p. 297.
  28. "1941 Cast, Credit & Awards." The New York Times, 2011. Retrieved: September 16, 2011.


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  • Bonham, Joseph and Joe Kay, eds. 1941: The Poster Book. New York: Starlog Press, 1979.
  • Ciment, Michel, Gilbert Adair and Robert Bononno. "Interview: Jack Nicholson." Kubrick: The Definitive Edition. New York: Faber & Faber, Inc., 2003. ISBN 978-0-571-21108-1.
  • Clarke, James. Steven Spielberg. London: Pocket Essentials, 2004. ISBN 1-904048-29-3.
  • Culhane, John. Special Effects in the Movies: How They Do it. New York: Ballantine Books, 1981. ISBN 0-345-28606-5.
  • Crawley, Tony. The Steven Spielberg Story. New York: William Morrow, 1983. ISBN 0-688-02510-2.
  • Dolan, Edward F. Jr. Hollywood Goes to War. London: Bison Books, 1985. ISBN 0-86124-229-7.
  • Erickson, Glenn and Mary Ellen Trainor. The Making of 1941. New York: Ballantine Books, 1980. ISBN 0-345-28924-2.
  • Freer, Ian. The Complete Spielberg. New York: Virgin Books, 2001. ISBN 0-7535-0556-8.
  • Heard, Christopher. Mickey Rourke: High and Low. Medford, New Jersey: Plexus Publishing, 2006. ISBN 978-0-85965-386-2.
  • McBride, Joseph. Steven Spielberg: A Biography. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2011. ISBN 978-1-60473-836-0.
  • 1941, the making of (DVD Commentary). 1999.
  • Sinyard, Neil. The Films of Steven Spielberg. London: Bison Books, 1986. ISBN 0-86124-352-8.
  • "Steven Spielberg: The Collectors Edition". Empire Magazine, 2004.

Further reading

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