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Film / 1941 (1979)

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"This isn't the state of California, it's a state of insanity."

1941 is a 1979 American epic war action comedy, directed by none other than Steven Spielberg, which takes place, surprisingly enough, in the year 1941. The script was written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, and John Milius executive produced and co-wrote the story.

That story follows the panic that ensues when, in the days after Pearl Harbor, paranoid Californians believe another attack is imminent. It's very loosely based on actual events (which, for one thing, actually occurred two months later, in 1942).

Spielberg, with the combined backing of two major studios (Universal and Columbia), spared no expense in making this film. It has special effects rivaling those of "serious" World War II epics, and the All-Star Cast reads like a who's who of movie comedy in The '70s, all in the service of Slapstick. Unfortunately, it was a critical bomb and received disappointing box office numbers (though it wasn't the complete flop it's usually remembered as), and stands as the one misfire in Spielberg's otherwise-outstanding run of blockbusters between 1975 and 1982.


Not under any circumstances to be confused with 1984, or with the third game in Capcom's 1942 video game series.

Tropes include:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Exaggerated with both Stretch and Maxine in different ways. Stretch's pursuing of Betty is extremely creepy and evocative of rape, while Maxine, knowing and seeing how Stretch is terrorizing Betty, declares him the "perfect man" and spends the rest of the film chasing after him, screaming his name, and punching anyone who gets between her and "her man".
  • Acme Products: Acme Turpentine.
  • Action Girl: Donna punches Birkhead out for making an unwelcome pass at her early on and can fly a plane well enough to avoid being shot down in an Unfriendly Fire situation despite having zero training or experience.
  • Actor Allusion: When Hollis P. "Holly" Wood has his belongings inventoried by the Japanese aboard the sub, he says "one box of genuine cracker jacks. One genuine rabbit's foot" and the like. This is a nod to Slim Pickens' role as Major Kong in Dr. Strangelove, where his character does the same thing with the survival kit.
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  • An Ass-Kicking Christmas: Although it's very hard to tell who's kicking whose ass in this movie.
  • Ash Face: While riding in the tank, Pvt. Jones gets a sack of flour on his face, while Pvt. Foley takes a blast of ash on his face. Foley starts laughing at Jones because of lighter complexion, until Jones points out that Foley has darker complexion and laughs while telling Foley to "go to the back of the tank."
  • The Bad Guy Wins: The Americans manage to level their own town and shoot down two of their own planes when all is said and done. The Japanese actually destroy a land-based American target (although it's just a middle-of-nowhere fair on the coast when they were aiming for Hollywood) and suffer no damages. On the other hand, they are all now trapped on a submarine with Wild Bill Kelso.
    "Turn this tub around! You're takin' me to Tokyo!"
  • Bar Brawl: An epic one ensues right after the Jitterbug tournament, which turns into a riot in the street.
  • Berserk Button: Stretch whenever he comes in contact with eggs. Sgt. Tree hates to see Americans fighting each other. Wild Bill Kelso hates the Japanese, as well as anyone pointing out that he's a crazy incompetent.
  • The Cameo:
    • John Landis plays the dust-covered soldier who delivers a message to Stilwell.
    • James Caan can be glimpsed as one of the participants in the USO brawl.
    • Samuel Fuller played the role of Interceptor Commander in this movie.
  • Captain Obvious: General Stillwell gets off a blistering one after walking out of a movie theater with his men and seeing the chaos caused by panicking civilians who think the Japanese are invading.
    Stillwell: Sergeant, secure this area. I want a one-block perimeter.
    Sergeant: Yes sir! What's the plan of action, sir?
    Stillwell: Hold the block. You can hold one block, can't you?
  • Casting Gag: The woman who goes skinny-dipping in the beginning of the film, only to be startled by a Japanese submarine surfacing beneath her, is played by Susan Backlinie, who played Chrissie in the opening scene of Jaws, where she had a rather similar but somewhat less embarrassing / more fatal skinny-dipping encounter with a shark.
    • The gas station owner is played by Lucille Benson who also played a gas station owner in Spielberg's first movie, Duel.
  • Chairman of the Brawl: The massive Bar Brawl sees the sailors, soldiers, marines and Zoot-suiters use this on each other.
  • Cock Fight: Between Wally and Stretch for Betty.
  • Combat Pragmatist
    Wally Stephens: I know I can't beat you in a fair fight.
    'Stretch' Sitarski: (scoffs) Stupid, I don't fight fair.
    Wally Stephens: Neither do I!
    (kicks Stretch in the crotch, then hits him across the face with a belt of .30 calibre machine-gun ammo; Stretch smiles dumbly for a second then falls over)
  • Comical Overreacting: How Stretch reacts to being in contact with eggs, which he hates.
  • Concussions Get You High: After Sgt. Tree is hit on the head in the late third act, he spends the rest of the film acting like a Cloud Cuckoolander.
    Sgt. Tree: [[puts on pantyhose on head with two oranges over his eyes] I'm a bug! [giggles]
  • Creator Cameo: A deleted scene has John Milius as a man dressed as Santa, doing an impression of "Bigfoot caught in your headlights" that he often amused the rest of the crew with. After filming it they came to their senses, realizing (in those pre-Internet days) that absolutely no one besides the people who worked on the movie would get the joke.
  • Does Not Like Spam: Sitarski absolutely despises eggs.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The opening scene where a skinny-dipping woman finds herself clutching the upthrusting periscope of a surfacing Japanese submarine (also serves as a hilarious Jaws take-off — it's even the same actress who was in the corresponding scene).
    Lucky Japanese Lookout: Horrywood! Horrywood!
  • Doesn't Like Guns: Mrs. Douglas is angrily declaring, "I will not have guns in this house!" when the muzzle of an ack-ack cannon comes crashing through the front door.
  • Do Not Do This Cool Thing: Referenced in-universe. As the artillery crew is setting up the anti-aircraft gun in the Douglas family's yard, Sgt. Tree explicitly tells Ward what not to do with it - all the while demonstrating every step in the aiming/firing process. Hilarity Ensues when Ward later tries to use the cannon against the Japanese sub and nearly destroys his own house instead.
  • Drives Like Crazy
    • The aerial variant, namely the dogfight between Donna Stratton and Wild Bill Kelso over the streets of L.A. That is, just simply Wild Bill Kelso.
    • When Sgt. Tree gives Wally command over his crew, the tank crushes cars, and destroys a paint factory.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Despite the Downer Ending explained above, Wally and Betty have finally gotten together by the end of the film, and Wally's got a 7-picture deal with RKO Pictures (courtesy of a talent agent who saw Wally's incredible dance moves at the USO).
  • Eat the Evidence: Hollis P. Wood eats his toy compass when he sees the Japs are interested in it. So they force-feed him prune juice to make him give it up again. Or down.
  • Epic Fail: Ward does heavy damage to his own house while trying to hit the Japanese sub with the anti-aircraft gun. The next morning, he nails a Christmas wreath to the front door, causing the remains of the house to collapse and fall into the ocean. The door is the only thing left standing on the foundation slab.
  • Epic Movie: A rare comedy that can qualify as this, seeing that it has many of the traditional epic movie markers: an ensemble cast that includes multiple A-list movie and TV stars, a historical wartime setting, a focus on the characters' stories rather than the larger World War II backdrop, hundreds upon hundreds of extras, and most of all gigantic, action-packed, often effects-intensive setpieces such as the dance contest and subsequent brawl that spills into the streets and anything that has to do with the planes. It's just that it's all Played for Laughs. It's taken even further in the director's cut, which drives up the runtime to a whopping 146 minutes.
  • Everybody Lives: No characters die in this movie. In the final aerial shot after the house has collapsed, Captain Wolfgang von Kleinschmidt can be seen being apprehended by U.S. soldiers and dragged away, gesticulating wildly.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The extended edition of the movie is about two hours and twenty minutes long, but the movie begins at 7:01 a.m. on December 13th and ends somewhere between 8:00 and 10:00 on the morning of December 14th. About 2/3rds of the movie takes place between 7:00 p.m. and midnight.
  • Falling Chandelier of Doom: Shortly after regaining consciousness following the inter service Bar Brawl, Wally gets knocked out by one of these.
  • Ferris Wheel of Doom: The result of the Japanese sub destroying the wheel's supports when trying to aim for the lookouts that were in it.
  • Firing in the Air a Lot:
    • Well, Maddox wants to hear Wild Bill Kelso's machine guns. So he fires them while still on ground. Maddox' troops follow suit when Kelso takes off.
    • Also in Real Life — some scenes were so noisy that nobody could hear Spielberg call "cut", so he had crew members shoot off machine guns as a signal that the cameras were no longer rolling.
  • Funny Background Event: During Wally's speech to the General, Sgt. Tree can be seen holding a mannequin arm close to his chest and stroking it affectionately.
  • General Ripper: Colonel 'Mad Man' Maddox.
  • Get Thee to a Nunnery: Bizarrely, and probably unintentionally, used. In a deleted scene, Sgt. Tree says he's going to "ream" Sitarski for vanishing during tank maintenance. The common usage of 'ream', to mean 'rebuke', didn't come into American vernacular until 1950. In 1941, however, 'ream' was just coming into usage as a vulgar slang term for anal sex.
  • Gratuitous Ninja: The Japanese soldiers sent to explore the mainland and later kidnap Hollis Wood are mentioned by Captain Mitamura to be members of ninja families.
  • Groin Attack: When Wally confronts Stretch near the end of the movie, he kicks Stretch in the crotch before hitting him with a belt of ammunition.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Sitarski, who destroys half of a civilian's garage for no real reason shortly after being reintroduced.
  • Ham-to-Ham Combat: John Belushi and Warren Oates during "Lemme hear your guns!"
  • Hidden Depths: General Stillwell is tougher than leather, coldly competent, and takes charge of every situation, but he gets misty-eyed while watching Dumbo. Given that he can mouth along to "When I See an Elephant Fly", this isn't the first time he's seen the movie, either. (Robert Stack's performance is one of the highlights of the film.)
  • Historical In-Joke
    • We learn how the "HOLLYWOODLAND" sign really lost the last four letters.
    • Also, the Japanese sailor trying to fit an enormous radio down the submarine hatch comments:
      "We've got to figure out how to make these things smaller!"
    • Robert Stack plays the actual commander of the U.S. coastal defense so accurately that pictures of Stack in costume have been mistaken for ones of the real Stilwell.
  • Implacable Man: 'Stretch' Sitarski spends a chunk of the climax chasing after the woman he wants, Betty Douglas, in a manner described by Brad Jones (The Cinema Snob) in his review of the film as "a combination between Michael Myers and Pepe Le Pew" to have his way with her.
  • Interservice Rivalry: The Bar Brawl happens after Wally, wearing a stolen Sailor Police uniform, gets punched out by Army man Sitarsky, who is about to be knocked-out by Dennis, who dressed up as a Marine to pick up girls, when he accidentally hits a a sailor with a chair and soon, all three branches are slugging each other.
  • It's a Long Story: Averted by General Stillwell.
    "Is this a long story?"
    "Err... yes, sir."
    "Then save it."
  • It's Quiet… Too Quiet: Spoken by soldiers Willy and Joe (played by Michael McKean and David Lander, aka Lenny and Squiggy) at a gun installation as they brace for the air raid.
  • Jerkass: 'Stretch' Sitarski, constantly looking to prove his alpha maleness by looking for a fight, and picking Wally as a target. He further cements his brutishness by chasing after and nearly assaulting Betty with no remorse. And he goes absolutely bonkers when coming in contact with eggs.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Sgt. Tree actually ends the riot with a lengthy speech from atop a tank.
    What the hell do you people think you're doing? You're acting like a bunch of Tojo stooges! What do you wanna do, put Yamamoto in the White House? The Axis is crawling like a slime all over Europe! I can't believe it, Americans fighting Americans! We got the lousy Huns to fight!
  • Mile-High Club: Ice Queen Donna Stratton turns into a raging nymphomaniac whenever she gets into the air. Knowing this, Handsome Lech Captain Loomis Birkhead is willing to risk death (he flunked flying school) to get her up in an aircraft. Just as he's finally mastered the plane (and her) they're interrupted in the act by a machine-gunning John Belushi who thinks they're Japanese.
  • Mobile Shrubbery: The director's cut includes a scene where the Japanese sailors disguise themselves in this manner at a Christmas tree lot run by Hollis Wood, who shows up and attempts to cut the "trees" down.
  • Mugged for Disguise: Wally acquires a Shore Patrolman's uniform in this manner in order to get into the USO dance.
  • Naked People Are Funny: It's hard not to laugh at the poor Polar Bear Club Woman (actually the same actress from the opening of Jaws) who went skinny dipping that morning, as she finds herself clinging to the periscope of the Japanese sub - and then endures the further sexual humiliation of having an excited Japanese sailor see her completely naked before submerging.
  • Naked People Trapped Outside: The aforementioned Polar Bear Club Woman who gets caught naked by the Japanese sailor when he pokes his head out of the sub.
  • Night Swim Equals Death: Parodied. Apparently night swims lead to Japanese submarines.
  • Noodle Incident:
    • Betty's father hates Wally for some reason; it's implied by dialogue he might've somehow damaged or destroyed the Douglas family's barn and car.
    • Loomis Burkhead apparently flunked out of flight school, and was Kicked Upstairs into becoming an aide to General Stilwell, but we get no more details on what happened.
  • Not What I Signed Up For: Claude volunteers to become a civil defense air raid spotter due to being told it will only entail sitting in a lawn chair in Ward's yard. Then the army places an AA gun in the yard, and Claude (who is afraid of heights) gets reassigned to a post at the top of a Ferris wheel along with Manchild Herbie.
  • Only Sane Man: General Stilwell, incidentally a real person, played by Robert Stack in the film.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero:
    • The white Private Folley bullies the new incoming Private Ogden Johnson Jones simply because Jones happens to be black. When the call comes in to suppress the riot in Hollywood Sgt. Tree orders Jones to enter the tank via the rear hatch.
    • There are a lot of anti-Axis racial epithets tossed around by the protagonists throughout the film (especially Wild Bill). Justified because of the war.
  • Random Events Plot: Hollis Wood's kidnapping by the Japanese, the Japanese being unable to find Hollywood (the location) to attack, Loomis trying to get in Stratton's panties (and nearly getting blown out of the sky), Kelso's continuous violent bumbling, a party that gets destructive because of Interservice Rivalry and the panic of an alleged Japanese attack, the Douglas family trying to have a nice Christmas (and then its patriarch tearing the house apart in a bumbling attempt to help the nation because of the aforementioned Japanese popping up nearby)...
    • It could count as Four Lines, All Waiting, as the film typically spends a significant amount of time on one plot/set of characters before switching to another, and the plots don't converge until the USO brawl and the subsequent air battle.
  • Reactive Continuous Scream: The Video Credits are cut to 90% of the cast's noisy, often screaming, reactions to various moments of the plot!
  • Recoiled Across the Room: The anti-aircraft cannon is not secured to the ground the way it's supposed to be. As a result, when it's fired at the Japanese submarine offshore it rolls backwards along the ground and into a wooden building.
  • Re-Cut: Spielberg's extended director's cut, done for the film's network TV airing and later released on laserdisc and DVD, includes a half hour of additional footage to pad out the running time to a whopping 146 minutes.
  • Reluctant Fanservice Girl: Again, the Polar Bear Club Woman.
  • Roofless Renovation: The end result of Mr. Douglas manning the cannon and trying to shoot the submarine. By the very last scene, the only thing still standing is the house's door.
  • Rousing Speech: Sergeant Tree (Dan Aykroyd), when he accuses the brawling G.I.s of acting like "a bunch of Tojo stooges".
    Sergeant Tree: Was Mickey Mouse the one blitzkrieging across France? Or Donald Duck at Pearl Harbor?
  • Rule of Funny: A film about stupid people in WWII America with stupid axis powers in a submarine? Stupidity at it's finest. Especially since it was heavily inspired by several true stories.
  • Scenery Censor: The nude Susan Backlinie's modesty is protected by the beach's picket fence and the submarine's periscope.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Spielberg pays homage to his own Jaws in the opening, complete with Susan Backlinie (the same actress who played the luckless first victim).
    • The gas station where Kelso refuels his plane had also appeared in Spielberg's Duel.
    • The music that starts playing as the USO brawl kicks off is "Rakes of Mallow", which was also played during the climactic fight in The Quiet Man.
    • Hollis Wood's enumeration of his effects to the Japanese is done in the same manner as the famous survival kit contents scene in Dr. Strangelove (which featured Hollis Wood's actor, Slim Pickens, as Major Kong).
  • Shown Their Work: Even though a couple months off, the filmmakers' accuracies were spot on.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: Plenty of it given the premise and setting. After the Video Credits for the performers are rolled, there are still more explosions under the first two-thirds of the credit scroll!
  • Take Me to Your Leader: In the denouement, once on the Japanese submarine Wild Bill Kelso tells the Japanese on board, "Turn this tub around! You're takin' me to Tokyo!"
  • Tank Goodness: They built an accurate full-scale replica of an M3 tank which reportedly caused yet another budget overrun.
  • Title by Year: A 1979 film taking place in the titular year.
  • Translation Convention: Inverted — the Japanese sub crew and their German liaison each speak their own languages but have no trouble understanding each other. This sets up a hilarious argument between Captain Von Kleinschmidt and Captain Mitamura where neither will deign to speak to the other in his native language.note 
  • Trash the Set: Just imagine this trope applied to the whole of Los Angeles. Another reason it went over budget.
  • Twin Threesome Fantasy: Wally's friend Dennis seems to be taken with a pair of twin sisters they meet at the clothing store, and seems pretty happy when he shows up with both of them as dates for the jitterbug competition.
  • Vehicle Vanish: Got the usual 1941 treatment. Why have one if you can also have a whole string of Vehicle Vanishes, partly even seen from behind?
  • Ventriloquism: Herbie Kazlminsky, one of the plane-spotters perched atop the Ferris wheel, is accompanied by an obnoxious ventriloquist's dummy.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: According to co-writer Bob Gale in the DVD documentary, many of the events in the movie are based on real incidents. The Army really put an anti-aircraft gun in the yard of a homeowner on the Maine coast. A Japanese submarine shelled a refinery in Ellwood on the California coast on February 23, 1943. An air raid false alarm over Los Angeles resulted in Civil Defense and Army weapons firing into the air on the night of February 24 and 25, 1942, thinking they were being attacked by the Japanese. The infamous Zoot Suit Riots, between Hispanic youths and servicemen, took place in June 1943.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • Hollis Wood is apparently just left to drown in the middle of the ocean after his heroic escape from the sub. You can in fact glimpse him at the very end of the film, in the aerial view of the destroyed house, along with Captain von Kleinschmidt, who apparently also survived being tossed in the ocean. Similarly, Stretch and Maxine were last seen crashing into an egg truck after Kelso detached their sidecar; they're shown having somehow made it to the Johnsons' property (with Maxine still unwilling to give him up).
    • The Polar Bear Club Woman who got caught swimming naked in the opening by the Japanese disappears after that and is not seen again.
  • Who's on First?:
    Cmdr. Mitamura: Where's Hollywood?
    Hollis "Holly" Wood: Right here.
  • World of Ham: And even then, John Belushi's eccentric, overly patriotic Air Corps pilot is a standout. Tellingly, each of the primary and supporting characters is represented in the end credits with a clip of them as their actor's name comes up — and in most of the clips (except for Robert Stack and Lionel Stander), they are making a whole lot of noise, if not outright screaming.
  • "You!" Squared: Happens when Wally and Stretch just happen to "run into" one another in Ward's garage:
    Wally: You!
    Stretch: (ragingly pointing at Wally) YOU!
    Ward: (catching Wally in the garage) You!
    Sgt. Tree: (also catching Wally the garage, but more calmly) You... have a serious wardrobe problem, kid.

Alternative Title(s): Nineteen Forty One