"1941," a hectic, smug, self-destructive farce about war panic in Los Angeles six days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, is the latest stupefying fiasco to confirm Arnold's First Axiom: A misbegotten movie invariably tattles on itself.
Surely it's the troubled collective unconscious of the director, Steven Spielberg, and the writers, Robert Zemickis and Bob Gale, that prompts lines as incriminating as the following:
"Boy, am I in trouble now!"
"What a mess, what a goddamn mess!"
"We're gonna go home and forget this night ever happened."
"This insanity has gone too far."
They can say that again.
"1941" represents an appalling waste of filmmaking and performing resources. As one would expect, Spielberg, who directed "Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," sustains a high energy level. But the energy is expended on material that is pointless at best and occasionally hateful: a cynical, disheveled scenario calculated to leave the impression that the prospect of war transformed Los Angeles into a trigger-happy, stoogey, riot-prone, sex-hungry madhouse.
All in good fun, of course.
Although the commercial potential of crude sex jokes and elaborate sight gags should never be underestimated -- witness the success of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" -- "1941" may not prove as fortunate.
For one thing -- but it could be a crucial thing -- the idea of sharing a superior laugh about Americans going berserk with war jitters is not particularly inviting at the moment. One suspects that the mood in the country in 1941 was similar to what it is now. The panicky outbreaks of ludicrous or dangerous behavior on the West Coast following Pearl Harbor were isolated episodes within a prevailing mood of grimly awakened patriotism.
There were documented incidents that lent themselves to comic exploitation and exaggeration. But the filmmakers needed to exercise a certain discretion to prevent the premise of "1941" from degenerating into wholesale, gratuitous mockery.
Failure to exercise that discretion condemns the film to artistic disgrace and possibly commercial limbo. Not only do you fail to identify with the characters caught up in this comic turmoil or place the slightest credence in their crazed behavior, you barely register the performers as they fleetingly come and go.
Spielberg has assembled a potent cast, recruiting heavily from the young performers who made striking impressions in "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and "National Lampoon's Animal House," only to squander their talent on negligible roles or stale business, John Belushi, playing Wild Bill Kelso, a scroungy fighter pilot who stalks the skies for nonexistent Japanese targets, looks funny -- but there are such long stretches between his appearances that his contributions seem as expendable as everyone else's.
Enormously attractive young stars like Tim Matheson and Nancy Allen are consigned to crass adaptations of their last roles. Matheson, the smooth operator of "Animal House," is cast as a young officer determined to seduce Allen, a general's secretary whose demure exterior hides a raging, fetishistic lust. The delicate genius with which Allen projected a teenage girl's passion for The Beatles in "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" -- also by Zemickis and Gale -- is now prematurely broadened and perverted.
The only memorable performance belongs to that cunning old sidewinder Slim Pickens, who enjoys a sustained bit in the early going as a defiant yokel captured by the crew of a wayward, mischievous Japanese sub. Pickens is so distinctive and forceful that he succeeds in making the flimsy role and crude dialogue seem like his own, a feat that defies or eludes the other members of the cast.
At 32, Spielberg is a trifle young to begin turning to self-parody, so the opening sequence of "1941," a take-off on the opening of "Jaws," seems like a bad omen in retrospect, although it's one of the simplest, best-staged sight gags in the film. Susan Backlinie, who played the original victim in "Jaws," even does an encore. Spielberg, however, doesn't have a capper for the gag -- he leaves the joke as well as the actress literally hanging there.
In the chickens-with-their-heads-off confusion of "1941," Spielberg's technical expertise and pictorial flair are also tarnished. The movie has a lurching rhythm and absurdly hazy look. Cinematographer William Fraker surrounds the actors with so much haze in both exteriors and interiors that they threaten to dematerialize among the glare. The most impressive scenic moments are some astonishing miniatures and opticals depicting aerial combat over Hollywood Boulevard and a ferris wheel rolling off a pier at an oceanside amusement park.
However, the fundamental failure is human rather than technical. It's epitomized in a cheap gag I can never forgive Spielberg, since it appears to ridicule his own filmmaking affinities. Rober Stack, cast as a general determined to keep his head while others are recklessly losing theirs, escapes from the uproar to see Walt Disney's "Dumbo" at the Hollywood State Theater.
Tears are shown welling in the general's eyes as he watches the sequence in which Dumbo's mother comforts her baby from inside her cell. We're cued to snicker at the general for being affected by such stuff, but the joke backfires, as indeed it should.
"Dumbo" is revealed to be a far better movie than "1941." You'd rather share the general's refuge, stay inside and see something good .