Reviews

1941: Special Edition

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The one where Steven Spielberg slipped on a banana skin…

The obvious question: does 1941 really deserve a Special Edition?

Disregard the fact that the extras (including an exhaustive Making Of that rivals the film for formless indulgence) have been culled from the decade-old R1 release, and the answer’s an unequivocal yes.

This, after all, is the dud we’re still in denial about, the elephant politely ignored so we can laud Spielberg’s otherwise perfect run from Jaws to E.T. But like it or not, 1941 just might be his most influential film.

Flashback to Hollywood in the late ’70s. With two of the decade’s highest grossers to his name, Spielberg can do anything. He latches onto The Night The Japs Attacked, an epic farce – penned by protégés Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale, developed further by John Milius – about US panic in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

What attracts Spielberg? The opportunity “to break a lot of furniture and see a lot of glass shattering”. The project ballooned as the four men egged each other on with increasingly impractical and outrageous ideas. One wisely abandoned punchline flash-forwarded to the bombing of Hiroshima, but much tastelessness remains. The bloat capsizes ambitions of a WW2 M*A*S*H, with the Altmanesque ensemble falling prey to sub-Animal House slapstick.

Trouble is, Spielberg’s the wrong guy for broad comedy. Many laughs are forced and – for such a technical virtuoso – clumsily telegraphed. The opening gag, a shot-for-shot reprise of Jaws’ skinny-dipping horror, practically admits defeat before the film has started. So it’s a car crash, but the sheer scale of the thing leaves room to rubberneck.

Scarcely a scene goes by without a fight or an explosion and the camerawork and effects are logistical marvels. The fluid editing keeps the film’s sprawling cast (from John Belushi to Toshiro Mifune!) in place, even if it is obvious that the plates are spinning only to be smashed later on. And Spielberg conjures a magic moment with a frenetic dance-turned-riot that could be his most underrated set-piece.

The result rivals New York, New York and One From The Heart for unbridled, undisciplined bravura. back. Spielberg, though, refused to give up: what else is Raiders Of The Lost Ark but the perfection of what he started here? With it, something shifted, the sly student of suspense transforming into the ringmaster of spectacle. Where Spielberg went, Hollywood followed… Often badly.

High-minded critics complain about Jaws’ supposedly detrimental effect on movies, but surely 1941’s pyrotechnic fury is the more invidious legacy. Let’s put it this way: can it really be a coincidence that Michael Bay directed the prequel?

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