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The Night the Japs Attacked

January 28th, 2009 · 2 Comments

1941 (1979)
Screenplay by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale, story by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale & John Milius
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Produced by A-Team Productions/ Columbia Pictures/ Universal Pictures
Running time: 118 minutes (theatrical version)/ 146 minutes (extended version)

1941 1979 poster 1941 DVD cover

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the citizens of Southern California brace for an invasion. In a spoof of Jaws (with the same stuntwoman, Susan Backlinie), a nude swimmer goes for a dip in the ocean, but instead of a shark, a Japanese submarine surfaces, dangling her on the periscope. The captain (Toshiro Mifune) is in search of something honorable to attack in California and settles on Hollywood, despite the objections of a German officer (Christopher Lee) that his crew will never find it. We’re next introduced to a busboy (Bobby Di Cicco) who dreams of winning a Jitterbug contest with his sweetheart (Dianne Kay). Serving coffee to a U.S. Army tank crew – which includes Dan Aykroyd and John Candy – the busboy’s dance moves upset one of the tank crewmen (Treat Williams) and a food fight ensues.

Army Air Corps pilot Wild Bill Kelso (John Belushi) lands his P-40 at a gas station in Death Valley. In search of a squadron of Zeros he believes he lost over Fresno, Kelso succeeds only in blowing up the gas station. We then meet the stoic General Stilwell (Robert Stack), who’s been assigned to protect California from attack. Stilwell’s aide (Tim Matheson) recalls that the general’s smoldering secretary (Nancy Allen) is aroused by planes and schemes to get her airborne in one. Meanwhile, the Japanese sub crew wanders ashore, where they abduct Christmas tree farmer Hollis Wood (Slim Pickens) to help them locate Hollywood. Also part of the insanity is a homeowner (Ned Beatty) whose lawn turns into an artillery range, two civilians (Murray Hamilton and Eddie Deezen) stuck on a ferris wheel, and Colonel Mad Man Maddox (Warren Oates) who’s convinced the Japs have an airfield in the alfalfa fields of Pomona.

1941 1979 John Belushi

Production history
Graduating from USC Film School, Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale interned at Universal Studios. They wrote an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker that made it on the air (in January 1975) but what they really wanted was to write and direct their own movies. One of their scripts was about a radical group that steals a Sherman tank and threatens to blow up the corporate headquarters of an oil company. “The Bobs” got their spec – Tank – to John Milius, a USC alum who’d been awarded a four-picture deal at MGM following the success of The Wind and the Lion. Zemeckis recalls, “He wasn’t crazy about the story, but he liked the way we wrote and he said, ‘Have you guys got any other ideas for any other movies?’ And we immediately came up with this outrageous concept of hysteria on the home front during World War II. I have to credit John; it was my recollection that John thought of the title, and he said, ‘Hey that’s a great idea and we’ll call it The Night the Japs Attacked.'”

Gale recalled their meeting with Milius by stating, “And we told him we had come across in the research for Tank, we’d come across this very fascinating historical event where the city of Los Angeles – it was actually February 1942 – thought that there was an air raid, that Japanese were bombing L.A. They blacked out the city for six hours and thousands of rounds of ammunition were shot up at the sky at nothing. And we thought it was just a wonderfully absurd historical event, could make a great movie.” Milius – whose deal at MGM stipulated two pictures he’d write and direct, and two pictures he’d produce – had researched General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell for a script. “And it was Milius who said, ‘Yeah! We can put General Stillwell in this movie! He could be running around, being the voice of sanity in all this insane stuff.’ … So he hired Bob and me to write one of the pictures that he was going to produce and he said: ‘The title of it should be The Night the Japs Attacked.’ And for the first year and a half of it or so, that was what the title was.”

1941 1979 Tim Matheson Nancy Allen

Zemeckis & Gale wrote two drafts of The Night the Japs Attacked for MGM, but production chief Dan Melnick was not amused, particularly by the word “Japs” in the title. Undeterred, Milius raved about the project to a buddy of his named Steven Spielberg, who recalled, “The first time I heard about 1941 it was called The Night the Japs Attacked. And I heard it during an afternoon when I was skeet shooting with my friend John Milius and our then two protégés Bob Zemeckis & Bob Gale. And the two Bobs had come up with this crazy screenplay they had written and they told me about it. And I think what got me to want to read the script was they described at one point the scene where the Japanese they think they’re attacking an important strategic target but in fact have targeted Pacific Ocean Amusement Park and blow the ferris wheel, which rolls down the pier and into the water … And I must say there’s a part of me in my nice conservative life that is probably as crazy and insane as Milius and the two guys who wrote that script that really got me attracted to the project.”

Immersed in pre-production on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg committed to direct what he was calling The Rising Sun next, inviting Zemeckis & Gale to the soundstage in Alabama where he was shooting his UFO epic to work on the script. Zemeckis recalls, “It was the opposite of a disciplined type of collaboration. It was an outrageous collaboration and we were just sort of topping each other with how we could just put more outrageous spin on every incident that we wrote. And of course Bob and my mission was every time Steven would get an idea, no matter how outrageous it was, we worked very diligently and spent hours and days to try and figure out a way to actually fit it into the structure of the story. So it basically just kept accumulating. That’s why I call it the kitchen sink. We just kept throwing everything into the screenplay, including the kitchen sink until it just became this mountain of gags.”

1941 1979 Toshiro Mifune Slim Pickens Christopher Lee

Spielberg vowed “I will not make this movie if it costs a penny over $12 million” so many times that it ended up (as a joke by Zemeckis & Gale) on the title page of the script. But as the gags piled up, so did the budget. Columbia Pictures – now run by Dan Melnick – partnered with Universal Pictures to finance what would be Spielberg’s fourth feature film at a production cost of $26 million. Columbia attained international rights, while Universal was set to distribute the picture in the United States. Meanwhile, the script continued to undergo changes. Zemeckis recalls, “Mine and Bob’s, our first intention when we wrote the early drafts of the screenplay was that it was supposed to be a very black, black comedy and it was very dark and very cynical. And a lot of that was tempered by Steven and a lot of the cast that came in, so the film shifted from this very dark satire to more of a screwball comedy.”

Wild Bill Kelso was a minor character who flew in at the very end of the script, but was inserted into much more of the action once John Belushi took the role. The character of a farmer – who bumbled onto the Japanese after they wandered ashore – didn’t even have dialogue, but once Spielberg cast Slim Pickens in the part, Zemeckis & Gale were tasked with beefing up his role as well. Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Tim Matheson, Nancy Allen, Bobby Di Cicco, Toshiro Mifune, Christopher Lee, Ned Beatty, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Eddie Deezen, Warren Oates and Robert Stack (taking a role John Wayne and Charlton Heston both turned down) also joined the cast. Once the film’s immense miniature and physical effects work was factored into the schedule, 1941 took 247 days to shoot, wrapping in May 1979. The final budget would rest at $31.5 million.

1941 1979 Dan Aykroyd Ned Beatty

When 1941 was ready to go before an audience in October 1979, Spielberg chose the Medallion Theater in Dallas, the scene of wildly successful test screenings for all three of his feature films. But as his latest entertainment began to unreel, audience satisfaction evaporated. Spielberg recalls, “That was a preview where, you know, people laughed and tittered at the beginning of the film, then as the film got noisier and more confusing and more riotous, the laughter became just kind of wonderment and wonderment became kind of amazement and I even saw people holding their ears. I actually looked over the whole preview audience and midway through the film – I had never seen this before at a preview – audiences, at least twenty percent of the audience, had their hands over their ears. I’ve seen audiences covering their eyes during Jaws, but never over their ears. That’s a whole new experience for me. And I knew we were in trouble at that point.”

1941 garnered varying degrees of praise from critics like David Denby in the New Yorker, but the bad news was plentiful. Vincent Canby, the New York Times: “It may possibly be that Mr. Spielberg has chosen gigantic size and unlimited quantity as his comedy method in the awareness that he has no gift whatsoever for small-scale comic conceits. The slapstick gags, obviously choreographed with extreme care, do not build to boffs; they simply go on too long. I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the director or of the editor, but I’ve seldom seen a comedy more ineptly timed.” Frank Rich, Time Magazine: “While it was generous of Spielberg to employ so large a percentage of the Screen Actors Guild, the huge cast almost immobilizes the movie. It takes too long to establish who everyone is and to knit all the plot strands together. Even though the film is relentlessly busy – there seems to be a physical gag in every shot – it has little of the director’s usual narrative drive. The movie’s story does not so much move forward as gradually selfdestruct.”

1941 1979 Robert Stack

John Milius recalls, “We all knew that it wouldn’t get good reviews. We knew when we made the movie that it was politically incorrect and we loved it for that. As matter of fact the term that we used at that time was ‘social irresponsibility’ … We even had a Latin motto: ‘Civitas Sine Providentia,’ which means ‘a citizenry without prudence.’ And that was the idea, that this movie was truly socially irresponsible and that’s what we really loved about it. So we knew that critics would hate it because they were all gunning for Steven anyway.” 1941 grossed $31.7 million in the U.S. and $60 million overseas, but the revenues paled in comparison to Jaws or Close Encounters of the Third Kind and stigmatized the film as one of the biggest box office letdowns in memory. The film industry did bestow three Academy Award nominations on 1941: Best Cinematography (William Fraker), Best Sound and Best Visual Effects.

In the intervening years, an appreciative cult following has sprung up around 1941, which was released on laserdisc in 1996 and DVD in 1999 with a behind-the-scenes documentary by Laurent Bouzereau and 28 minutes of additional footage restored to the running time. Around the same time, Spielberg – who remains refreshingly candid about the failings of 1941 – offered his post-mortem: “Power can go right to the head. I felt immortal after a critical hit and two box office hits, one being the biggest film in history up to that moment. But 1941 was not a screw-you film, I can do anything I want, watch me fail upward. I was very indulgent on 1941, simply because I was insecure with the material. It wasn’t making me laugh, or any of us laugh, either in the dailies or on the set. So I shot that movie every way I knew how, to try to save it from being what I thought it actually became, which is a demolition derby.”

1941 1979 Dianne Kay Bobby DiCicco

If a movie is supposed to be a better union formed between material and a director, then 1941 is one of the all-time Hollywood marriages from hell. Below the pandemonium of glass breaking, houses crumbling, buildings exploding and bodies flying, there is evidence that Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale set out to write a comedy that simply mocked truth, justice and the American way in an acidic, outrageous and frequently juvenile manner (for further evidence, see Used Cars). There’s a sly, “everything is not all right” sensibility buried in 1941 that may be responsible for winning it admirers, particularly in Europe or among people who’d read the Huffington Post. But Zemeckis didn’t direct this movie; Steven Spielberg did and in hindsight, this arrangement works out about as well as a geek taking a cheerleader to the prom. Actually, the results are more like the twister from The Wizard of Oz hitting the prom.

The scenes in 1941 dealing with children or vintage aircraft seem to elicit a sparkle in the eye of Spielberg, the greatest director of boys’ adventure movies of all time. But most anything involving his principal cast – particularly humor – flies around the room like a balloon with the air farting out of it. An end credits curtain call featuring most of the actors screaming sums up the approach here; nobody is given a character to play or the encouragement to deliver anything in an unhurried, unforced manner. Dan Aykroyd, Murray Hamilton, Slim Pickens and Wendie Jo Sperber (as a Jitterbug contestant with the hots for servicemen) are a lot of fun to watch, but they aren’t at any time permitted to be funny. John Williams – who Spielberg credits with writing a march for Belushi rivaling the one from Raiders of the Lost Ark – turned in a fantastic musical score for what amounts to a giant model train wreck.

© Joe Valdez

1941 1979 John Belushi

The Making of 1941. Directed by Laurent Bouzereau. 1941 (Collector’s Edition). MCA/Universal Home Video (1996)

Steven Spielberg: A Biography. Joseph McBride (1999)

Easy Riders and Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Peter Biskind (1998)

Tags: 24 hour time frame · Alternate universe · Black comedy · Cult favorite · End of the world · Military · No opening credits · Paranoia

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Moviezzz // Jan 29, 2009 at 9:50 am

    I saw this many times on cable over the years, and always enjoyed it.

    Yet, despite owning both the laserdisc and now the DVD, I have yet to watch it since knowing what a failure it was. (Although if the budget was 26 million and it earned 31, in the US alone, it wasn’t THAT much of a failure).

    John Williams score is one of my favorites. And the laserdisc and DVD have one of the great deleted scenes (Belushi and Aykroyd looking at each other and giving a “Don’t I know you from somewhere” look).

    Great story.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Jan 29, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    Jim: Thanks for adding your insights to Viva Desastre this month.

    I can’t say 1941 worked its way into my childhood cable TV rotation the way James Bond movies did, but several of my family members loved this flick growing up. I think that if you simply have the freedom to get up and walk away from it, this movie plays better on the small screen.

    And I agree with you that 1941 was more profitable than a lot of movies. Due to its high costs and expectations, was considered a bomb anyway. In spite of what studios want their profit participants or the general public to believe, very, very few movies fail to turn some profit. Once you figure in the overseas grosses, DVD, soundtrack, etc., they all make money, just not as much as was hoped for.

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