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1941

Year: 1979
Studio: Universal
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Robert Zemeckis/Bob Gale/John Milius
Cast: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Christopher Lee, Robert Stack, Treat Williams, Nancy Allen, John Candy, Tim Matheson, Dick Miller, Mickey Rourke, Warren Oates, Slim Pickens, Wendie Jo Sperber, Toshiro Mifune, Penny Marshall, James Caan

It's hard to believe there was ever a time when Steven Spielberg stood to lose the kudos he'd built up. Sure, he had two of the biggest movies of all time under his belt (Jaws, Close Encounters) and had quickly established himself as a major creative presence, but 1941 was to be his Heaven's Gate, a project by a director nobody would think of questioning, all the while spiraling out of control both creatively and financially.

It was actually the reason he tried doubly hard to bring his next effort (Raiders of the Lost Ark) in before schedule and under budget to reaffirm his standing with the studio heads and moneymen, and the results speak for themselves.

From an ambitious script by Back to the Future writing/directing/producing duo of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, Spielberg let his imagination run away with him. He was given a huge palette by Universal (a $35m budget, a who's who of late 70s comedy talent, the run of the LA downtown area) and he filled every inch of it with larger than life scenes, visuals, characters and action.

But somewhere along the way he lost his grip on it, and perhaps not even Spielberg himself realised what a mess it was turning into. If it isn't the telegraphed laughs that'll have you wincing, it's the indistinct abstracts that will have you shaking your head in confusion or the characters who looked funny on paper but just turned out stupid that will make you roll your eyes.

It's a love letter to Los Angeles and has plenty of in jokes, like the strafing of the famous Hollywood sign that destroys the letters spelling 'land' from the 1920s housing development advertising.

On a greater scale it's a comment about social and political hysteria, and if anything it should have a lot of relevance in the 21st century era of jittery geopolitics, but the film even manages to squander the timeless central idea.

It's the day after the Pearl Harbour attacks and zoot-suited youths brawl with gung ho servicemen at soda fountains and dance halls while the state of California descends into panic in fear of an imminent attack by the Japanese.

A large part of the problem with the film is that there's no clear protagonist, nobody whose story's really being told to engage us. We follow an Italian kid who just wants to take his girl to the dance and save her from the smarmy soldier putting the moves on her, a Santa Monica family who's house is selected as the site of a gun battery, a lothario officer (Matheson) who'll do anything to get in the pants of a warplane-fetishist reporter (Allen), a squad of misfit soldiers trying to keep the peace led by their ditzy captain (Aykroyd), a crazy pilot convinced he's seen the coming attack (Belushi) and a Major General (Stack) who just wants to ignore the whole melee and finish watching Dumbo at the movies.

The whole melting pot is a mess, the script lurching from one scene to another without anything really standing out other than the wide scope Spielberg wrangles and the amount of money he has to throw around.

Some of the shots of Belushi engaged in a dogfight with Matheson and Allen up and down the streets of Hollywood look good and display Spielberg's technical mastery, but the film's for completists only.

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