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1941 is a period comedy film directed by Steven Spielberg and written by friends Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. It starred John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd and premiered in December 1979. The film is a comedy about a panic in the Los Angelesmarker area that occurs after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbormarker.

Although it was not as financially or critically successful as Spielberg's previous (and later) films, it received belated recognition after being aired on ABC in an expanded version, and its subsequent successful home video reissues, raising the film to a cult status.

Co-writer Bob Gale stated the plot is loosely based on an incident that has come to be known as the West Coast air raid or Great Los Angeles Air Raid of 1942 as well as the shelling of the Ellwood oil refinery, near Santa Barbaramarker by a Japanese submarine. Many of the other events in the film were based on real incidents, including the Zoot Suit Riots and an incident where the army really did put an anti-aircraft gun in the yard of a homeowner on the coast (in Maine).


Late 1941, a young woman goes for a midnight swim, alone and naked (in a nod to the opening of the film Jaws) to find a Japanese submarine surfacing under her. She holds on to the periscope as it rises. The submarine crew realizes they have arrived where they intended to be, Hollywood, and the vessel submerges once again while the girl swims to safety. The Japanese submarine crew, led by Commander Mitamuru are joined by a hard-line German naval captain, and have crossed the Pacific Ocean to destroy something "honorable."

Back on land, dishwasher Wally Stephens makes plans to enter a dance contest with Betty Douglas, against her father's wishes. Tank crew Sgt. Frank Tree, Private Foley, and Corporal Sitarski are also at Wally's restaurant. Meanwhile, Captain Wild Bill Kelso lands his Curtiss P-40 fighter to refuel but accidentally blows up the gasoline station.

Just days after the attack on Pearl Harbormarker, in Los Angelesmarker, Major General Joseph Stilwell attempts to bring order, but Colonel Mad Man Maddox, the General's new secretary Donna Stratten and the General's assistant Captain Loomis Birkhead all have other ideas.

At the Douglas family home on the coast, Wally is confronted by Mr. Douglas and his wife Joan, still angry that he previously destroyed their car. Soon after, the tank crew arrive to deliver a large gun; Corporal Sitarski spots Betty.

The Japanese submarine becomes lost trying to find Los Angeles when the ship's compass is broken. A landing party captures a local timber merchant, Hollis Wood; on board the sub, they see he has a small Cracker Jack compass that he swallows. Wood escapes, while in Los Angeles, Major General Stilwell goes to see the feature film Dumbo. Captain Birkhead and Donna Stratten decide to go the local airfield where Colonel Madman Maddox has both aircraft and a belief the Japanese are about to attack.

At the USO dance, Sitarski and Betty are inside as Wally sneaks in with a stolen Shore Patrol's uniform, steals Betty away but ignites a massive brawl involving all the servicemen. Sgt Tree arrives in his tank just as Los Angeles goes to Red Alert with an unknown aircraft in the air. Ward Douglas spots the Japanese submarine lurking near his home. As Birkhead and Stratten fly over Los Angeles in the back of a purloined aircraft, civil defense batteries blast away. Chaos continues as Wild Bill joins the fight and crashes.

Wally commanders Sgt Tree's tank, Wild Bill follows on motorbike, crashing through a paint factory and then a turpentine factory. Meanwhile Ward Douglas begins firing at the Japanese submarine, destroying his house in the process. The submarine returns fire (Mitamuru: "Fire at that industrial structure!"), hitting an amusement park Ferris wheel which careens into the ocean. The tank sinks when the pier collapses as Wild Bill drives his motorbike into the ocean and swims to the submarine, where he is captured by the Japanese, who, believing their honorable mission accomplished, now return home. The German captain is thrown overboard by the Japanese and is later captured – becoming the only U.S. "victory".

The following morning, General Stilwell arrives at the Douglas home where Ward Douglas goes to hang a Christmas wreath, only to accidentally push his damaged home into the Pacific Ocean. The movie ends with all the characters in front of the foundations of the destroyed home.


The film featured the acting debut of Mickey Rourke as Private Reese. It is notable as one of the few American films featuring Toshiro Mifune, a popular Japanese actor. It is also the only American film which used his own voice speaking English. Usually, his lines were dubbed by Paul Frees. Susan Backlinie reprised her role as the first victim in Spielberg's Jaws by playing the young woman seen at the beginning of the film.

Both John Wayne and Charlton Heston were offered the role of Major General Stilwell. Wayne phoned director Steven Spielberg, who had given him the script, and not only turned it down due to ill health but tried to get Spielberg to drop the project as he felt it unpatriotic.


According to Steven Spielberg's appearance in the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, Kubrick suggested that 1941 should have been marketed as a drama rather than a comedy. The chaos of the events following Pearl Harbor attack in 1941marker is summarized by Dan Aykroyd's character, Sgt. Tree, who states "he cannot stand Americans fighting Americans."

Some of the scenes made so much noise during filming that the crew could not hear director Steven Spielberg yell "cut". For those scenes he had to fire a prop machine gun in the air to get the action to stop. It took so long to set up the final sequence of shots in which the house falls into the sea that cast and crew members started a betting pool on the day and time the shot would begin filming. Dan Aykroyd won the bet.

Inadvertent comedic effects ensued when John Belushi in character as Captain Wild Bill Kelso slipped off the wing of his aircraft after being lifted by two soldiers. It was a real accident and was left in the movie as it fitted his eccentric character. During the USO riot scene, when the naked MP is tossed into the window of the restaurant from the fire truck, John Belushi plays the patron eating spaghetti. He is in makeup to look like Marlon Brando in The Godfather, which he famously parodied on the sketch comedy TV series Saturday Night Live. Belushi told Spielberg he wanted to appear in another part of the movie and the idea struck Spielberg as very humorous. At the beginning of the USO riot scene, one of the "extras" dressed as sailors, is actor James Caan.

Special effects

The Oscar-winning team of L. B. Abbott and A.D. Flowers were in charge of the special effects on 1941 Careful consideration for production values was indicated in "...there are no tell-tale lines around any element of the composite photography. This is blue-screen work at its best." 1941 is widely recognized for its Academy Award-nominated special-effects laden progressive action and camera sequences. In order to achieve authenticity a mix of authentic period vehicles and equipment including Dan Aykroyd's M3 Lee medium tank and John Belushi's Curtiss P-40 fighter were utilized alongside scale models.

Deleted scenes

A deleted scene had Slim Pickens' character threatened with what looks like a torture device but turns out to be a coat hanger. Steven Spielberg hated losing the joke and swore he would try to put it in every one of his future movies until it stayed there. It happened in his very next film, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Another deleted scene showed John Belushi's Wild Bill crossing paths with Aykroyd's Frank Tree as Bill heads for the Japanese sub just as Tree emerges from the water submerged tank. The two look at each other as if they recognize one another, a reference to their friendship and partnership from Saturday Night Live. It was the only scene where they interacted.

There was a scene shot for the end of the film, in which Slim Pickens's Hollis Wood character caught Christopher Lee's Nazi officer. A still from this scene appeared in the September 1990 issue of Starlog magazine. Lee said: At the end of 1941, I'm the first Nazi captured in the US by Slim Pickens.

Continuity errors

In the opening scenes, in which a Japanese submarine surfaces off the coast of California, Haystack Rockmarker can clearly be seen. Haystack Rock is a prominent landmark off the Oregonmarker coast.

Musical score

The musical score for 1941 was composed and conducted by John Williams. The titular march is used throughout the film and is perhaps the most memorable piece written for it. (Spielberg has said it is his favorite Williams march.) The score also includes a mixture of '40s popular music such as the Jitterbug. The following tracks were released on LP and CD:

  1. The March From 1941
  2. The Invasion
  3. The Sentries
  4. Riot At The U.S.O.
  5. To Hollywood And Glory
  6. Swing, Swing, Swing
  7. The Battle Of Hollywood
  8. The Ferris Wheel Sequence
  9. Finale of 1941

The LaserDisc and DVD versions of the film have isolated music channels with additional cues not heard on the soundtrack album.

Alternate versions

The film was previewed at approximately two and a half hours, but Columbia Pictures and Universal Studios, who both had a major financial investment in the film, felt the film was too long to be a blockbuster. The initial theatrical release was edited down to just under two hours, against Spielberg's wishes. After the success of his 1980 "Special Edition" of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg was given permission to create his own "extended cut" of 1941 to represent his original director's cut. This was done for network television (it was only shown on ABC one time, but it was seen years later on The Disney Channel). A similar extended version (with additional footage and a few subtle changes) was released on LaserDisc, VHS, and later on DVD.


The film, mainly a production of Columbia Pictures (with some help from Universal Studios), was a box office success, but not the blockbuster film the producers were hoping for. Because the film failed to match the box office numbers of Spielberg's previous films, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1941 was considered a flop by comparison in regards to Spielberg's previous record on Jaws.

It did not help that some mainstream publications pre-labeled it as "Spielberg's Christmas Turkey". The film was slammed for being excessive and ham-handed. 1941, along with Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, Martin Scorsese's New York, New York, William Friedkin's Sorcerer, Robert Altman's Popeye, and Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, became major examples of excessive directorial control over a film and marked the beginning of the end of the New Hollywood era which closed with the historic failure of Heaven's Gate. While Apocalypse Now achieved critical acclaim and reasonable box office success, the other films are regarded as each of the respective director's failures.

Spielberg humorously joked at one point that he considered converting 1941 into a musical halfway into production and mused that "in retrospect, that might have helped."

However, writer Bob Gale defended it in a DVD documentary about the film:
It is down in the history books as a big flop, but it wasn't a flop. The movie didn't make the kind of money that Steven's other movies, Steven's most successful movies have made, obviously. But the movie was by no means a flop. And both Universal and Columbia have come out of it just fine.


The film received three nominations in the 1980 Academy Awards, but did not win any awards.


Popular culture

The Star Trek: The Next Generation starship USS Bozeman takes its hull number of NCC-1941 from the film, as modelmaker Greg Jein worked on both productions.


  1. "What is Cult Film?", Beijing ICP, January 13, 2006. Retrieved: April 10, 2009.
  2. The Making of 1941, Universal home video DVD
  3. Culhane, 1981, pp. 127.
  4. Culhane 1981, pp. 126–129.
  5. Dolan 1985, pp. 98–99. Quote: "The special effects are beautifully done."
  6. Universal Studios now owns the worldwide rights to the film, with the exception of television distribution, which is handled by Sony Pictures Television.
  7. Awards listing at the Internet Movie Database
  8. Animaniacs: May 1996. "Animaniacs." Retrieved: February 10, 2007.

  • Bonham, Joseph and Joe Kay, eds.Bombs Awaayyy!!! The Official 1941 Magazine. New York: Starlog Press, 1979.
  • Bonham, Joseph and Joe Kay, eds. 1941: The Poster Book. New York: Starlog Press, 1979.
  • Clarke, James. Steven Spielberg. London: Pocket Essentials, 2004. ISBN 1-90404-829-3.
  • Culhane, John. Special Effects in the Movies: How They Do it. New York: Ballantine Books, 1981. ISBN 0-345-28606-5.
  • Crawley, Tony. The Steven Spielberg Story. New York: William Morrow, 1983. ISBN 0-68802-510-2.
  • Dolan, Edward F. Jr. Hollywood Goes to War. London: Bison Books, 1985. ISBN 0-86124-229-7.
  • Erickson, Glenn and Mary Ellen Trainor. The Making of 1941. New York: Ballantine Books, 1980. ISBN 0-345-28924-2.
  • Freer, Ian. The Complete Spielberg. New York: Virgin Books, 2001. ISBN 0-75350-556-8.
  • 1941, the making of (DVD Commentary). 1999.
  • Sinyard, Neil. The Films of Steven Spielberg. London: Bison Books, 1986. ISBN 0-86124-352-8.
  • "Steven Spielberg: The Collectors Edition". Empire Magazine, 2004.

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