The Chronological Spielberg: 1941 (1979)

Is it possible to have too much talent involved in a film? If there was ever an argument for that theory presented in theaters, I think it might be 1941. This flick was directed by Steven Spielberg directly after Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale who would write a little film called Back to the Future six years after this was released. It stars an A-list crop of comedic and dramatic actors from Slim Pickens and John Belushi to Christopher Lee and Toshiro Mifune. Even with all that going for it, 1941 is simply not a good movie. I wish I could explain simply why that is, but the closest thing I can come up with is that the script is too unfocused, the film is too long and maybe Spielberg was trying to fit his square peg into a more John Landis-shaped hole.

I didn’t know all of the above when I went into this film, so I was definitely surprised by the huge amount of silly, slapsticky humor that kicks this film off, including a nude woman swimming in the ocean to the Jaws theme music who happens to be swimming under a Japanese sub. The idea here is that it’s right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and everyone’s freaked out. The film takes place in California where they’re specifically freaked out about another attack like the one in Hawaii. This acts as the backdrop for a huge number of gags, storylines and sources of conflict.

The problem is that I don’t care. When the film’s supposed hero is presented as a goober bus boy who just wants to dance with a girl in a contest and then we’re shown a military group that’s made up of mostly boring or jerky people. Worse yet? That group is made up of Dan Aykroyd, John Candy and Treat Williams and they’re somewhat wasted.

Or are they? Honestly, it was hard for me to focus on this movie because its subject matter was treated in such a goofy manner that I just didn’t care. Apparently a huge anti-sub gun really was placed in a person’s yard in real life, but the way its handled in this movie with its cartoony nature, it’s just another piece of an overly complex movie.

The funny thing is that I think someone like Landis could have done a lot better with this film. Maybe Spielberg didn’t know who or what to cut. Maybe Landis would have utilized his talent a little better (from what I remember, Candy does little to nothing but mug in the movie). I definitely think he would have kept the film significantly shorter. Many people believe comedy should be kept around the 90 minute mark, especially zany ones because its easier for an audience to suspend their disbelief over a shorter period of time. I tend to agree with that and if this film had been less cartoony and had more of an actual emotional center, as well as had been roughly 60-90 minutes shorter, it could have been a much better film.

Trade Post: Jack Kirby’s The Losers

Written and drawn by Jack Kirby
Collects Our Fighting Forces #151-162
I admit it, up until the last few years, I’ve been a bad comic book fan. Sure I bought comics and trades which helped the industry, but I rarely went back and read older comics or learned much about the history of the medium I love. I’ve been slowly rectifying that by reading as many Jack Kirby comics as I can get my hands on and buying issues of TwoMorrows mags like Comic Book Artist and Write Now which get into the nitty gritty of creating comics in the modern, silver and golden ages. In the past year or two I’ve read the four Fourth World volumes, OMAC, the first few Avengers issues, part of a book called The Complete Jack Kirby June-August 1947 and now The Losers. Damn, I love this guy. Sometimes his dialogue isn’t so great and when he was really busy in the Marvel days I feel like his backgrounds suffered, but there’s an amazing kind of energy that he packs into the panels that just blows me away.

This collection of Our Fighting Forces comics starts with an introduction by Neil Gaiman (whose Sandman I’m also reading now interestingly enough). It’s a fun and short intro that makes Gaiman incredibly relate-able because he’s basically geeking out about Kirby. I will say that reading the intro ahead of time might have painted how I read the comics themselves. If you want to go in with a completely clear point of view, I’d recommend just skipping it and jumping right into the book.

What I like most about these issues is that it shows Kirby’s incredible skill at drawing dynamic action, but unlike anything else of his I’ve read, these are real people set in the real world with real weapons and vehicles (99% of the time at least). Even when drawing something as simple as a gun, it’s got that Kirby-ness to it that makes it instantly recognizable. All but two issues are self-contained stories starring the four Losers–Storm, Cloud, Sarge and Gunner–getting teamed-up with another person or group of people during World War II. I’m not a huge fan of WWII fiction, but these stories really sucked me in. Another great part is that you don’t need to know anything about these characters or this book to enjoy this collection. All you need to know is that, during The Great War, we fought the Nazis.

My favorite story is called “Devastator Vs. Big Max” from Our Fighting Forces #153.  Consider this SPOILER territory. The idea is that the Nazis have this gigantic canon they call Big Max that can blast towns and convoys from miles away. The Allies don’t have anything to counteract this bad boy, but they’ve got a plan: Devastator. A sci-fi loving soldier tells the Army about his plan for a futuristic tank type vehicle called Devastator that the Losers tell him is real. In reality, it’s a sham set up to scare the Nazis into revealing the location of Big Max so the fliers can blow that shit up. In the end the sci-fi lover is completely disappointed, which is kind of poetic. Most of the stories end like that with no victory ever being 100% for the Losers or their compatriots.

Another fun bit about this book is the back up features Kirby did where he’d draw weapons, vehicles and uniforms of soldiers from various eras. You can tell he really studied these things, possibly while he served during WWII himself between 1943 and 1945, or at some other time between the end of the war and these comics being published in 1974 and 1975. As a quick note it absolutely blows me away that WWII comics were still so freaking popular 20 years after the war actually ended. That’s wild.

Of all the Kirby books I’ve read, I’d say this is the one I can 100% recommend to anyone. I like OMAC a lot, but it’s not a complete story and the Fourth World comics were hard to get through at times dialogue-wise. Plus, like with OMAC, they also kind of peter out at the end. And, from what I’ve seen of his Marvel stuff–I haven’t been able to get my hands on his FF stuff for the record–he got better when we worked at DC. The Losers is an incredibly easy comic to hand to just about anyone. War buff, parent, grandparent, history fan, anyone really. Next up, I want to finish the volume of The Complete Jack Kirby I’ve got and then onto The Demon, plus some more Avengers issues as I slog through them.