Revisited: 1941

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

On Saturday, December 13, 1941 at 7:01 a.m., a woman goes swimming somewhere on the California coast, only to find a Japanese submarine surfacing beneath her. The submarine crew believes they have arrived in Hollywood, and the vessel submerges while the woman swims to safety.

Later that morning, a 10th Armored Division tank crew, consisting of Sergeant Frank Tree, Corporal Chuck Sitarski, and Privates Foley, Reese, and Henshaw, are at a restaurant where dishwasher Wally Stephens works. Wally is planning to enter a dance contest with Betty Douglas, against the wishes of Ward, her father. Sitarski takes an instant dislike to Wally, particularly his civilian attire, and trips him. A fight ensues, leading to Wally losing his job. Wally later takes his friend Dennis shopping for a zoot suit and steals one.

In Death Valley, cigar-chomping, unruly Army Air Corps Captain Wild Bill Kelso lands his Curtiss P-40 fighter near a grocery store and gas station; while refueling, Kelso accidentally blows up the station.

In Los Angeles, Major General Joseph W. Stilwell attempts to keep the public calm. At a press conference at Daugherty Field in Long Beach, Captain Loomis Birkhead is attracted to the General’s secretary, Donna Stratten. He lures her into a bomber to seduce her, aware that Donna is sexually aroused by airplanes. When his attempts at seduction fail, she punches him and accidentally knocks him out; as he falls, he lands on a bomb release control, sending a bomb rolling towards the podium just as the General promises, “There will be no bombs dropped here.” It explodes, though Stilwell escapes.

At the Douglas family home in Santa Monica, Wally is told by Betty and her friend Maxine, both USO hostesses, that he cannot enter the USO dance because he is not a serviceman. Wally is forced to hide when Ward shows up. Sgt. Tree and his tank crew arrive to deliver an anti-aircraft battery; Sitarski is attracted to Betty and about to ask her to the dance when Wally falls on him from a loft. Ward and Sitarski dump him in a garbage truck.

The Japanese sub becomes lost trying to find Los Angeles when the ship’s compass is broken. A landing party looking for “Hollywood” instead captures Hollis “Holly” Wood, who reveals only his name, occupation, and social security number. They see he has a small Cracker Jack compass, but he swallows it. Hollis escapes, hoping to find the authorities.

That night, Stilwell goes to a showing of Dumbo. Birkhead and Donna are at the 501st Bomb Disbursement Unit in Barstow, where Colonel “Mad Man” Maddox shows them the unit’s aircraft. Maddox, convinced the Japanese are sending paratroops into the hills near Pomona, lets Birkhead and Donna borrow a plane, assuming they are going on a reconnaissance flight. Donna, stimulated by the entire experience, eagerly ravishes Birkhead during the flight.

Outside the USO, Sitarski kicks aside Wally and drags Betty into the dance. Maxine tags along. Wally sneaks in by wearing a stolen Shore Patrol uniform, He steals away Betty and they win the dance contest whilst evading Sitarski, who is pursued by Maxine. As the contest ends, Sitarski finally punches Wally, setting off a brawl between soldiers and sailors.

Sgt. Tree arrives with his team, just as L.A. goes to Red Alert with an unknown aircraft in the air. At the Douglas’ home, Ward spots the sub. Birkhead and Donna fly over L.A., causing anti-aircraft batteries to open fire. Kelso shoots down Birkhead’s plane, which lands in the La Brea Tar Pits (the crash only momentarily interrupting his tryst with Donna). Kelso then sees the submarine, only to be shot down by two spotters (who were positioned on the Ferris wheel) who mistake his plane for a Japanese fighter.

Sitarski is about to make off with Betty when she is rescued by Wally, who knocks Sitarski cold. They find Kelso, who informs them about the sub. Wearing an army uniform, Wally commandeers Tree’s tank and heads toward Pacific Ocean Amusement Park. Ward begins firing at the submarine, causing massive damage to his house in the process. The submarine returns fire, hitting the Ferris wheel, which rolls into the ocean. The tank sinks when the pier collapses. Kelso drives a motorbike into the ocean and swims to the submarine, where he is captured by the Japanese; undaunted, he declares, “Take me to Tokyo!”

On Sunday morning, December 14, Stilwell arrives at the remains of the Douglas home, where most of the other protagonists have been drawn. Ward delivers an inspirational speech to those present, vowing that Christmas will not be ruined; to punctuate his point, he nails a wreath to his front door, and the impact destabilizes the unstable house, bringing it crashing down. The General simply mutters as he walks away, “It’s gonna be a ‘long’ war.”


I have been on a serious WWII kick this summer, especially since my trip to WWII museum down in New Orleans where I felt like a kid making his first trip to Toys ‘R’ Us. I think a project is in the works, so there may be more war films on the way, possibly even the elusive Saving Private Ryan, but first we must discuss 1941.

What is this about?

In the days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, panic sets in among California’s citizens, who imagine their shores as the next target. Military and civilian defenders of the West Coast embark on self-appointed missions to protect the nation.

What did I like?

Going back to Cali. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the world wondered what would be the next target. If the events of this film are to be believed, that target was to be Los Angeles. Not exactly a strategic target from a military angle, but imagine if they had taken out many of the great stars, directors, and studios, who were producing propaganda films during this period in time, that were popular at the time by destroying L.A. It actually makes sense, as it would have totally demoralized the country and perhaps the world.

Swing that music. I am a huge fan of jazz, especially the swing subgenre, so you can about imagine that I was in love with the swing dance scene of this film. With exciting dance movies, cooking music, and a bar fight over a girl thrown in there for good measure, this turned out to be a hidden gem of comedy and adrenaline that the audience was craving by this point of the picture. I’ll say it now, anytime you put swing on the soundtrack and/or incorporate it into the film, I’m pretty sure I’ll love it…unless it makes no sense.

Silly. As a comedy, it is expected that there will be some comedic moments. Some of these moments are just plain silly and, in contrast with the more serious tone of other parts of the film, make for some interesting yin and yang. How else do you explain a hardened military general stopping everything to go watch Dumbo? How about a reporter who gets turned on by just talking about planes, let alone going up in one!

What didn’t I like?

Join the cause. From everything I have heard and read about this period in time, guys that didn’t get drafted and/or sign up for the military were looked down upon, almost as if they had done something wrong. There is a scene where one of the soldiers is picking on a young man who isn’t in the military (I don’t recall a reason being given). Problem is, at least to me, it seems as if there should have been more of this going on, or at least more than just the one solider picking on him. The rest really didn’t do anything until Dan Aykroyd’s character told them to knock it off because “…I won’t stand for Americans fighting Americans [sic]”

For real? Robert Stack’s character, General Stilwell, is actually a real person. Yes, in all this madness, there is a connection the real events. From what I’ve seen, Stack was made to look very close to Stilwell, but I question the decision to make the guy a caricature. A part of me wishes that they would have portrayed Stilwell as he was in real life, and let all the silliness around him contrast his serious demeanor. On the other hand, I appreciated the change to his persona.

Bumbling idiots protecting the country. They call this “the greatest generation”. Except for this annoying, ungrateful teens and tweens of today, I don’t think anyone would argue that point. However, if the war was left to these guys, I’m almost 100% we would have lost. If we would have managed to win, it would have been by sheer luck and the destruction would have made it feel like we lost. Take for instance John Belushi’s loose cannon pilot who shoots first, asks questions later. Yes, this was the attitude back then, but you have to know what is a U.S. plane and what isn’t! The troops on the ground aren’t much better. Their commanding officer gets knocked out and they start to take orders from a kid in a stolen uniform, just because “he’s got the stripes”. What if that kid would have been a Nazi in disguise?!?

All in all, 1941 is a fun little war film that is not the serious drama most in this subgenre seem to be. You’ll fin yourself cracking up at the hijinks of these officers, tapping your foot or marching along to the soundtrack, and just overall having a good time. Is this a film without flaws? No, not by a long shot, but I do think it is one that is worth watching despite its shortcomings. Oh, and guys…it starts with a chick skinny dipping! This is a definite recommendation from me, so give it a shot!

3 3/4 out of 5 stars


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