You can sometimes find out more about a person’s failures as you can from their successes. Wunderkind director Steven Spielberg has had far more hits than misses, but the few occasions where he has missed the mark are very interesting.
His first failure came with 1941, his attempt at screwball comedy and a universally agreed thirty-five million dollar waste of time and effort. It’s difficult to put a finger on why it’s such a bad film – because there’s nothing redeemable about it. A weak link might be easy to spot, but when everything is egregiously bad, from the script to the performances to the music, it makes for a drastically awful film. Of course, all of this is amplified because it follows Spielberg’s huge mainstream successes, first with Jaws in 1975, and followed with Close Encounters Of The Third Kind in 1977. If it hadn’t been bundled with such anticipation, and if they hadn’t spent the GDP of a small South American country on it, it might have stood a chance.
Looking back, it seems that Spielberg might be as ashamed of his portrayal of the Japanese in this film, as he is of the film’s critical and commercial failure. It’s widely been surmised that one of Spielberg’s motives for making Schindler’s List (1993) was in reparation for the way in which he had portrayed the Nazis as comedic fodder in Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1989). In 1941, we see the start of that light-hearted characterisation, with the invading Japanese armed forces played for laughs opposite Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi.
The musical score for 1941, composed by Spielberg alumni John Williams, is just as forgettable as the rest of the film, which is strange considering how the pairing usually produces gold. Spielberg, ever the amiable collaborator, has repeatedly stated in interviews that The March From 1941 is his favourite of Williams’ marches. This is extremely strange when you realise that the main title themes of Williams’ Superman: The Movie and Indiana Jones scores are both marches, and really there’s nothing better in all of cinema.
I recently saw the excellent HBO documentary Spielberg (2017) – a two and a half hour journey through the life and career of the director. Unsurprisingly, the film focuses on his successes and merely brushes over his failures. Of the latter, 1941 gets the most airtime for being his first disappointment, but later failures are mainly ignored.
His first failure to me, long before I racked up the courage to watch 1941, was Always, an overly-sentimental (even for Spielberg’s standards) romantic drama from 1989 starring Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter and John Goodman. I saw this film at the cinema with my parents, at the Odeon West End in Leicester Square during our annual family trip to London. Coming straight after Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and Empire Of The Sun – both of which I’d also seen at the cinema (I didn’t get to see The Color Purple until much later due to its adult nature), it really came as a shock. Everything I had seen by Spielberg up to that point had been a classic. What the hell was this schlocky mess?
Unsurprisingly, Susan Lacy’s Spielberg documentary doesn’t even mention Always. It also quickly skips over Hook – a later disappointment from 1991, which Spielberg has all but since disowned – and completely ignores The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), the sequel he said he would never make, and 2004’s The Terminal. In fact, The Terminal is such a bad film, that it’s a wonder he didn’t try to take his name off it.
The one interesting exclusion from the documentary is 2011’s The Adventures Of Tintin. While this may not have been the runaway commercial success it should have been, it’s still a great family film and a much stronger piece of work than 2016’s The BFG, itself a box-office disappointment yet referenced many times in Lacy’s film.
Hit: The March From 1941
Hidden Gem: The Invasion