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How To Capture a Famous Year on Film
by Jon Schuller

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Many people can remember exactly where they were, what they were doing and who they were with on September 11, 2001. The same holds true for Americans experiencing the events surrounding December 7, 1941. In 2001 we found out about the Trade Center tragedy instantaneously on television and cell phones. Communications in 1941 were limited to radio, telephones, newspapers and newsreels in the theatres. You had to wait to get the details, especially accurate ones. What's true about both dates, however, is the aftermath: how people felt and what they feared might happen next. Even with the immediate analysis we can get today, there are always conjecture and hypothesis, predictions and prognostications. No one really knew with any certainty what was going to happen on September 12, 2001 or December 8, 1941. Only the overwhelming sense of dread was certain.

I want to take you back to those dark days following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. There has been so much written about this historic event I cannot begin to scratch the surface. Suffice to say we all know how the events took place and a good deal of the background about the why. But what about the after-effects on ordinary peoples' lives? How did this tragedy change their daily routines and beliefs and alter America's course? I'll try to tie this to the movie 1941, which premiered in December, 1979.

If you lived in California in 1941 the immediate effects of the Pearl Harbor attack were seen quickly. American citizens of Japanese descent were quietly
rounded up and placed in hastily-built "detention" centers. Regardless of their backgrounds, their reputations, having been born in the United States nothing mattered in the ensuing panic about Japanese spies and traitors living in California. In Hawaii, home to a large Japanese population, this was even more painful. It was possible that the Japanese planners of the attack had sent in spies to live in Hawaii prior to the day but I don't believe that's ever been proven. The fears created by being plunged into a war in one day were palpable and real. I daresay we can easily relate to those anxieties having lived through 9/11/2001. By the way, the same fears existed on the East Coast but had been there for a few years before 1941 due to the boldness of German U-boats operating close in to the American shorelines. Merchant ships were being regularly sunk off the Virginia, North Carolina and New Jersey coasts. After December 7th, all American coastal cities finally turned their lights off.

Keeping all of these events in mind let's try to imagine what it was like living then and you can then start to watch Steven Spielberg's 1941. Although it's not one of his major financial or critical successes, 1941 has become a sort of cult film, one you can enjoy because it didn't take itself too seriously. When it was first released some critics and movie-makers (like Stanley Kubrick) suggested that it might have been made into a realistic drama instead of a comedy because the subject matter was basically grave. No one in
December, 1941 was laughing much anyway even with Hollywood churning out inane comedies and musicals. With a great cast of newcomers and veteran actors, and several stars making cameos (including the legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune in a rare appearance), 1941 captures the sheer insanity of life in a small California coastal town taken over by the Army Air Force while a Japanese submarine mistakenly identifies the town as "Hollywoooooooood."

The film draws upon several true historical events that did occur in California in December 1941: Forest fires in Northern California were blamed on Japanese submarines operating off the coast; the Ellwood Oil refinery near Santa Barbara was reportedly attacked by a submarine; anti-aircraft batteries were placed in many small cities and towns and probably in some backyards too. No one really knew what to expect. The sheer surprise and overwhelming success of the Japanese attack made everyone, civilian and military alike, start to think differently. Though we had been indirectly involved in the war up to this point, no one really wanted to become directly involved so precipitously - or so painfully.

I don't judge movies by box-office receipts or the critics who've been proven wrong several times that I can recount. It's been said that we should laugh more at those events that bring us pain; look at them directly and try to see the humor in them. Movie-makers like Mel Brooks and Charlie Chaplin have had no problem poking fun at Hitler and the Nazis time and again.
1941 amply demonstrates how frightened we were by events outside of our control and geography. Historians have recounted the sheer volume of mistakes made when panic and rumor take the place of logic and information. The movie has moments that are reminiscent of Laurel & Hardy taking what at first appears to be a simple situation and in 10 minutes (or less) making it complicated and hilarious. Mr. Spielberg was able to accomplish these effects during numerous scenes in this film: John Belushi as a crazed fighter pilot strafing a downtown location with his P-40 Warhawk; a B-25 bomber sitting parked near a hangar drops a bomb that rolls and explodes; a homeowner (Ned Beatty) has an anti-aircraft battery in his backyard and proceeds to level his own house; a USO dance turns into an all-out inter-service brawl; the Japanese submarine proceeds to attack a seaside amusement park, shelling a Ferris Wheel that rolls along the pier into the ocean.

The insanity is almost non-stop. I'm amazed how film-makers can get so many things squeezed into a few short minutes. Special effects are so much more sophisticated today and watching a film made in 1979 I can appreciate the use of real, full-scale airplanes, tanks and cars. Movies are fun even while sending us a serious message about the futility and horrors of war. To re-create a chaotic time in America, when ordinary people were scared and confused, is reflected in Mr. Speilberg's moment-to-moment insanity and how everyone then and now must somehow cope with events not in their control.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

A Story of Bravery, Truth and Devotion

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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