1941 is a 1979 period comedy film directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, and featuring an ensemble cast including John Belushi, Ned Beatty, John Candy, Toshiro Mifune, Christopher Lee and Dan Aykroyd. The film is about a panic in the Los Angeles area after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
Although not as financially or critically successful as many of Spielberg’s other films, it received belated widespread popularity after an expanded version aired on ABC, and its subsequent successful home video reissues, raising it to cult status.
Co-writer Gale stated the plot is loosely based on what has come to be known as the Great Los Angeles Air Raid of 1942 as well as the shelling of the Ellwood oil refinery, near Santa Barbara by a Japanese submarine. Many other events in the film were based on real incidents, including the Zoot Suit Riots and an incident in which the U.S. Army placed an anti-aircraft gun in a homeowner’s yard on the Maine coast
On Saturday, December 13, 1941 at 7:01 a.m., somewhere along the Northern California coast, a woman goes swimming alone and naked only to find a Japanese submarine surfacing beneath her. The submarine crew realizes they have arrived where they intended to be, Hollywood, and the vessel submerges while the woman swims to safety.
Later that morning, dishwasher Wally Stephens is planning to enter a dance contest with Betty Douglas, against the wishes of her father Ward. A tank crew commanded by Motor Sergeant Frank Tree, U.S. Army, 10th Armored Division, and consisting of Privates Foley, Reese and Henshaw, and Corporal Charles (“Chuck”) Sitarski, are at the restaurant where Wally works. The trouble-making, egg-hating Sitarski dislikes Wally almost immediately, and trips the youngster up. A fight ensues, leading Wally to lose his job. About half an hour later, Wally takes his friend Dennis shopping to pick up some zoot suits and steals a suit.
Death Valley, California, high noon: deranged 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 gasoline station.
In Los Angeles, Major General Joseph W. Stilwell, Commander of the U.S. Army’s III Corps, attempts to bring order, but Colonel “Mad Man” Maddox, the General’s new secretary Donna Stratten and the General’s assistant Captain Loomis Birkhead have other ideas. At one of Stilwell’s press conferences at Daugherty Field in Long Beach, the woman-chasing Birkhead is attracted to Donna, who he knows is sexually aroused when in an airborne aircraft. He lures her into a bomber to seduce her but she knocks him out. Birkhead lands on the bomb release control and sends a bomb rolling towards Stilwell’s podium as the General is promising that “there will be no bombs dropped here.” The bomb explodes, though Stilwell escapes.
That afternoon, at the Douglas family home in Santa Monica, Wally is told by Betty and her friend Maxine, both USO hostesses, that he will be forbidden to enter the USO dance to be held that night because he is not a serviceman. Wally is forced to hide in the Douglas family’s garage loft when Ward shows up. Soon after, Tree and his tank crew arrive to deliver an anti-aircraft defense battery; Corporal Sitarski spots Betty and is attracted to her. He is just about to ask whether Betty will go to the dance with him when Wally falls from the loft. Ward and Sitarski dump him into a garbage truck.
The Japanese submarine becomes lost trying to find Los Angeles when the ship’s compass is broken. A landing party captures a timber merchant, Hollis “Holly” Wood who will only give up his name, occupation and social security number (106432185) on board the sub. They see he has a small Cracker Jack compass that he swallows, in a fit of patriotic pica. Wood escapes, hoping to find the authorities.
Hollywood Boulevard, 7:35 p.m.: Stilwell goes to see Dumbo. By 9:05 p.m., Birkhead and Donna are headed toward the 501st Bomb Disbursement Unit at Barstow, where Maddox shows them the unit’s dilapidated aircraft. Maddox, convinced the Japanese are sending parachutists into the hills near Pomona, lets Birkhead and Donna borrow his aircraft, assuming they are going on reconnaissance.
Back outside the USO dance-hall, Betty is greeted by both Sitarski and Wally. Sitarski kicks Wally in the groin and drags Betty into the dance as his unwilling date. Maxine has fallen in love with Sitarski and tags along. Wally sneaks in with a stolen Shore Patrol uniform, steals Betty away and they win the dance contest whilst evading Sitarski, who is pursued by Maxine. Sitarski, in khaki, punches Wally, in blues, inciting an inter-service brawl. Tree arrives with his team to stop the riot just as Los Angeles goes to Red Alert with an unknown aircraft in the air, piloted by Birkhead and Donna. At the Douglas’ home, Ward spots the submarine. As Birkhead and Donna fly over Los Angeles in the back of their aircraft, Army anti-aircraft batteries open fire. Kelso joins the fight and, after shooting Birkhead’s aircraft into the La Brea Tar Pits, sees the submarine, only to be shot down by two United States snipers who mistake his plane for a Japanese fighter.
Sitarski drags Betty underneath a tank to rape her. Wally rescues Betty and knocks Sitarski out. They discover Kelso, who informs them about the sub. Wearing an army uniform, Wally commandeers Tree’s tank and heads toward Pacific Ocean Amusement Park for a rendezvous with the sub. Ward begins firing at the submarine, destroying his house in the process. The submarine returns fire, hitting the ferris wheel, which careens into the ocean. The tank sinks when the pier collapses. Kelso drives his motorbike into the ocean and swims to the submarine, where he is captured by the Japanese, who, believing their mission accomplished, return home.
Sunday morning, December 14, 1941: Stilwell arrives at the Douglas home where Ward is hanging a Christmas wreath, only to accidentally push what remains of his home into the ocean. With all the characters in front of the foundations of the destroyed home, Tree predicts to Stilwell that 1942 will be “the ‘really big’ year of the war.” The General simply mutters: “It’s gonna be a ‘long’ war.”