The Cocaine-Fuelled True Story Behind Spielberg’s Forgotten ‘Flop’ 1941

Ben Falk
Contributor

'1941' is often considered Steven Spielberg’s grand folly – a madcap period comedy about the military and other Californians who believe they are going to be invaded by the Japanese after the bombing of Pearl Harbour.

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But to the movie’s co-writer Bob Gale (who also penned the ‘Back To The Future’ series), the film has always been misunderstood, though he admits some members of the star-studded cast, which includes John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Christopher Lee, did cause the Oscar-winning director some serious problems.

“[Belushi’s] cocaine problem really got worse during the making of ‘1941’,” Gale tells us. “He was relying on cocaine to keep him sharp, or more energised. I know that that was a problem, with him not showing up, or showing up late. But what was really interesting was he’d show up on the set sometimes and he’d look horrible. He’d look like death warmed over. He would perform, do these scenes…then the next day, in the dailies, it was funny. John had this magic – the camera really liked him.”

Dealing with Belushi was not the only difficulty they had with actors. The key role of Major General Stilwell was turned down by John Wayne and Charlton Heston before finally being played by Robert Stack.

“Whatever you want to think about John Wayne’s politics, the man was a legend,” says Gale. “We were hoping he would say yes. We were actually kind of disappointed that John Wayne read the script and thought it was an anti-American movie, which was certainly not our intention.”

Always perceived to be a flop, the film actually made money, though confused people who were expecting another ‘Jaws’ or ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’. In fact, according to Gale, it was studio politics that accounted for the movie’s slightly confusing narrative.

“The first time around was the movie had a hard release [date],” recalls the screenwriter. “It had been promoted and advertised to come out at Christmas 1979. I think if Steven had had another three or four more weeks in the editing room to work with the film, he might have gotten it into better shape. As it was, he was so focused on getting the movie out, making the date, worrying about whether scenes work. He felt when in doubt cut it out. Bob and I weren’t around – we were in production on a [different] movie.”

Watch the original ‘1941’ trailer below.

The original theatrical cut has now been added to and is being released as an extended edition, alongside remastered versions of Spielberg’s early films like ‘Duel’ and ‘The Sugarland Express’, on a new Blu-ray boxset called The Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection.

Gale is pleased with the results, admitting that when he and co-writer Robert Zemeckis flew to Denver for a preview screening of ‘1941’ in November 1979, they were sad with what the director had cut out.

“I understand why the theatrical version [of ‘1941’] was misunderstood, because there’s a lot of material missing from the theatrical version that Bob [Zemeckis] and I always thought should be in the movie,” explains Gale.

You can finally see what he intended on The Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection, which is out now.

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Photos: Moviestore/Everett/Rex