John Wayne and Charlton Heston Turned Down This Steven Spielberg War Movie

Movies


The Big Picture

  • John Wayne, Charlton Heston, and Jimmy Stewart were all considered for roles in Spielberg’s 1941 but declined due to concerns about the film’s portrayal of World War II as unpatriotic.
  • The film draws inspiration from real-life events during World War II, particularly the panic and anxiety that gripped Americans after the Pearl Harbor attack.
  • Although 1941 received mixed reviews and did not match Spielberg’s usual box office success, it garnered three Academy Award nominations and has since become a cult classic with a lasting cultural impact.


Steven Spielberg‘s name is synonymous with blockbuster success. Yet, one of his films, while technically profitable, remains a box office oddity. 1941, a comedic take on World War II could have looked vastly different, with John Wayne initially considered for the lead role. However, upon reading the script, “The Duke” famously called Spielberg, stating, “You know, that was an important war, and you’re making fun of a war that cost thousands of lives at Pearl Harbor. Don’t joke about World War II.” Charlton Heston and Jimmy Stewart also received offers, but Heston, like Wayne, found the movie unpatriotic. Stanley Kubrick, who saw the film, praised it but suggested a dramatic marketing pivot might have saved it. Despite its troubled reception, 1941 garnered three Academy Award nominations. While it may not have lived up to Spielberg’s usual box office dominance, this quirky film offers a fascinating glimpse into a different side of his directorial vision.

1941

Hysterical Californians prepare for a Japanese invasion in the days after Pearl Harbor.

Release Date
December 13, 1979

Cast
Dan Aykroyd , Ned Beatty , John Belushi , Lorraine Gary , Murray Hamilton , Christopher Lee , Tim Matheson , Toshiro Mifune , John Candy , Warren Oates , Robert Stack , Treat Williams , Nancy Allen , Eddie Deezen , Slim Pickens , Wendie Jo Sperber , Lionel Stander

Rating
PG

Runtime
118m

Main Genre
Comedy

Studio(s)
Universal Pictures


Is Steven Spielberg’s ‘1941’ Based on Real-Life Events?

1941 loosely draws inspiration from real-life events during World War II, particularly the panic that followed a rumored threat of attack on the continental U.S. by then Imperial Japan after the Pearl Harbor attack, including the Great Los Angeles Air Raid of 1942 and an attack by a Japanese submarine against U.S. coastal targets in California. According to co-writer Bob Gale, several smaller real-life incidents also permeate the film.1941 parodies the panic and anxiety that gripped Americans at the time as they anticipated an imminent attack. The story unfolds through the lens of several misfit characters. The film opens with Susan Backlinie reprising her tragic Jaws skinny-dipping stunt role before she meets the wrath of sharks. This time though, in place of the sharks, she is picked up by a Japanese submarine offshore the American coastline, setting the stage for the film’s plot. 1941 then introduces us to Wally Stephens (Bobby Di Cicco), a dishwasher, practicing dance moves with his kitchen co-worker and friend for an upcoming audition that night. Their camaraderie is interrupted by a group of soldiers, one of whom, Corporal Chuck Sitarski (Treat Williams), humiliates Wally.

Their paths cross again later when Sitarski and Wally both vie for the affection of Wally’s girlfriend, Betty Douglas (Diane Kay). Meanwhile, Betty’s father, the eccentric Ward Douglas (Ned Beatty), is eager to contribute to the war effort. He accepts the army’s choice of his home as a strategic defense location against the looming Japanese attacks, inadvertently ending up destroying his own house in a misguided attempt to sink an offshore Japanese submarine. Elsewhere, Major General Joseph W. Stilwell, a real-life-inspired World War II army general (played by Robert Stark who also fought in World War II), downplays the rumored threats and enjoys a cartoon movie at the theater, even shedding tears to its emotional story, oblivious to the escalating domestic chaos.

His aide, Captain Loomis Birkhead (Tim Matheson), reunites with his old flame Donna Stratton (Nancy Allen), who now works as the general’s secretary. Donna’s fascination with planes intertwines with Birkhead’s determination to impress her by flying her on a joyride. As their stories unfold, a wild U.S. Air Force pilot, Captain Wild Bill Kelso (John Belushi) hunts for Japanese forces in his one-seater bomber and mistakes Birkhead and Donna’s plane for enemy targets. Filled with a multitude of characters depicting a chaotic time in American history, 1941 was criticized for mirroring the very chaos of the war it portrayed as it sought to find its place among the best war comedies.

Steven Spielberg Considered John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Charlton Heston for ‘1941’

While not Spielberg’s most celebrated work, 1941 stands as an unusual experiment in historical comedy. The film faced an unexpected hurdle when legendary actor John Wayne, initially interested in the role of Major General Stilwell, ultimately rejected it. An outspoken patriot, Wayne, after reading the script, found the film’s lighthearted approach to World War II disrespectful to those who fought and died, terming it unpatriotic. Spielberg, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly stated that “[Wayne] was really curious, and so I sent him the script. He called me the next day and said he felt it was a very un-American movie.”

John Wayne had played a similar role in How the West Was Won in which he collaborated on a rare occasion with Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, playing the Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Still determined to have Wayne in the film in some form, Spielberg offered him a cameo, but even that was declined. Despite Wayne’s absence, his presence lingered in the script. A humorous line pokes fun at the film’s Japanese characters’ obsession with destroying Hollywood, and an American asks them why they want to destroy Wayne’s house, and another character playfully warns another of “trying to be Errol Flynn,” alluding to the flamboyant actor’s notorious lifestyle. Though 1941 may not have soared at the box office, it remains an intriguing footnote in Spielberg’s career, forever marked by the “what if” of John Wayne’s almost-role.

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Following John Wayne’s unexpected rejection of the role, the search for Major General Stilwell in 1941 continued. Two other Hollywood heavyweights, Charlton Heston and Jimmy Stewart, were also approached for the part. Like Wayne, Heston expressed concerns about the film’s potentially unpatriotic tone, ultimately declining the offer. Stewart, a decorated World War II veteran himself, also chose to pass on the role. Beyond the lead casting conundrum, the film’s early development witnessed fascinating alternative visions for certain supporting characters. Initially, the comedy duo of Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, beloved for their iconic roles in The Honeymooners, were envisioned as Claude Crumm and Herb Kaziminsky.

While ultimately not realized, the prospect of Gleason and Carney’s comedic chemistry within the film’s ensemble is another intriguing “what if” scenario. Similarly, the roles of Hollis P. “Holly” Wood and Wild Bill Kelso were originally conceived as relatively minor parts. However, with the casting of Slim Pickens and John Belushi, respectively, these characters evolved into scene-stealers and became part of the major roles in the film. 1941 also goes down as one of the few American films that featured the iconic Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, best known for starring in Akiro Kurosawa‘s classic films.

John Belushi’s Drunk Pilot Fall in ‘1941’ Was Real and Landed Him in Hospital

John Belushi’s portrayal of Captain Wild Bill Kelso is undoubtedly one of the highlights of 1941. One unforgettable scene showcases his drunken fearlessness when he lands his plane at a base filled with weary, suspicious soldiers. After a comical exchange with a questioning soldier, Kelso retaliates with a sudden slap that floors him. Realizing Belushi’s character is actually American, the other soldiers rush to help him back onto the plane. In a hilarious twist of fate, however, he tumbles off one of the wings, landing with an awkward loud thump, momentarily stunned but otherwise seemingly unharmed.

This wasn’t just scripted chaos; it was a genuine accident that sent Kelso to the hospital for days. But despite the on-set mishap, Spielberg, in the Entertainment Weekly interview, clarified that the production itself was surprisingly well-run. He stated, “Some people think that was an out-of-control production, but it wasn’t. What happened on the screen was pretty out of control, but the production was pretty much in control.”

Director Stanley Kubrick Criticized Spielberg’s ‘1941’ Film

Captain Wild Bill Kelso (John Belushi) in 1941
Image via Universal Pictures

Steven Spielberg’s 1941 faced a barrage of criticism, even from fellow master filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. However, Kubrick’s critique was nuanced, praising the film while acknowledging its offbeat humor as not quite hitting the mark. Spielberg himself echoed this sentiment in the Entertainment Weekly interview, admitting, “I’m not embarrassed by it — I just think that it wasn’t funny enough.” Perhaps the film’s satire was simply ahead of its time. Set during the Christmas holiday season, scenes like Japanese soldiers camouflaged as American trees and a drunken Hollis Wood trying to chop them down still land laughs today, perhaps resonating more in the increasingly ironic present than in the more earnest context of the film’s release. Despite a lukewarm initial reception, 1941 has found lasting appreciation as a quirky cult classic thanks to subsequent TV and home media releases.

Though overshadowed by Spielberg’s other box office behemoths, 1941 wasn’t the flop history remembers. Sure, it couldn’t quite match the jaws of Jaws or the encounters of Close Encounters, but it hauled in a respectable $90 million worldwide, silencing whispers of disaster and turning a tidy profit. This quirky war comedy even defied critical naysayers, nabbing three Academy Award nominations and a spot on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 funniest American movies. Not bad for a film some deemed doomed.

Despite its turbulent reception and initial lukewarm reception, 1941 eventually carved its niche in cinematic history. The film’s unique blend of offbeat humor and chaotic satire, though not fully appreciated in its time, has aged into cult classic status. John Belushi’s memorable escapades, including a real-life mishap that landed him in the hospital, showcase the unexpected twists that unfolded behind the scenes. In Spielberg’s rich filmography, 1941 might be a lesser-known thread, but its enduring legacy is undeniable. 1941 speaks to Spielberg’s willingness to experiment and push the boundaries of conventional storytelling, proving that even in what some deem a cinematic misstep, Spielberg sees room for unexpected charm and creates a lasting cultural impact.

1941 is available to rent on Apple TV+ in the U.S.

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