Spielberg’s 1941 opened forty years ago this month, and for the occasion The Bits features a Q&A with Mike Matessino, noted film music historian and John Williams and Steven Spielberg authority, who reflects on the film four decades after its debut.
This new retro article is a companion piece to a feature we did a few years ago to commemorate a combination of 1941’s 35th anniversary, remastered CD soundtrack release, and theatrical screening of a new DCP of the extended cut.
And, in case you missed them or desire a refresher read, this column’s other Spielberg retrospectives include Back to the Future 30th anniversary, Close Encounters of the Third Kind 40th anniversary, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade 25th anniversary, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom 30th anniversary, Jaws 40th anniversary, Jurassic Park 25th anniversary, Poltergeist 35th anniversary, and Raiders of the Lost Ark 35th anniversary.
Mike Matessino is an accomplished music producer, mixer, editor, mastering engineer and film music historian and has been associated with dozens of CD soundtrack projects.
Mike’s Spielberg/Williams CD projects include 1941, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, Empire of the Sun, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, Minority Report, Saving Private Ryan, and Schindler’s List. Other John Williams CD projects include The Cowboys, The Disaster Movie Collection (Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno), Dracula (1979), Harry Potter, Home Alone, Monsignor, Star Wars, and Superman. Other Spielberg and/or Amblin CD projects include An American Tail, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Gremlins, Innerspace, Poltergeist, Small Soldiers, and Twilight Zone: The Movie. Other CD projects include Alien, The Sand Pebbles, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Also, he worked on the film screenings with live concert performances of the scores for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, and Superman.
Matessino as well was the Restoration Supervisor for The Director’s Edition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and directed behind-the-scenes documentaries on The Sound of Music, Alien, The Last Starfighter, and John Carpenter’s The Thing, which have been included as Added Value Material on some of those films’ LaserDisc, DVD and/or Blu-ray releases.
Matessino kindly spoke to The Bits about the appeal and legacy of 1941.
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): How do you think 1941 ought to be remembered on the 40th anniversary of its release?
Mike Matessino: For me it feels like an opportunity to reflect on the passage of time. The movie came out 40 years ago, but the story is set 38 years before that. So as crazy as the comedy is in the movie, there is a charm about it because it has such wild abandon. It’s uniquely entertaining and, in its own way, rather thought-provoking.
Coate: What do you remember about the first time you saw 1941?
Matessino: I actually missed it in its initial run because it played at theaters that were less easy for me to get to. It was also the holiday season and there was some inclement weather, and it was a greater priority for me to see Star Trek and The Black Hole. So I saw it later on cable television and remember enjoying it very much. But what sticks in my mind more was the 1983 television broadcast because there was a great deal of footage added that I thought made it an improvement. Then, more than five years later, I finally got to see it projected when the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood showed it as part of their 25th anniversary festival. It was a morning show on their “Spielberg day” and it was followed by Jaws, [Back to the Future], Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Close Encounters. So that was actually one of the best days I’ve ever spent at the movies. It was a treat to see 1941 presented as intended and the movie played really well. It was a blast seeing buildings (built in miniature) that were just a block away from the theater we were sitting in. I was a fan of the movie before that and became even more of one on that day.
Coate: Is 1941 a significant motion picture in any way?
Matessino: One really significant thing about it is the craftsmanship that went into it. Everything you see in the movie is an actual object placed before a film camera. It was a remarkable achievement and even if something like that were attempted today, it wouldn’t be as impressive. It’s also significant because it’s a Steven Spielberg film, of course, and I have always believed that any legitimate study of his career has to include this film.
Coate: In what way was Steven Spielberg an ideal choice to direct, and where does the movie rank among his body of work?
Matessino: He might not necessarily agree that he was the ideal choice. I think in an interview he even said that Robert Zemeckis, who co-wrote it with Bob Gale, should have directed it. But it’s important in retrospect because of what this movie led to. Jaws and Close Encounters were hugely successful, but both went over budget and over schedule. The same thing happened with 1941 but it wasn’t as big a success as his previous films (although not the total failure it’s something considered to be). And if it’s true that we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes, then look what happened. This project motivated Steven Spielberg to find discipline as a filmmaker, so that when he directed Raiders for George Lucas, he came in under-schedule and under-budget. There is no through line in his career if you just jump from Close Encounters to Raiders. It only makes sense if you look at 1941. It’s also important as Spielberg’s first film set during the 1940s, so it paved the way for Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Again, no thorough study of Spielberg’s work can dispense with 1941. I’m not sure where we would say it “ranks” among his body of work, but I personally rank it very high because of the level of filmmaking artistry and the fact that it has one of my favorite John Williams scores.
Coate: Speaking of Maestro Williams, care to share any thoughts on the score for the film? Surprised there was no Oscar nomination?
Matessino: By 1979, John Williams had set the bar very high with Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters and Superman, so given the perception of 1941 it may not have seemed to be in the same league as those other scores, two of which had won in the Best Original Score category. Certainly Dracula, also from 1979, was just as great a score as 1941 and all of the others, but Academy Award nominations don’t happen in a vacuum, and they are put forth by members of the particular branch in the category. And there are politics, as we know. I wouldn’t attribute the exclusion of a nomination for 1941 to anything other than that.
I think that John Williams really enjoyed working on the score because it tapped into many elements of his own history — his service in the military, his earlier work in jazz and as a pianist, and that his father played in The Raymond Scott Quintet and performed music in the big-band tradition. The score is as unabashedly broad as the movie is and it has some great themes, and there were opportunities to work in quotations of existing tunes here and there. The March from 1941 lent itself to concert performance and because of that, it’s remained well known and continues to be done, and that might also be part of the reason why the movie is also remembered.
Overall the music has a very pure and unmistakable John Williams sound that makes it great fun to listen to… it’s epic, funny and rousing in a way that we don’t really hear much anymore. It’s also unique in that Williams did very few comedies in the 1970s and wouldn’t do one after this until Home Alone, so between that and the fact that it’s for a Steven Spielberg movie, 1941 is very refreshing and satisfying.
Coate: Do you think 1941 has been treated well in its numerous home video editions over the decades?
Matessino: It’s always been a very difficult film to capture on video because cinematographer William Fraker used a lot of filters that gave it a soft haze, and there are very few shots that don’t have smoke in them. I remember the early broadcasts and home videos didn’t look very good, but that’s true for everything now. If we could look at VHS tapes on the TVs we had in the ’80s we’d find them unwatchable and wonder how we ever thought it was acceptable. The most recent transfer of the extended version was very well done, and as I mentioned I got to work on it, and they also made a DCP of it so that it can be shown theatrically. Hopefully it will be revisited in 4K and we can improve it a bit further.
Coate: Which cut of the film do you like best?
Matessino: I prefer the extended version and was very happy to be able to have the opportunity to propose some tweaks to it in 2015, with some of John Williams’ music being restored to how it was originally intended. I think that version has more scope and balance, a better sense of geography, and more time with the characters. That being said, the theatrical version also plays very well with an audience. When I first did the soundtrack album in 2011 we had a screening of it and the audience enjoyed the heck out of it.
Coate: What is the legacy of 1941?
Matessino: I would reiterate my points about its relevance to the career of Steven Spielberg and the practical filmmaking techniques that went into creating it. That’s reason enough to give it a look. You’ve also got a great cast and a lot of what we later started calling “Easter eggs” to find and enjoy. I think it was ahead of its time in many ways and great fun.
Coate: Thank you, Mike, for sharing your thoughts about Steven Spielberg’s 1941 on the occasion of its 40th anniversary.
Selected images copyright/courtesy A-Team productions, Columbia Pictures Industries, La-La Land Records, Universal City Studios, Universal Studios Home Entertainment.
- Michael Coate