1941 appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. When I originally reviewed 1941, I thought the picture looked absolutely terrible. Upon second consideration, I realized it wasn’t as horrid as I first believed, although it still presented a number of problems.
Many of the issues that marred 1941 stemmed from production choices. Spielberg opted to use heavy smoke effects during a lot of the film, and this made much of it look hazy and indistinct. Sharpness remained the biggest problem I detected throughout the movie. At best, the image appeared moderately crisp and distinct, but on many occasions, it seemed rather soft and fuzzy. The lack of clarity rarely was as horrid as I recalled, but it still rendered much of the film as vaguely muddy and flat.
Jagged edges only popped up on a few occasions, and moiré effects were rare, though when they occurred, they seemed heavy; check out any scene that shows the roof of the Douglas house to see what I mean. A little edge enhancement cropped up as well; this was most noticeable during shots of subtitles.
Overall, the film didn’t betray too many print flaws. The most intrusive ones stemmed from light speckles and some grit, and I also detected occasional examples of streaks and spots. Occasional grain appeared as well, but much of the film’s perceived grain really happened due to the smoke effects; these created a hazy appearance much of the time.
Colors varied, also partially due to the photographic techniques. At times, the hues seemed reasonably vivid and accurate, but they also came across as flat and washed out, dependent on the situation. The scenes in Hollywood consistently looked best, whereas the shots near the Douglas house offered the DVD’s ugliest elements. Black levels also appeared erratic, though they usually were acceptably dark and deep, while shadow detail was generally decent; a few low-light shots - especially those on the Japanese sub - came across as a bit heavy, but overall, those elements were watchable.
I must admit I was surprised my opinion of 1941’s image went up over the last few years. Usually when I reassess a DVD, my ratings decline; I think I’m a better-trained viewer after watching well over 1000 discs. However, I was too hard on 1941. Though definitely flawed, it offered a more acceptable image than I originally believed.
Nonetheless, it remained a problematic transfer. I gave it a “C-“ largely based on the relatively positive images seen in the Hollywood scenes, but I still strongly considered awarding it a “D+”. That still beats the “D-“ I originally gave to 1941, but make no mistake - the movie still looked fairly weak.
I also altered my original rating of the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack heard during 1941, but that change was much smaller. In my old review, I gave it a “B+”, whereas I knocked it down to a “B” on reappraisal. However, this was also a tough grade to award, for the audio offered a mixed bag of highs and lows, though the latter dominated this surprisingly strong soundtrack.
The soundfield provided a very satisfying presentation for an older work. Music showed consistently solid stereo imaging, while effects created a clear and engaging presence. Those elements blended together cleanly, and they also offered good panning from channel to channel. The surrounds added a very fine layer of reinforcement to the affair, and they also provided a surprising amount of unique audio. Occasional stereo sound came from the rear - mainly during scenes with gunfire or planes - and the package presented a much more involving and active presence than I’d expect from an older mix.
In regard to sound quality, that was where we encountered some problems. However, much of the track offered quite positive audio. John William’s score sounded simply terrific. The music showed bright highs and rich lows as it seemed warm and dynamic throughout the film. Effects suffered from bouts of distortion at times, but these remained reasonably minor. A few louder elements seemed somewhat rough, and a few other parts of the track came across as thin and tinny, but effects generally provided acceptable fidelity, and they also boasted fine bass response much of the time. Tanks rumbled across the screen, while explosions and other low-end segments showed tight and rich bass which never seemed boomy or thick.
Based on those aspects of the track, 1941 could have entered “A” territory for its sound. Unfortunately, dialogue created some significant problems. At best, speech seemed wan and flat; most of the mix showed intelligible but lifeless dialogue. However, quite a lot of edginess interfered with the dialogue, as the lines often sounded rough and brittle. I never ran into any intelligibility problems, but the speech could be rather sibilant and harsh at times. Since the rest of the soundtrack provided such strong audio, I hated to have to lower my grade due to the dialogue, but unfortunately, those elements simply seemed poor. Still, the overall impression remained positive for a flick from 1979, and 1941 impressed me for the most part.
This “Collector’s Edition” release of 1941 ports over a 1996 laserdisc boxed set. I never owned that package, but it appears that the two offer identical features. Actually, the DVD outdoes the LD in one regard: it provides Dolby Digital 5.1 sound as opposed to the Dolby Surround 2.0 mix heard on the LD.
One of the extras found here appears within the movie itself. The DVD touts its “fully restored version with bonus footage.” This means that the 146-minute film runs almost a half an hour longer than it did in theaters during 1979. Whether this is good or bad depends on your point of view.
Steven Spielberg refuses to record commentaries, but 1941 does provide one alternate audio experience: an isolated music score. Available through the disc’s “Spoken Languages” menu, this feature provides John Williams’ score in Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. Though it didn’t do much for me, I thought it was a nice addition nonetheless.
Much more interesting to me was the disc’s documentary. Entitled The Making of 1941, this 102-minute and 40-second program offered a terrific history of the film. It offered a few clips from the flick as well as some outtakes and Spielberg’s home movies shot on the set. Primarily, though, it shows modern (circa 1995) interviews with Spielberg, executive producer John Milius, writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, editor Michael Kahn, composer John Williams, director of photography William A. Fraker, special effects creator AD Flowers, and miniature supervisor Greg Jein.
To put it mildly, this is a fascinating and informative piece of work. It starts with the project’s origins and takes us through it development, alterations made along the way, casting, production anecdotes, effects concerns, possible endings, and both critical and popular reactions to the film. Very few stones remain unturned, and the participants offer fairly frank opinions of the work; they mainly think it’s a good flick, but they recognize some of its shortcomings. The only flaw I found with this program related from the absence of any actors; with such a huge cast, at least some of them should have appeared. Nonetheless, this was a consistently fascinating documentary that entertained me much more than did the film itself.
The 1941 DVD also includes eight minutes and 35 seconds of deleted scenes not shown in the documentary. To be honest, I have no idea how they decided what to keep and what to drop; none of these deleted scenes seem any worse than what they put in the finished feature, and it's not like pacing was a major concern.
Bravely, the DVD offers a number of original reviews of the film, virtually all of which were negative (some more than others). The disc includes six quick blurbs and three full articles. We also get the standard Cast and Filmmakers biographies. That domain includes short but good entries for Spielberg as well as actors Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Lorraine Gary, Ned Beatty, Murray Hamilton, Christopher Lee, Tim Matheson, Toshiro Mifune, Warren Oates, Treat Williams and Robert Stack.
More text appears in the Production Notes section. This offers a quick recap of the film’s history. It includes little we can’t find in the documentary, but it sums up some issues reasonably well.
In the Production Photographs area, we find 366 stills; in addition, some text offers captions for many of these. Wackier pictures appear in 1941 Comic Relief, a collection of 10 shots that shows production photos with nutty speech balloons attached. Still more pictures show up in The Marketing of 1941. This 80-still domain includes posters, proposed art, promotional pictures, other ads and merchandise related to the flick.
Lastly, three theatrical trailers finish off the DVD. Two of these are pretty standard, but the first offers a “teaser” that focuses on Belushi. Here called Wild Wayne Kelso, the footage was shot specifically for the ad, which makes it more interesting than usual.
Ultimately, I have mixed feelings about the 1941 DVD. While I clearly
disliked the film and found its picture quality problematic, I really enjoyed the fine supplemental materials and at least the good 5.1 mix made the movie a little more palatable. Maybe I'm just screwy, but those extras are enough to make this package of interest despite the poor quality of the film. Fans of Spielberg may want to have it just for the historic interest inherent in those features. As such, I'm happy I have the set, even though I may never again watch the movie itself. Whether you believe that's enough to make 1941 worth owning is up to you.