What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of something called the Christopher Lee Blog-A-Thon being hosted by RealWeegieMidget Reviews and Cinematic Catharsis. This is the second time I’ve been granted the honor of participating in one of their joint events, and to top it off I get to write about one of my favorite, but oft-maligned movies! If nothing else, this movie has an AMAZING cast!
You can see all the contributors to this blog-a-thon here:
The story starts on December 13, 1941…exactly one week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A Japanese submarine captained by Commander Akiro Mitamura (played by Toshiro Mifune) is on patrol off the coast of California. The Japanese crew is accompanied by an attaché from the German kriegsmarine Captain Wolfgang von Kleinschmidt (played by Christopher Lee). At this point, Commander Mitamura tells Von Kleinschmidt that he intends to “destroy something honorable” in California as he and his crew missed out on the attacks a week earlier.
The movie “jump-cuts” to Los Angeles, where the viewer is introduced to diner jocks Wally Stephens (played Bobby Di Cicco) and Dennis Desoto (played by Perry Lang).
Wally intends to enter a dance contest with his ex-girlfriend Betty Douglas (played by Dianne Kay), however this happens to be against her parent’s wishes. A tank crew led by chief Sergeant Frank Tree (played by Dan Aykroyd) is having breakfast in the diner. The other members of the tank crew include Privates Foley (John Candy), Reese (played by Mickey Rourke), Hinshaw (played by Walter Olkewicz), and Corporal Sitarski (played by Treat Williams). A beef breaks out between Wally and Sitarski which is broken up by Sergeant Tree, but this and Wally’s want of the night off leads to him and Dennis getting fired.
Meanwhile, Betty Douglas and her friend Maxine (played by Wendie Jo Sperber) are in training as “taxi dancers” for an upcoming USO show. At the same time in Death Valley, a renegade Army Air Corps pilot named Captain “Wild Bill” Kelso (played by John Belushi) lands his P-40 Warhawk fighter to refuel at a local gas station. Here, he claims he has been tracking a squadron of Japanese attack aircraft. When one of the locals tells him the radio says sightings of supposed enemy aircraft are just “war nerves,” Kelso shoots the radio and replies “Radio’s wrong.”
Back in Los Angeles, the “war nerves” are starting to become “mob mentality” and the local military commander Major General Joseph Stilwell (played by Robert Stack) is growing visibly weary of it. As such, he attempts to bring order to the hysteria gripping his command. At a nearby airbase, Stilwell gives a press conference insisting that it would be impossible for the Japanese to bomb Los Angeles. However, some sexual shenanigans between the general’s new secretary Donna Stratten (played by Nancy Allen) and his assistant Captain Loomis Birkhead (played by Tim Matheson) cause a bomb to be dropped out of a nearby B-17.
Betty Douglas’ family has a large home on the coast, where Wally meets her (in a freshly stolen “Zoot Suit”) to ask her to be in the dance contest with him. However, she tells him that the club has been taken over by the USO, which means only servicemen are now allowed there. In a moment which confirms the source of the spat between Wally and Sitarski at the diner, Betty’s parents Ward and Joan Douglas (played by Ned Beatty and Lorraine Gary respectively) angrily confront Wally because on a previous date with Betty he stole their car and destroyed it.
The story line with Sitarki weaves in as he arrives at the Douglas’ home with the rest of Tree’s crew as they are delivering an anti-aircraft gun which the military wants to place there. What happens next is not just a “love triangle;” it’s more like “love geometry.” There’s still obvious chemistry between Wally and Betty, but now Sitarski has eyes for her as well. Betty’s friend Maxine is warm for Sitarski’s form, but he continually rejects her advances. Of course, Betty’s parents aren’t exactly fond of Wally, but at least they don’t beat the crap out of him and toss him in a garbage truck like Sitarski and his buddies do.
With the arrival of the new gun, we see the members of the local Civil Defense Force, namely Douglas’ neighbor Angelo Scioli (played by Lionel Stander) and his friends Claude Crumn (played by Murray Hamilton) and Herbie (played Eddie Deezen). Angelo shows off his new home-built armored car while Claude and Herbie are set to be a classic “Mutt and Jeff” team of air raid spotters armed with rifles, binoculars, and a telephone while perched atop the ferris wheel on Santa Monica pier.
Now that all the story lines have been established, it’s time for the supposed “invasion” which weaves them all together.
Mitamura’s submariners do not know where they are as the ship’s compass has become inoperable. As a result, Mitamura sends a landing party ashore ostensibly in a search for repair parts, to establish their bearings, but certainly to bolster the main plot of the movie; Mitamura’s desire to strike a blow for Imperial Japan.
Once ashore, the landing party captures a passing local timber merchant, Hollis “Holly” Wood (played by Slim Pickens). Once they take Wood back aboard the I-19, they have no way of questioning him since nobody in the crew nor Von Kleinschmidt speak English. As expected, Wood has no idea how to speak Japanese or German, but obviously knows he’s a prisoner and breaks into a World War I fight song upon spotting the “Heinie Kraut” Von Kleinschmidt exclaiming “I knew y’all were in cahoots!”
As the crew searches Wood and his possessions, they discover a box of Cracker Jacks, and the prize is…you guessed it…a small “dime” compass. By the reaction of the crew to the sight of the compass, Wood figures out it is valuable to them, and he immediately swallows it. This has the Japanese pouring prune juice down Wood’s throat in hopes of flushing out the compass, but Wood tricks them and escapes from the submarine.
As night falls back in Los Angeles, general disorder is breaking out, beginning with Wally and some other “Zoot Suiters” at the USO club, which leads to yet another encounter between Wally and Sitarski. Ultimately, this spills from the club to become a general street riot. Meanwhile, Stilwell is attempt in sooth his aching head by going to the movies, but he is constantly interrupted. At one point, he emerges from the theater to witness general mayhem awash in the streets when he is addressed by a dust-covered motorcycle rider who states he has been ordered to deliver a message directly to Stilwell.
The note is from Colonel Maddox (played by Warren Oates) who is the commander of the airbase in the desert at Barstow. His message tells of enemy aircraft filling the skies and “murderers parachuting into the hills.” Stilwell dismisses this muttering “I blame myself. I put that lunatic out there!” Stilwell’s assistant Captain Birkhead reminds the general that Maddox has airplanes, and Stilwell says somebody needs to get out to Barstow to kepp Maddox “from doing anything stupid.” Birkhead volunteers and takes Donna Stratten with him; this all being yet another ploy for some airplane-based sexual antics.
Upon arriving at the airbase, both Birkhead and Donna are disappointed when Colonel Maddox tells them that he has no bombers or fighter planes at the base, only an obsolete transport plane which Birkhead discoveres is not equipped with a radio. Not wanting to get blown out of the sky, Maddow tells Birkhead that he well call Civil Defense in Los Angeles to inform them about Birkhead’s plane and his “search for enemy planes.”
Shortly afterwards, “Wild Bill” Kelso arrives at Maddox’s base. While refueling his P-40 Warhawk, Kelso is regaled by Maddox with tales of hordes Japanese planes. Kelso climbs back into his fighter to give chase, but before he takes off, the obviously insane Colonel Maddox implores him “Let me hear your guns!” Kelso obliges, and the resulting torrent of lead from his machine guns destroys the bases telephone lines, leaving Maddozx with now way to warn Civil Defense about Birkhead and Kelso’s planes heading for the city.
Back in Los Angeles, the street riot has broken beyond all control when Sergeant Tree arrives and commands attention with a belch of machine-gun fire from his tank. He delivers an empassioned about Americans fighting Americans in the face of the looming Japanese threat. At this moment, ground spotters alert Civil Defense about Kelson and Birkhead’s planes approaching the city. Civil Defense then declares a “Red Alert,” the air raid sirens begin sounding, and all hell breaks loose.
Meanwhile back at the Douglas’ home, Ward spots Mitamura’s submarine lurking nearby, so he makes the decision to ignore Sergeant Tree’s admonishment to never touch the anti-craft gun left in his hard with the delaration “Cmon, gang! We’re sinking a Japanese sub tonight!” At the same time, Claude and Herbie also spot the submarine, but manage to drop their telephone laving them with no means of communication. They decide to fire on the sub with their rifles. They also mistake “Wild Bill’s” fighter for a Japanese aircraft, open fire on it, and strike it in the engine. Kelso then crashes on Hollywood Boulevard in front of the theater when Stilwell is watching the movie. “Wild Bill” warns everybody about the sub off Santa Monica, at which point a makeshift, panic race to the pier breaks out.
Ward Douglas figures out how to operate the anti-aircraft gun, but never hits the sub. In fact, he basically destroys his own house in the process with his bad aim. With the firing breaking out, Angelo sends one of Ward’s young sons to the pier to rescue Claude and Herbie who are stuck in the ferris wheel. But the kid tuns on all the lights on the pier, prompting Mitmura to order firing on what he believes is an industrial structure.
When Wally and the tank crew arrive at the pier, they open fire on sub, which in turn blows the pier out from under them with a torpedo. “Wild Bill” drives his stolen motorcycle onto the pier just as it collapses into the water, after which he swims to the submarine and give the order “Turn this tub around! You’re takin’ me to Tokyo!”
The following morning, Stilwell arrives at the remains of the Douglas home where he is told all the tales of the previous night from Wally, Betty, Claude, Herbie, Dennis, plus Sergeant Tree and the entire tank crew. about their harrowing experiences the night before. Also in tow with Stilwell are Birkhead and Donna, Sitarski, Maxine, Colonel Maddox in a straight-jacket presumably on his way to a sanitarium, and “last but not least” Captain von Kleinschmidt with his captive-turned-captor Hollis Wood.
to this ensemble, Ward delivers an inspirational speech vowing that the Christmas spirit will not waiver in the face of the war. As a symbol of his resolve, he nails a wreath to his front door which causes the remnants of the house to slide off it’s foundation and plummet into the sea.
The final line of the film comes with an oddly-amused Stilwell grunting “It’s gonna be a long war!”
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
Critics panned this movie. There’s plenty of possible reasons why; I tend to stick to the idea that most of them can’t tell the difference between “comedy” and “satire.” The same thing happened to another of my favorite films which was also made around this time…and I said the same thing about it as well.
The key to understanding the difference between “comedy” and “satire” is grasping the dependency of their respective roots on reality. Comedy easily lives without the bounds of the real world; otherwise cartoons wouldn’t work. But satire requires the sounding board of reality off which to bounce it’s barbs.
That can be a difficult distinction to grasp fully, which is why I understand people who “don’t get” this film. If you weren’t alive in 1941, it’s reasonable to expect you might not understand what “War Hysteria” was all about in the days immediately following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
But in the sports world, there’s a present-day equivalent; this topic’s roots in reality. Today’s example is short and sweet, and brought to us from the fans of the National Football League (NFL). The “War Hysteria” of 1941 along the west coast of the United States is rivaled only by that of football fans convinced their team can win it all.
Spring is when it starts, right after the NFL completes it’s draft. Fans who like the college players their team just added will be the ones who turn up the flame under “optimism” until it boils fully over into “Super Bowl Hysteria.” Fans of every team are capable of such self-delusion, but it most often manifests itself with team who have the longest championship droughts (I’m looking at you, Cowboys/Vikings/Raiders fans…)
While the realm may be very different, the mechanism of how it happens is identical. All it takes is one rumor routed properly through a path beginning at amplification and ending up at complete insanity. That’s how a running back from Alabama immediately becomes a Super Bowl champion without ever having set foot on an NFL field, and how one submarine transmogrifies into a full-fledged invasion without ever having fired a shot.
The Moral of the Story:
Nothing good ever comes from “mob mentality.”
P.S. Keep an eye out for homages to “Jaws” in this film…including some members of the cast!
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