The extras cast as the Japanese submarine crew were hired because they were Asian. Most were typical laid-back Southern Californians, and none had any acting training. Toshirô Mifune was so outraged at their attitudes that he asked Steven Spielberg if he could deal with them. He then started yelling at them to get in line, and slapped one of them, saying, "This is how Japanese men are trained!" Mifune worked with them from that point on.
The scene where Wild Bill Kelso slips and tumbles off of the wing of his airplane as he is about to take off was a real accident. John Belushi slipped as he was climbing into the plane. It was kept in the movie because it fit his character.
In a deleted scene, Slim Pickens' character is threatened with a torture device that turns out to be a coat hanger. Steven Spielberg hated losing the joke, and swore he'd to put it in every one of his future movies until it stayed there. Luckily, it stayed in his very next film, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
According to co-writer Bob Gale in the DVD documentary, many of the events in the movie are based on real incidents. The army really put an anti-aircraft gun in the yard of a homeowner on the Maine coast. An air raid false alarm over Los Angeles resulted in Civil Defense and Army weapons firing into the air one night, thinking they were being attacked by the Japanese. A Japanese submarine shelled a refinery on the California coast. The infamous Zoot Suit Riots, between Hispanic youths and servicemen, were in May and June 1943.
Charlton Heston and John Wayne turned down the role of Maj. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell. Wayne phoned director Steven Spielberg, who had given him the script, and not only turned it down due to ill health, but tried to get Spielberg to drop the project. Wayne felt it was unpatriotic and a slap in the face to WWII vets. Heston is thought to have turned it down for the same reasons. The role was taken by Robert Stack who, once in costume and make-up, bore a striking resemblance to the real General Stilwell.
In one deleted scene, John Belushi's character meets Dan Aykroyd's character right before he boards the Japanese sub. They look at each other as if recognizing one another, a nod to their real-life friendship. It was the only scene in the film where they interacted.
It took so long to set up the final shot of the house falling down that cast and crew members actually started a betting pool on what day and time the shot would actually begin filming. Dan Aykroyd won the bet.
Throughout the movie Sgt. Frank Tree (Dan Aykroyd) and Capt. Wild Bill Kelso (John Belushi) never exchange any dialog. It is only at the very end of the movie when Wild Bill has climbed aboard the Japanese submarine that these two characters acknowledge each other with a salute.
In the Director's Cut, when Pops drags Wally and Dennis out of Malcomb's Diner and throws them into the street, a group of children dressed as The Little Rascals are standing in front of the restaurant.
Often regarded as 'Steven Spielberg (I)''s first flop. It was actually a moderate box-office success, but when compared to his early hits Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), it didn't meet expectations.
The names of David L. Lander' and Michael McKean's characters, Willie and Joe, are a nod to cartoonist and WWII veteran Bill Mauldin's creations for the Army newspaper, "Stars and Stripes". Mauldin's Willie and Joe represented average American GIs, their viewpoints, and their daily lives outside of combat.
During the "attack" on Hollywood scene, when Wild Bill Kelso is flying his plane through the streets of Los Angeles chasing and shooting at the trainer airplane, the soldiers move into action. Two soldiers man an anti-aircraft gun. The soldiers manning this gun, Willy and Joe, are Michael McKean and David L. Lander, who played "Lenny" and "Squiggy" in Laverne & Shirley (1976). McKean and Lander also appeared as the TV jamming duo, Eddie and Freddie in Used Cars (1980) which was also written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (and directed by Zemeckis).
The dialog between Claude and Herbie was written along the same lines as Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton. Jackie Gleason and Art Carney were offered the roles, but Gleason refused, saying he would not and could not work with Carney any longer. However, Gleason and Carney re-teamed one last time for Izzy & Moe (1985).
This was the first U.S. production to use the French-made Louma crane. It was going to be used for shooting the miniatures. The Louma proved to be so flexible that it was frequently used for the "A" camera.
3/4 of the way through the theatrical version, John Belushi says to John Landis (as he steals his motorcycle) "Aw, look. A baby wolf!" - to which Landis replies, "Where?" Landis was working on -and his next film would be-(at that time) An American Werewolf in London (1981).
All told, seven directors were involved in some manner in making this movie: Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale wrote the film, John Milius helped with production of the film, and Steven Spielberg directed it. The other director involved was Brian De Palma. According to Millius in the DVD 'making of' documentary, DePalma contributed the gag of the Japanese asking Slim Pickens "Where's Hollywood?" to which Pickens, whose character name is Hollis "Holly" Wood would answer "I'm here." as a play on Abbott and Costello's "Who's on first?" routine. In addition, Samuel Fuller and John Landis have cameo roles.
The advance teaser trailer, with John Belushi as "Wild" Wayne Kelso, was an original production in its own part. Directed by John Milius with an original score by John Williams and featuring thematic materials that differed from the score of the actual motion picture. The score for the advance teaser is featured on the LaLaLand Records 1941 extended score two CD set.
The film is dedicated to the memory of Charlsie Bryant, a longtime script supervisor at Universal Studios. She had served in that capacity on both Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and would have reprised those duties with this film had she not unexpectedly died.
The film was initially set up at MGM, where John Milius had a production deal. It wound up at Columbia because Steven Spielberg did not want to work at MGM. Besides, he made Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) for Columbia and wanted to make another movie there. Spielberg got Universal to co-produce because he wanted to fulfill a contractual obligation with the studio.
The advance teaser trailer for the film, directed by John Milius, featured a voice-over by Dan Aykroyd as John Belushi lands his plane and gives the audience a pep-talk to join the armed forces, else they will find one morning that "the street signs will be written in Japanese!"
In a 1990 interview with British film pundit Barry Norman, Steven Spielberg admitted that the mixed reception to the film was one of the biggest lessons of his career citing personal arrogance that had got in the way after the runaway success of Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). He also regretted ceding control of the action and miniature sequences (such as the Ferris wheel collapse in the film's finale) to second unit directors and model units, something which he would not do in his next film - Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale met while attending the University of Southern California Film School. One of USC's most famous school presidents was Rufus von Kleinschmidt, and several buildings on campus bear his name. Ironically, one of von Kleinschmidt's many accomplishments was helping start the film school.
Before the film was released, Spielberg appeared on a radio program with critic Pauline Kael. During a commercial break, Kael and Speilberg were discussing 1941, and Kael told him that he was not going to get off easy with the critics after the massive success, critically and commercially, of his last two films. Kael warned him that they were ready to attack him without mercy if the movie fell even slightly below expectations. Ironically, Kael would be one of the few critics to give a positive review to the movie when it was released.