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Screenwriter Bob Gale Talks Spielberg's '1941'

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Steven Spielberg's World War II comedy 1941 has just been released on Blu-ray for the first time as part of the new Steven Spielberg: Director's Collection Blu-ray box set (also on DVD). Starring Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Tim Matheson, Robert Stack and Treat Williams, the movie got a mixed reception on its release in 1979, mostly because its loud comedy wasn't what everyone expected from the guy whose two big movies were Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

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The Director's Collection features movies Spielberg made for Universal, starting with Duel (the TV movie that launched his career), The Sugarland Express, Jaws, 1941E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, AlwaysJurassic Park and The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Duel, Sugarland, 1941 and Always are appearing on Blu-ray for the first time.

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There's an extended cut of 1941 on the disk that adds about 30 minutes of footage, most of which is plot development. The movie makes a lot more sense when you have a little more insight into why the characters are all running around yelling about an imagined Japanese invasion of Los Angeles. (1941 is on Netflix, but that's the shorter theatrical version.)

Screenwriter Bob Gale wrote 1941 in partnership with Robert Zemeckis. The two would go on to write all three Back to the Future movies (which Zemeckis also directed). Gale talked to Military.com about how 1941 got made, the WWII research that went into the film and why you should watch the extended version.

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This is the first time "1941" has been on Blu-ray, but I also didn’t realize that there was an extended cut released a few years before.

The extended cut was originally first seen on ABC TV, when the movie ran there. When it went to laser disc, everybody said it would be good to put that extra footage in there and then that sort of became part of the package.

But the extended version has never been seen theatrically and the extended version that’s on the Blu-ray set has never been experienced before. Our music guys unearthed the original scoring sessions that John Williams had done and added score to some of those additional scenes. So there are three or four scenes that are now scored properly. Before, they were thrown together with some score by a music editor. So it's better than ever before.

The extended cut is a much different movie.

It is, isn't it? I think it'll be a revelation to a lot of people.

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Tell us the story of how you came to write the script and why the version that came out in theaters is different than this new version.

When Bob Zemeckis and I were first starting off on our careers, we were knocking on people's doors, trying to get jobs. We had written a script on spec that we were using as a writing sample. One of the people we went to was John Milius, who had graduated USC like we did, about three or four years prior to us. This was in 1975. John had just made the The Wind and the Lion at MGM. MGM was really excited about that and John had a four-picture deal because of it. Two pictures that he was going to write and direct himself and two pictures that he would produce with other writers.

So John said read our script, he really liked it, he liked us. He said, “Boys, I want to do for you what Francis Coppola did for me, when he hired me to write Apocalypse Now and give you a break.” So that was awesome and he asked us if we had any ideas for movies.

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We told him about this incident that we'd come across, in which there was a false alarm air raid over Los Angeles in February 1942. John was a history buff and he knew about that incident. He also knew that General Joe Stilwell had been stationed in LA in the first three weeks of the war, so he said let's move it to a week after Pearl Harbor so we can put Stilwell in it. And we set the project up at MGM.

We wrote two drafts with John's supervision and John starts telling his buddy, Steven Spielberg, about this crazy script that these two lunatics he hired out of USC had written. And Steven said, “Ive gotta read this, John, I've gotta read it.” So Steven reads it and Steven gets all excited about the prospect of a dogfight on Hollywood Boulevard and a tank battle on the Santa Monica Pier and all the insanity that we put into the script. He said, “I want to direct this movie, John.” So that’s how Steven got involved, that’s how the movie came to be, and that’s the answer to part one of your question.

Part two, regarding the two different versions, the movie had a hard release date of Christmas time, 1979. And the movie went over-schedule and over-budget, so Steven was scrambling to get the movie edited in time to make the release date. I think that if Steven had had a few more weeks in the editing room, he might have gotten the movie balanced more properly. But, as it was, he was worried that the audience might not want to sit so still for some of the exposition that we had in the first hour of the movie, so he cut a lot of stuff out in that part to get to the air raid quicker.

The stuff that he cut out is the bulk of the new material that’s in the extended version. And that had originally been put back into the movie when it ran on ABC in the late 80's. Then in the early 90’s, we put it on laser disc and it's kind of been part of the package ever since.

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I was a kid when the movie came out, so I don’t – I seem to vaguely remember some carping from people about the historical details of the movie, but the not-exactly-accurate history plays really well now when you see it.

I mean we're really proud of that. You know, we did a lot of research on it and we were kind of talking to Steven about the helmets that our troops wore right at the beginning of World War II were actually those doughboy helmets from World War I. And they would have had an old tank. They hadn't figured out the Sherman tank yet.

All the planes were absolutely accurate. There's a group called the Confederate Air Force. I think they call themselves the Consolidated Air Force now. And they were brought in to help us with the planes, so that B17 is the real deal. I guess somebody in that group had a P40 and then the other planes that are parked on the airfield at Long Beach, those are all accurate. So the period detail is really, really good.

I'm so happy that the extended version turned out on this Blu-ray the way that it did, because I think when people watch that, they're gonna completely have a new idea about what this movie really is and how good it is.

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