Steven Spielberg offered John Wayne a supporting role in war comedy 1941, but the Western star bluntly rejected the offer. Spielberg had something of a rapid ascend during the ’70s, where Duel, Jaws and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind proved he was the next great filmmaker. Subsequent decades only proved that prediction correct, but he ended the ’70s with one of his biggest disappointments: 1941. This was co-written by future Back To The Future collaborators Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale and is a madcap comedy set during the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
1941 also boasted an impressive cast, including John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Christopher Lee and Seven Samurai star Toshiro Mifune. Unsolved Mysteries host Robert Stack also played Major General Stilwell in 1941, though the role was offered to Hollywood legends like Charlton Heston and Jimmy Stewart. John Wayne was very interested in the part initially, requesting Spielberg to send him the screenplay. The very next day, he spoke to the director, who later stated (via EW) that “He called me the next day and said he felt it was a very un-American movie, and I shouldn’t waste my time making it. ‘You know, that was an important war, and you’re making fun of a war that cost thousands of lives at Pearl Harbor.
Wayne’s politics and views were no secret in Hollywood, and he often rejected movies that didn’t align with his beliefs. He passed on High Noon because of its “Un-American” viewpoints and veiled subtext critiquing the House Un-American Activities Committee. In fact, he and director Howard Hawks disliked the final 1952 movie so much, they made Rio Bravo – which has a broadly similiar story – as a rebuke.
Wayne also deeply regretted not serving in World War 2 later in life. That’s likely the reason he passed on 1941, though he was also in ill health during the final years of his life. Had Wayne accepted the film, it would have served as his final role. The movie began filming in 1978 and was released in December 1979 – six months after Wayne passed away from cancer. While 1976’s The Shootist was his final onscreen appearance, his last unofficial role was voicing alien spy Garindan in Star Wars: A New Hope; the 1977 blockbuster altered trashed audio from an old Wayne movie to create Garindan’s voice.
While 1941 is something referred to as a bomb, the comedy still made a healthy profit – just not nearly as much as previous Spielberg efforts as Jaws – where he cameoed as the voice on Quint’s radio. The comedy suffered something of a messy production too, and while Spielberg has since stated he’s not embarrassed by 1941, its reception made him reconsider how he approached future movies. He followed it up with Raiders Of The Lost Ark and E.T., so he quickly rebounded from 1941’s “failure.”