We all need to indulge ourselves once in a while, even if you’re a famous movie director. As part of a series on Film Sentinel, each week we are revisiting a work from the career of Steven Spielberg. This week we’re looking at 1989’s Always: it’s the first time Spielberg made a romantic comedy, and as it wasn’t all that successful compared to his other films, it’s also the last time. As a remake of the 1943 war fantasy A Guy Named Joe, Spielberg’s 1989 update Always is sappy and schmaltzy, albeit with some solid performances and some strong production values.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
A Guy Named Joe was released during World War II in December 1943, and was one of the highest grossing films of the following year. It was one of the last few movies directed by Victor Fleming, who is known for The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. A Guy Named Joe centered on Spencer Tracy as Pete Sandidge, a reckless American B-25 bomber pilot dating a fellow pilot named Dorinda (Irene Dunne) in England during World War II. During a particularly dangerous mission, Pete gets killed, and comes back as a guardian angel to mentor another young pilot.
Spielberg saw the film as a child, and formed a connection with it due to his own father having served as a pilot in the war. It was one of the films that influenced him to become a director, and it was especially a favorite for Richard Dreyfuss, who had reportedly seen the film over 35 times by this point. During the production of Jaws, the two traded lines from the movie with each other on set, and dreamed of remaking it someday. In 1989, after the two had achieved profound success working together, that dream became a reality, and they remade the film as Always.
Always transfers the context of A Guy Named Joe to the setting of aerial firefighting in the present day, but other than that and the title, the film leaves most things unchanged. It focuses again on Pete (Richard Dreyfuss), though his name is slightly altered to “Sandich.” Pete is also here a reckless pilot, to the consternation of his best friend Al (John Goodman) and his girlfriend Dorinda (Holly Hunter). Pete tragically gets killed, and he is assigned as a guardian angel by Hap (Audrey Hepburn, in her final film role) to help a young pilot named Ted Baker (Brad Johnson).
Spielberg at his most devoted and most unrestrained, is known for his excessive use of sentimentality in his films, and there is perhaps no better example of this than Always. Engaging an audience emotionally in commercial fare usually involves manipulation, and Spielberg is extremely skilled at this, it’s the main reason he is so successful. But there are times when he becomes overly-attached and too-commited to a script that doesn’t quite earn such dedication. It happened in Twilight Zone: The Movie and in The Color Purple, and it happens again in Always.
It also doesn’t help that there was probably no one other than Richard Dreyfuss and Steven himself who wanted to see this movie. A Guy Named Joe was a decent enough film, but it doesn’t exactly have a following at this point, and its essence doesn’t exactly translate to the late 1980s conception of modern film without retaining some rather antiquated characteristics. A Guy Named Joe was a Casablanca-era passionate fantasy of the silver screen, and that particular censor-approved representation of on-screen romance feels rather out of place in 1989 cinema.
It’s also worth mentioning that A Guy Named Joe didn’t have all that great of a concept to start with. The film’s best scenes involved Pete and Dorinda’s authentic and distinctive romance, and then the film proceeded to tear them apart and spend the rest of the film mourning their separation. It was a rather clunky mixture of a happy-go-lucky love story and a pondering on the implications of war. Once Pete died, the film lost a lot of its appeal, though it eventually proved to offer some depth in demonstrating the value of war’s sacrifice to the following generation.
Considering Always doesn’t take place during World War II, the film loses much of that original potency, as it becomes really more about love and love alone. Again when Pete dies in the early portion, and it’s even earlier here than it was in A Guy Named Joe, the film loses momentum, with Pete nonchalantly entering the afterlife and beginning his next phase of casually observing a new character in Ted that we don’t really care about. When Pete has to watch Dorinda fall in love again, the discomfort is shared, and it’s not really a film experience I tend to find desirable.
There is an area in which the film does excel as much as the movie it’s based on though, and that’s in its casting, as its players really deliver about as much as they can considering the lackluster material. Richard Dreyfuss makes for a great Pete Sandich, and he is about as lively as you can usually expect from him, though there are times that it feels he’s trying a little too hard to sell some of Pete’s corny one-liners. John Goodman is a lot of fun as Pete’s best friend Al. Brad Johnson is good enough as Ted, though his character never really earns his spot in the film.
But Holly Hunter is the real showstopper as Dorinda. Hunter offers by far the best performance of the film, as she perfectly captures Irene Dunne’s lovable brand of fierceness and ratchets it up a few notches. Dreyfuss and Hunter are fairly captivating to see working together, and Hunter is heavily convincing in the more emotional scenes. The film also boasts the final film role for the iconic Audrey Hepburn, who passed away in 1993. Hepburn is as lovely as she ever was at close to age 60 as the angel Hap, and she makes quite an impression despite her brief screen time.
Spielberg might not be the best when it comes to romantic drama, but when it comes to set pieces and special effects, he can do almost no wrong. Though Always eschews the more sobering context of the second World War, it does offer a very unique setting in the aerial firefighting operations of the American forest. John Goodman even has a nod to this with a passage of dialogue that starts with “this reminds me of the war in Europe!” The aerial action sequences are quite exciting, and planes fighting fires are not a very common occurrence in cinema.
Authentic Douglas A-26 Invaders were used in the movie, and their worn appearances really give the film some texture. At the end of the day, however, Always is much more about melodrama than planes and fires, and its story arc extending beyond the grave is not particularly interesting. As with A Guy Named Joe, Pete and Dorinda are charming when they are together, but that doesn’t last for very long. Always is really nothing more than an excuse for Spielberg to relish in nostalgia, but with all that he’s contributed to cinema over the years, I’d say that he’s earned it.
Next week, we’ll be taking a look at another notable Spielberg misfire, although one that has its fans, in 1991’s Hook. The film is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, for streaming on Hulu, and for rental from your various digital retailers. Give the movie a watch, and I’ll see you next week.