When Steven Spielberg elected to remake Victor Fleming’s 1943 sentimental classic, A Guy Named Joe, he jettisoned its war-time milieu in favor of a contemporary pseudo-fable about fire-eating hot shot pilots, dumping their payload over brush and forest fires. Alas, whereas Fleming’s original had been a valentine to those gallant flyers and the girls they left behind on the honor of their country, Spielberg’s remake – Always (1989) suggests an overconfidence to the exercise of putting out 4-alarm blazes; the risks taken by our protagonist, Pete Sandich (Richard Dreyfuss) pointless grandstanding and idiotic male chest-thumping that ultimately costs Pete his life and his best girl, tower navigator, Dorinda Durston (Holly Hunter). Always is a fairly dull remake on all accounts; lacking the gentle chemistry and star quality Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne brought to the original tale. In its place we have Hunter’s usual madcap, herein registering as somewhat oppressive and downtrodden, and Dreyfuss, as a fairly arrogant piece of work, seemingly lacking in any sort of feelings other than to manipulate, cajole or otherwise control the outcome of his friends’ lives, even after death as their occasionally benevolent angel in waiting.
A Guy Named Joe was hardly a perfect classic to emulate; its’ flight into an ersatz heavenly abyss, run by a base commander-styled guardian angel, seated in a fluffy white shag carpeted recruiter’s office overlooking a panacea of sundrenched skies, somehow more a product of that decades’ wish fulfillment for the finer things in life rather than ethereal and just eternal rewards. If Spielberg’s film ‘improves’ upon one aspect of its predecessor, it is its’ re-conceptualizing of this militaristic heavenly purgatory as a more naturalistic ‘heaven on earth’; the luminous Audrey Hepburn – in her final screen appearance – playing a cardigan sweater-clad seraph, who clips our hero’s hair – and then his wings, with the understanding he has left the realm of living creatures behind because of his ill-timed macho stunt. Hepburn exudes and unimpeachable radiance; exactly what one might expect of an angel and an intermittent and welcoming presence in this otherwise overcomplicated and miscast mishmash.
The original movie had the congenial all-American, Van Johnson as its love interest. Spielberg’s remake introduces us to Brad Johnson as Ted Baker, a wet behind the ears, buff and towering hunk du jour who conducts a ‘flying telegram’ service. In only his third acting gig, and his first major appearance in a feature film, Johnson is undeniably good to look at, but lacks in any sort of tangible screen presence to make the eye candy stick. Worse, he has zero chemistry with Holly Hunter and even less of the actor’s intuition to sell himself as anything better than a vacuous, if handsome façade. It’s a woeful misstep and one from which the movie never entirely recovers. We can firmly buy into Dorinda’s reluctance to commit to Ted, and not only because Pete is always within earshot, defusing her every impulse to move on with the business of life by whispering dreaded forewarnings, but because Ted is about as inspired a love match as a stick of kindling. If only the all-important ‘spark’ had been present, at least some of the nonsense in Jerry Belson/Diane Thomas’ screenplay might have clicked. Always should have been right up Spielberg’s alley; its blend of subtle comedy and mercurial fantasy an artless extension for the man who breathlessly oversold audiences on over-sized rubber sharks and audio-animatronic aliens. Alas, the tripping of this light fantastic as effortlessly as Fleming had in 1943 seems to have tripped up Spielberg instead.
The aegis for Always began while Spielberg and Dreyfuss were shooting Jaws (1974); the pair trading lines between takes from A Guy Named Joe, a film each considered a personal favorite and one of the greatest war-themed movies of all time. Spielberg has frequently cited ‘Joe’ as one of the reasons he longed to become a director. Spielberg would, in fact, pay homage to ‘Joe’, briefly glimpsed as late night television fodder in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), produced by Spielberg. But it was only after a string of successes had solidified Spielberg’s reputation in the industry as a rainmaker that he was given the green light to pursue this property for a remake. From the outset, Spielberg only had Dreyfuss in mind as his star; not a terrible casting decision by any means, except that Dreyfuss is entirely the wrong type for this role; too cocky and not all that prepossessing; also, somewhat over-the-hill to garner and maintain the interests of Hunter’s free-spirited ingénue. To be sure, Hunter and Brad Johnson are a much better fit as a couple. But neither Johnson nor Dreyfuss ever manage to bottle an illusive romantic chemistry that might have convinced audiences either man was the right one for Dorinda. Had something have remained of this curiously otherworldly ménage à trois, Spielberg could have at least salvaged a genuine sense of pathos for our heroine; her inevitable decision to embrace Ted – as her only option in the land of the living – given over to a bittersweet farewell; Pete surrendering to the couple with his blessings before vanishing into the clouds.
Always is a curious amalgam of styles. The planes prominently featured in the movie owe more to the 40’s wartime ambiance; a pair of Douglas A-26 Invader fire bombers flown in tandem by expert pilots, Steve Hinton and Dennis Lynch. Spielberg also used an Aeronca 7AC Champion, Bellanca 8KCAB Super Decathlon, Beechcraft Model 18, Cessna 337 Super Skymaster, Cessna 340, Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina, de Havilland Canada DHC-6-300 Twin Otter, Douglas C-54 Skymaster, Fairchild C-119C Flying Boxcar, McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and North American B-25J Mitchell, and two helicopters; a Bell 206 JetRanger and Bell UH-1B Iroquois to fatten the fire stunt sequences. The aerial work is fairly impressive, infrequently marred by cutaways to obvious painted backdrops with smoke and wind effects to simulate clouds for the all-important close-ups of our stars, presumably in high-flying peril. A lot of the picture was photographed at Kootenai National Forest in Montana, Spielberg recruiting the townsfolk from nearby, Libby to play the fire and rescue extras. Interestingly, both A Guy Named Joe and Always run 122 minutes; the latter seeming to go on forever, the former moving nimbly through its tightly scripted and expertly played scenarios.
Our story begins with Pete Sandich, an aerial firefighter, flying his war-surplus A-26 bomber with a daredevil’s attitude. He frequently throws caution to the wind, taking wholly unnecessary chances as he drops fire retardant slurry on wildfires. Pete’s arrogance is cause for concern. After all, there is no economy in a dead pilot. Pete is simply asking for trouble when he elects to fly dangerously long missions, his fuel running out in mid-air, forcing him into an emergency landing on the tarmac. His compatriot flyers think he’s a great pilot, hoisting him atop their shoulders and soaking the runway in cheap beer to celebrate his seemingly impossible return. However, his girlfriend, Dorinda Durston, also a pilot who doubles as a dispatcher, is fairly unimpressed. Moreover, she knows Pete knows these aerial acrobatics leave her white-knuckled. To prove the point, Dorinda does some hot shot flying of her own. All of this is mildly upsetting to the couple’s mutual friend, Al Yackey (John Goodman) who harbors grave misgivings their competitiveness will come to no good.
Pete shrugs off his latest brush with death, surprising Dorinda with a stunning white dress for her birthday. Oops: it’s the wrong day. But who cares? Clearly not Dorinda. For after a bit of playful flirtation and an outward rejection of his present, Dorinda nevertheless scoots upstairs and puts on the frock and accompanying shoes. She proves a knockout; the flyboys gathering around as she cuts a swath to dance with Pete. A local band at the clubhouse strikes up a tepid rendition of Jerome Kern’s Smoke Gets In Your Eyes; the couple’s signature song. Herein, Spielberg moves into the most awkward moment in the picture; Al likening the setting to wartime England in order to emphasize a fundamental difference. There is no war – the chances Pete takes do not make him a hero but something of a macho fool who could easily ruin his sweet ride with Dorinda by getting himself killed. Drawing the parallel between the original movie’s atmospheric charm and the remake’s utter lack of it only makes one pine for Fleming’s weepie more.
Al implores Pete to consider a newly created post in Flat Rock, Colorado as a flight instructor for firefighting pilots. It is a hateful proposition to Pete – at first. But when Dorinda makes it known she has had enough of worrying about him all the time, Pete begrudgingly decides to give the job a try. Alas, he cannot resist flying one more mission, despite Dorinda’s ominous premonition something terrible is about to happen. Ego wins out, Al choosing to accompany Pete in another bomber to oversee his safety. Regrettably, Al’s plane clips a burning pine tree. His engine catches fire and Pete swoops down to douse it in mid-air with his slurry. Pete manages to pull himself out of the perilous tailspin that follows, but not before his engine bursts into flames that quickly travel through his fuel lines and into his gas tank. His plane is blown to bits in midair in a hellish fireball. Al is stunned by the loss; he and Dorinda suffering through their grief together – neither able to face the future without Pete.
Meanwhile, Pete awakens in the burnt remnants of the forest; seemingly unscathed. He follows a young buck to a queerly unaltered patch of green where a mysterious woman in a white cardigan sweater is waiting. She seems to know everything about him, inviting Pete to sit down for a haircut, his supernatural barber, Hap (Audrey Hepburn) explaining the particulars of his fate. He’s not dreaming. He’s dead. And with death comes new responsibilities: to help Al and Dorinda heal in their sorrow as their Spiritus – or ‘divine breath’ – heard inside their heads. Hap further explains whatever Pete’s feelings were toward Dorinda will do him no good now. With a wave of her barber’s apron the locale changes to Flat Rock; Pete surprised to discover six months have passed and Al has taken the post as instructor to a motley crew of novice pilots, including Ted Baker. To Pete's chagrin, Ted romantically pursues Dorinda; she, resisting him at first, but eventually beginning to entertain his romantic notions. Pete jealously attempts to sabotage their burgeoning romance, awakening in the forest some time later to incur Hap’s reckoning. She reminds him his life is over. He had his opportunity to be with Dorinda and blew it on a whim to be daring. His purpose now is to see Ted through as his replacement, both as a hot shot pilot, but also as Dorinda’s future mate. It’s time to say goodbye to Dorinda.
Begrudgingly, Pete returns to Flat Rock as an invisible mentor to Ted. He stands by as Ted and Dorinda begin to fall in love; tortured by the notion she will love another as she once loved him. With Pete's inspiration, Ted outlines a daring plan to rescue a troop of firefighters trapped in a nearby forest; the flames lapping on all sides. It dawns on Pete Ted could get himself killed in the process of completing this mission. Alas, both men have underestimated Dorinda’s desire to be spared yet another loss by flying the plane herself. Unable to dissuade Dorinda from her stubborn resolve, Pete accompanies her in the cockpit as she steals Ted’s plane and takes off for the rendezvous with fate. Dorinda completes Ted’s mission with Pete’s coaching. At the same time, he manages to tell her how much she always meant to him, expressing emotions he never could say to her while he was alive. He further releases Dorinda from her obligations to him.
The plane experiences mid-air failure, Dorinda forced to bring it down on the smooth surface of a nearby lake. However, as the aircraft crash lands and begins to fill with water, Pete detects a whiff of a suicidal tendency; Dorinda doing nothing to free herself from the wreckage and swim ashore. For the first time since his death, Pete suddenly appears to Dorinda in the flesh, taking her by the hand and forcing her body up and out of the aircraft to the surface of the lake. As she clumsily wades ashore alone, Dorinda is rescued by Ted and Al; Pete freeing her conscience of his memory; a void now ably filled by Ted. Pete declares, “That's my girl,” a line frequently repeated, only this time adding to it, “…and that's my boy.” As Dorinda and Ted embrace, Pete turns his back to them. He walks the length of the runway, presumably heaven bound.
The ending to Always is a genuine downer, primarily because the paper-thin ‘romance’ between Dorinda and Ted seems unlikely to endure after the final fade out; also, because the audience must reconcile Pete’s surrender of his earthly desires for Dorinda means he can no longer be a part of her life, even as a guardian angel. From now on, the memory of the dead will be allowed to fade and molder with the ancient past – as it does with the passage of time. Exactly how Dorinda, Ted or Al will cope without Pete’s driving presence at their side remains an open wound in the film’s narrative, unresolved even as Pete strolls off into the sunset, liberated from his lingering human yearnings. Arguably, Dorinda and Ted’s relationship is not strong enough to sustain this absence.
Always is blessed with Mikael Salomon’s stunningly handsome cinematography; moodily lit interiors married to vast and sun-drenched open spaces and some exhilarating aerial and fire sequences besides. All of Spielberg’s best movies are blessed with such great visuals. Alas, these do not add up enough to counterbalance the movie’s turgidity. It’s the cast that’s chiefly the problem herein; the script too, and, atypically, Spielberg’s direction, interminably dragging in spots. Dorinda and Al’s mourning period goes on…and on. In A Guy Named Joe, there was a thread of tender cadence running through this period of adjustment. Also, the death of Spencer Tracy’s Pete Sandidge occurs almost mid-way through the movie, allowing the audience to see something of his genuine – if mildly concealed – love for Irene Dunne’s Dorinda. Killing off surrogate, Richard Dreyfuss not even twenty minutes into the picture deprives us of more intimate scenes with Holly Hunter’s Dorinda as a prospective flesh and blood lover and potential husband.
Such episodes might have helped to augment our understanding as to why the inevitable loss is so epic and insurmountable for Dorinda. Curiously, Spielberg spends more narrative run time on the bro-mance between Pete and Al; Pete’s devilish prank, smearing Al’s cheek with heavy grease, then allowing him to continue to spread it everywhere; the way he sadistically – as an angel, no less – goads Ted into dumping his payload of bright red slurry prematurely onto Al’s hilltop perch; their buddy/buddy relationship on much more solid ground than the romance with Dorinda that, arguably, never was or shall be. In the final analysis, Always is not a movie for ‘always’ but rather a footnote in Spielberg’s otherwise impeccable movie-making career. Comparatively, it is probably the director’s weakest film since 1979’s war-themed farce, 1941 – an epic implosion of sound and fury, signifying nothing. As failures go, Always is not of this caliber of disaster, but a congenial little nothing with virtually no staying power once the houselights have come up. It dies; the death, at least fairly quick and almost as painlessly expunged from our memory without too brutal an impression of having wasted two hours of our lives we can never get back.
Universal has come around to releasing Always as a single disc Blu-ray. Previously the studio had made it exclusively available as part of their Steven Spielberg Collection; a rather inarticulately slapped together compendium of the director’s work – bringing together four previously unreleased catalog titles (including Duel, Sugarland Express, 1941 and Always, with reissues of Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park II (one of Spielberg’s worst efforts), while bizarrely, and unceremoniously omitting Schindler’s List and Amistad from the celebration (both movies rights reside with the studio). So, how does Always look on Blu-ray. Answer: fairly fantastic. Fans will surely be pleased with what’s here; precisely rendered colors, gorgeous shadow delineation, fully saturated black levels, superb contrast, a fine smattering of film grain looking indigenous to its source and razor-sharp crispness that does not appear to be the result of any untoward artificial enhancements. I was, in fact, very impressed by the quality of this transfer. Now, if we could just get Universal interested in doing the same on some of their deeper catalog titles still MIA: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Tammy and the Bachelor, The Major and the Minor, Sweet Charity, The Secret of My Success, Death Becomes Her and on and on. I’ll stop now, but you get the idea. Better movies deserve this sort of consideration. The 5.1 DTS is very solid, impugned only by the film’s dated acoustics. Still, as a mostly dialogue-driven drama, it sounds fabulous with unexpected aggressiveness during the aerial slurry bombing missions. So, if you do love this movie you are finally in for a viewing experience that replicates its opening night splendor. Regrettably, Universal has given us NO extra features – a rarity for their Blu-rays. There’s a trailer, but that’s all. Bottom line: if you liked Always as a movie, there’s virtually nothing to complain about here.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)