In the late 70's and 80's, Steven Spielberg ruled the roost with a series of hit films including JAWS (1975), CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), and E.T. (1982). Every time Spielberg had a new film, Time Magazine would do a story on Spielberg besides reviewing his latest movie. Often, Spielberg would mention he wanted to remake his favorite film when he was growing up, a WWII fantasy called A GUY NAMED JOE (1943) starring Spencer Tracy and directed by Victor Fleming. Spielberg would get his chance in 1989 with his version called ALWAYS.
But be careful what you wish for Steven Spielberg. Remakes are a tricky business. SCARFACE is a fine example of a successful remake taking the Chicago gangster boss in 1932 and transplanting him as a cocaine kingpin in Miami in 1983. Other remakes should never be attempted as the source is too perfect to try to attempt again such as Gus Van Sant's shot by shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1998) or Jonathan Demme's updating of the John Frankenheimer classic political thriller THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (2004).
Kudos to Spielberg for transferring the story from WWII pilots in A GUY NAMED JOE to fire fighting tanker pilots in modern day Montana for ALWAYS instead of using the same scenario. The original lovers Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne are now Richard Dreyfus and Holly Hunter in the new version. But in trying to remake his beloved movie from his past, Spielberg learns that a movie that you loved from your childhood doesn't always translate to the same great movie when you become an adult. A GUY NAMED JOE was made as World War II was still going strong. War is a powerful dramatic component, more compelling than a forest fire. JOE has some big time creative talent involved starting with actor Spencer Tracy as the devil may care pilot and director Victor Fleming who knows something about fantasy having directed THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) and DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1941).
A GUY NAMED JOE was written by the great screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, adapted by Frederick Hazlett Brennan based on a story by Chandler Sprague and David Boehm. Pete Sandidge (Spencer Tracy) is a hotshot American bomber pilot over in England during WWII flying B-25's with his buddy Al Yackey (Ward Bond). Pete is a skilled but lucky flier. After one of his bombing missions, he barely makes it back, crash landing the plane while it's on fire and no landing gear. Pete's got a date that night with the love of his life Dorinda Durston (Irene Dunne). Dorinda's a pilot too, jettisoning planes to different bases. Pete's group commander "Nails" Kilpatrick (James Gleason) reprimands Pete for flying too low on the bombing mission. Dorinda criticizes Pete's daredevil flying as well. Nails has Pete and Al transferred to foggy Scotland to fly less risky reconnaissance missions.
Dorinda catches a ride to Scotland to visit Pete and Al. Dorinda confides to Pete that Nails wants Pete to teach pilots to fly back in the States. Dorinda notices Pete's plane in the fog and has a premonition that Pete's number is up. Pete's against the idea but realizes he'll lose Dorinda if he doesn't go along. So he agrees to the plan. But Pete and Al have one last reconnaissance mission. They're sent to check out a Nazi convoy in the Atlantic. A squadron of German Messerschmitts ambush them. With no time to call in help, Pete dive bombs the German carrier, blowing the ship apart but his plane is hit and Pete crashes into the ocean where he dies.
But Pete isn't dead. His body might be but his spirit goes to heaven. He's greeted by another WWII pilot Dick Rumney (Barry Nelson) who takes him to meet the General (Lionel Barrymore). The General explains to Pete that his mission now that he's dead is to be sent back to earth to become a guardian angel to a living pilot. Pete and Dick travel to Luke Field near Phoenix, Arizona, basic training for new pilots. Pete is assigned to wealthy but quiet greenhorn Ted Randall (Van Johnson). Ted's not a very good pilot to begin with but Pete helps Ted to relax as he flies. Later, Pete encourages Ted to ask a pretty girl Ellen Bright (Esther Williams) to dance when he and his college football friend and fellow pilot James J. Rourke (Dom De Fore) hit the town one night.
Ted and the other recruits get called up to active duty. They're sent to the Pacific, the island of New Guinea to be exact. Pete's former buddy Al, now a colonel, is in charge of the new pilots. Al is reunited with Dorinda who happens to be ferrying a plane in from Australia. Al takes her to the Officers Club where she meets Ted. Ted begins to fall in love with Dorinda. Pete becomes jealous and tricks Ted into flying recklessly. Pete is called back to heaven by the General who reminds Pete his role is to give back to the future, keep those pilots alive by helping them, not tricking them. Ted accepts a suicide mission to bomb a munitions dump on a key Japanese island. Fearful that Ted will die just like Pete, Dorinda steals Ted's P-38 and flies the deadly mission herself. With Pete in the cockpit, he guides Dorinda to a successful bombing run and brings her back safely to her new love Ted. Pete gives his permission for Dorinda to love again before he leaves Ted, Dorinda and Al behind, his mission complete.
One can see why Spielberg was attracted to A GUY NAMED JOE as it has a little of everything in it. It's a war film with some excellent aerial battles and an intense bombing scene by the Japanese on the U.S. base. It's got a nice love triangle between the deceased Pete vying with the living Ted for Dorinda's love. It's got another of the ultimate movie buddies (besides George Kennedy) in Ward Bond as Pete's best friend in the world Al Yackey. The chemistry between Tracy and Dunne is as good as any of the multiple films Tracy did with frequent costar Katherine Hepburn.
There's one scene early in A GUY NAMED JOE that may have caught young Spielberg's fancy. Pete is leaving the airfield having just landed his shot up plane. A bunch of English kids stop and quiz him about which plane is better and what's it like to fly alone. Pete tells them he hears music when he flies and he feels he's half way to heaven. The way Pete talks to the children like they're adults and not kids may have rubbed off on Spielberg. Many of the child actors who worked with Spielberg like Henry Thomas in E.T. or Christian Bale in EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987) give breathtakingly adult performances.
Director Victor Fleming made the greatest fantasy film of all time in THE WIZARD OF OZ (and I should mention he directed a little film called GONE WITH THE WIND also) but his work on A GUY NAMED JOE is much more grounded than the colorful OZ. There are no halos or wings or any kind of angelic special effects as Pete returns to earth. Pete is still wearing his bomber jacket and slacks. Tracy is always in the scene with the other actors. The living just can't see him. Heaven is shown as an infinite white soundstage with mist swirling around Pete's feet (Warren Beatty would use the same style in 1978's HEAVEN CAN WAIT a remake of the 1944 HERE COMES MR. JORDAN). There are no pearly gates just a small office that the General inhabits.
Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson would work again as pilots the following year in THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO (1944) about Doolittle's Raid on Japan in WWII (also written by A GUY NAMED JOE screenwriter Dalton Trumbo). Irene Dunne as Dorinda isn't your classic beauty but she's perfect as one of the boys, an equal to her flying boy friends. Ward Bond who most film aficionados will know from numerous John Wayne films like FORT APACHE (1948) and THE QUIET MAN (1952) is perfect as Spencer Tracy's pal and later Van Johnson's superior. And look for the beautiful Esther Williams, who made numerous "Aqua Musicals" for MGM and was a teenage National Swimming champion, in a minor role as Ellen Bright, a young lady that Van Johnson's Ted meets in a club one night.
Steven Spielberg would make his version of his favorite childhood film A GUY NAMED JOE in 1989 calling it ALWAYS. Spielberg would keep much from the original version while updating the setting from World War II to modern day fire fighting in Montana. He keeps the three lead characters names Pete, Al, and Dorinda. Screenwriter Jerry Belson combines Ted Randall and his big football friend Rourke from the original into one character Ted Baker played by Brad Johnson. This Ted has chiseled good looks but he's clumsier and more blue collar than Van Johnson's Ted. The war against Japan is replaced by a war against forest fires. Tanker pilots Pete and Al drop thousands of gallons of water instead of bombs. The God like figure the General (played by Lionel Barrymore) changes gender and becomes the divine Hap (played by Audrey Hepburn). Spielberg deviates from the original ending slightly giving Pete and Dorinda a momentarily reunion. I didn't care much for the change but it distinguishes ALWAYS from the original.
In Spielberg's reimagining, Pete Sandich (Richard Dreyfus) and Al Yackey (John Goodman) are hotshot pilots who fly air tankers over forest fires in Montana, dropping thousands of gallons of water and retardant to slow the flames. Pete's girlfriend Dorinda Durston (Holly Hunter) helms the control tower. ALWAYS opens with Pete pushing his plane and luck to the limit, barely making it back to the airport after a drop with no fuel left. It's Dorinda's birthday (actually Pete has the day and month wrong but Dorinda lets it slide). Pete's gift to the tomboyish Dorinda is a beautiful white dress that she puts on to the delight of the smoke jumpers. Dorinda wants to fly tankers but Pete's against the idea. Al wants Pete to follow him to Flat Rock, Colorado to teach new pilots how to fly tankers. Dorinda tells Pete she can't love him when he takes so many risks. She's had a premonition that Pete will die.
On Pete's day off, Al comes to him needing an extra pilot to battle a new inferno that has sprang up. Pete agrees over Dorinda's protests but promises he'll look into Al's training job. As Pete and Al fly low over the blazing forest, Al's plane catches fire. Pete positions his tanker over Al's and dump water onto Al's plane, extinguishing the fire. But Pete's plane catches fire too. It explores in mid-air, killing Pete. Pete finds himself in a smoldering forest. He comes across a round green patch of heaven where his celestial guide Hap (Audrey Hepburn in her last film role) awaits. Haps asks Pete to return to earth to provide inspiration and guidance to someone who's still alive.
Pete becomes the guardian angel to Ted Baker (Brad Johnson). Ted's a pilot for a Wing and a Prayer air delivery service but he wants to become a tanker pilot. Ted's initial test flight goes badly. Pete, the prankster, has Ted drop retardant on Al who's watching from a nearby hill. Al asks Ted to leave. Ted flies out of Flat Rock dejected but bad weather forces him to land prematurely. Pete convinces Ted to return to Flat Rock and follow his dream. While on business in San Diego, Al reunites with Dorinda. Neither are over the loss of Pete. Al convinces Dorinda to come to Flat Rock and work with the new pilots.
Al takes Ted back as a training pilot. Ted becomes a better pilot with Pete's coaching. Pete sees Dorinda for the first time since he died. Ted and Dorinda meet and a romantic spark begins. Dorinda has Ted over for dinner. As Pete watches Dorinda with Ted, he realizes what he's lost. He's jealous of Ted. Pete returns to Hap who reminds Pete he needs to settle with the ones he loved and give back to the living. A group of smoke jumpers become trapped by a raging fire. Ted prepares to go fly and assist them. Dorinda doesn't want to lose another love. She takes Ted's tanker instead. With Pete guiding her in the cockpit, Dorinda drops a trail of water, leading the smoke jumpers to safety at a nearby river. But Dorinda's plane has to ditch in a lake. Who will save her?
I wasn't overly impressed when I first saw ALWAYS in a theater. I didn't have the context of A GUY NAMED JOE to reference ALWAYS from. I thought some of the humor was forced and why fire tanker pilots as the protagonists? Now that I can compare the two films, ALWAYS is a little better than I originally thought but not one of Spielberg's strongest films. Spielberg does maintain the essence of the original. Pete's death as his plane explodes in mid-air is powerful and well-staged. It's no surprise that the flying sequences as the tankers fly low and through flames are intense. Spielberg at his best although ALWAYS is one of his least special effects laden pictures.
My favorite scene in ALWAYS is total Spielbergian. Ted and Dorinda (with Pete tagging along) come across a school bus stopped in the middle of nowhere. The bus driver lies seemingly dead on the road having suffered a heart attack. The bus driver appears next to Pete (both dead) as Ted applies CPR to the bus driver's body. Pete tells Ted to give up. But Ted revives the bus driver who comes back from the dead. Pete is all alone again, the bus driver returned to the living. It's a magical scene, one of the few in ALWAYS that doesn't seem forced.
Forced is a good word. Dreyfus and Goodman as Pete and Al are much more practical jokers in ALWAYS then Tracy and Bond in A GUY NAMED JOE. Dreyfus and Goodman are almost too alike in their goofiness. Yes, Tracy and Bond tease each other but they're more reserved, more reverent about their friendship. Dreyfus can't play straight man to Goodman and visa versa. It's an odd pairing. Dreyfus (a Spielberg favorite having worked with the director in both JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND) would fare better when teamed with Emilio Estevez in STAKEOUT (1987).
The biggest change Spielberg makes is reuniting Pete and Dorinda briefly in the ALWAYS finale, after Dorinda crash lands in a mountain lake. In A GUY NAMED JOE, Pete and Dorinda never see each other again after he dies. Dorinda feels his presence in the cockpit as she bombs the munitions dump but he never materializes to say goodbye. It's implied that they make a final connection. Modern audiences aren't sophisticated or patient enough for that type of otherworldly love story. They want the characters to have a visual resolution. So Spielberg has Pete rescue the drowning Dorinda from the lake in ALWAYS. Dorinda may think it's a dream but she does believe Pete reaches for her and pulls her from the depths of the lake. A final, delayed good-bye. Spielberg would use this improbable reconciliation scene again in his 2001 Sci-Fi film A.I. - ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE when young Haley Joe Osment reconnects with his dead mother in a very distant future.
Spencer Tracy and Richard Dreyfus aren't your typical leading men. They don't have the matinee looks but they have personality. Dreyfus has played romantic leads before like in THE GOODBYE GIRL (1977) but I'm not sure he's the right casting for ALWAYS. He's a great actor but not a star. Dreyfus does have good chemistry with Holly Hunter who's perfect as his Hawksian like girlfriend Dorinda Durston. Holly Hunter made my heart swoon in films like RAISING ARIZONA (1987) and BROADCAST NEWS (1987) with her southern accent and firecracker personality. Hunter makes ALWAYS enjoyable whereas Spencer Tracy is the best part of A GUY NAMED JOE.
John Goodman is fine as Pete's best friend Al (although he's hammy at times) but the surprise for me watching ALWAYS again is Brad Johnson as Dorinda's new love Ted Baker. I though Johnson was stiff and uninteresting when I originally saw ALWAYS but I found Johnson to be funny and engaging. Spielberg is considered a great visual technician but give him credit for getting a great comic performance out of the newcomer Johnson. Other faces to look for in ALWAYS include Marg Helgenberger (TV's CSI) as the mechanic Rachel, Keith David (PLATOON) as another training pilot Powerhouse, and Dale Dye (usually a military technical advisor for films like PLATOON or SAVING PRIVATE RYAN) as Don, the leader of the smoke jumpers.
Spielberg's ALWAYS won't rank up there as one of the director's finest films but CrazyFilmGuy wouldn't have sought out A GUY NAMED JOE to watch if it wasn't for Spielberg's love and appreciation for the whimsical and moving fantasy. A GUY NAMED JOE although part war film preaches the virtues of life, how good life is. Respect life, don't take life for granted, and don't take unnecessary risks as they could have unintended consequences for your loved ones. So go hug a loved one now. You never know when their time might be up.