In 1943, an unassuming melodrama known as A GUY NAMED JOE was written by legendary screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and released in cinemas. The film concerned a fighter pilot who is killed in combat, only to return as a spirit and help his love move on with her life. It came and went without much of a ripple in the grand scheme of things, but it made a world of an impression on a young boy named Steven Spielberg. Some distance away, it also profoundly affected another young boy named Richard Dreyfuss. As these two grew up, met, and began collaborating with each other out of a shared love for the cinematic medium, A GUY NAMED JOE always remained at the back of their thoughts, subtly influencing their art. What began as casual references tossed back and forth between the two men on the set of JAWS (1975) and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) soon grew into a strong desire to re-make the film with a modern spin. In the same year that INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE debuted, Spielberg and Dreyfuss joined forces for the first time in over a decade to create their take: a romantic drama called ALWAYS (1989).
Pete Sanditch (Dreyfuss) is a daredevil pilot who extinguishes forest fires for a living. He’s one of the best at what he does, but he’s a reckless flier- much to the chagrin of his lover, Dorinda Durson (Holly Hunter). Just as she convinces him to finally hang up his hat and go to Colorado and teach firefighting techniques to aspiring pilots, he gets the call to execute one last job. As any dutiful moviegoer might predict, this “one last job” is the one that kills Pete, sending him to a fiery grave after rescuing his buddy Al Yackey (John Goodman) from a similar fate. To his surprise, Pete wakes up seemingly alive and well in the middle of a burnt-out forest. He stumbles upon Hap, an ethereal barber who tells him he is indeed dead and he must go watch over a young pilot before he can enter into heaven. That person is Ted Baker (Brad Johnson), a rugged dreamer with eyes towards the skies and a heart for Dorinda, the girl that Pete left behind. Pete must now struggle with the conflict of carrying out his heavenly duties against the heartbreak that comes with seeing Dorinda move on and find happiness without him.
Dreyfuss anchors his third Spielberg film in ALWAYS, and has aged quite a deal in the intervening years since CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. He’s good at exemplifying a rakish, jovial personality– somewhat reminiscent of a favorite uncle. Holly Hunter is every bit his equal as the feisty Dorinda. She’s a salt-of-the-earth tomboy and a convincing love interest for Dreyfuss that also fits well within the man’s world that Spielberg has established here. As Pete’s kindly, oafish buddy Al Yackey, John Goodman is basically playing…John Goodman. Brad Johnson’s Ted Baker is the handsome young hotshot pilot vying for Dorinda’s affections, but he’s so impossibly-good-looking that he’s boring. Audrey Hepburn (making her last film appearance ever) plays the God-like character of Hap. It was shocking for me to see her as an old woman, considering she’s much better known for her youthful pixie appearance in films like BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961) or ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953). Hepburn’s casting is an inspired one, however, and makes for a great secular substitute for God. Finally, Roberts Blossom—who previously worked with Spielberg on his AMAZING STORIESepisode “GHOST TRAIN”– has a small cameo that plays to his strengths as the hobo that helps Pete communicate with Ted.
In accomplishing ALWAYS’ look, Spielberg works for the first time with Director of Photography Mikael Salomon. The 1.85:1 aspect ratio makes for a large, expansive frame that, when combined with a mix of dolly, crane, and aerial shots, creates a surprisingly dynamic presentation for a romantic drama. Spielberg’s color palette is mostly muted and naturalistic, save for a heightened blue light for night sequences and a bright orange/red color when sunsets or fires are present. This treatment also extends to Spielberg’s non-secular presentation of the afterlife. Heaven is depicted as a circle of untouched pastoral beauty surrounded by trees scorched black by wildfire. And later in the film, Pete’s attempts to steer Dorinda to safety as she flies through the center of a wildfire is akin to a descent into hell.
John Williams, as expected, scores the film—but his execution is anything but routine here. Surprisingly, Williams opts for a subdued, low-key score that’s more tonal than melodic. It’s peculiar for a Williams score in that it doesn’t really call attention to itself. Instead, the musicality of ALWAYS relies more on source cues from R&B and doo-wop crooners. While Williams is to be commended for branching out and trying something new, I can’t help but wonder if the inclusion of the type of iconic theme that Williams is so good at might’ve helped elevate the film into more of an emotional and resonant space.
Like EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987), ALWAYS takes Spielberg’s love for planes and aviation and puts them front and center in the narrative. This approach allows for the natural incorporation of his aesthetic quirks: lens flares, low-angle compositions, star fields, and his trademark awe/wonder shot. Although the film takes place in the 80’s (present day then), Spielberg’s and Production Designer James Bissell’s hearts are firmly rooted in the 1940’s. When the firefighter pilots aren’t dressed in a manner reminiscent of old WW2 air aces, they’re blatantly expressing their desire to be like them. Even Dreyfuss gets in on the act by wearing a WW2-era leather bomber jacket for most of the film (a look that Spielberg himself has employed frequently in public). Eagle-eared audience members will also catch a very sly reference to Spielberg’s friend and collaborator George Lucas when Dorinda’s proclamation of “I love you” to Pete is met with a snarky “I know”.
ALWAYS was a modest flop at the box office, met with an indifferent critical and audience reception. The lack of love given to the film is apparent in its treatment on home video, which hasn’t seen a decent re-release since the dawn of DVD when films were formatted for obsolete 4:3 displays. The result is a tiny picture surrounded by a sea of black when watched on a modern HD TV. Hardly the engrossing experience that Spielberg intended.
**Edit 12/13/16** ALWAYS has since been released on high definition Blu Ray disc, recapturing its former glory.
Most can agree that Spielberg’s lofty romance, while interesting in its non-secular exploration of the afterlife, never really takes flight. This might be because his attention was divided by the simultaneous post-production of INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE. This exercise in attention-splitting soon became a regular occurrence for Spielberg, serving as a neat personality division that enabled him to effectively make a big blockbuster and a thought-provoking drama simultaneously. The combination of ALWAYS and THE LAST CRUSADE isn’t a great case example towards this end, but it was great practice for the one-two punches to follow: JURASSIC PARK and SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993), THE LOST WORLD and AMISTAD (1977), WAR OF THE WORLDS and MUNICH (2005), etc.
To speak of ALWAYS’ legacy is to make a short and (bitter) sweet statement. Within Spielberg’s larger filmography, its existence is severely overlooked and hasn’t presented much of a case for reappraisal in recent years. Despite its surface demerits, however, those who give ALWAYS the time of day will find it to be at least an entertaining, if not absorbing, experience.
ALWAYS is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Universal.
Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Steven Spielberg
Written by: Jerry Belson
Director of Photography: Mikael Salomon
Production Designer: James D. Bissell
Editor: Michael Kahn
Composer: John Williams