Always could have been a classic. I loved it when it came out. But even then I noticed the many instances of poor direction by Steven Spielberg.
Always is a remake of the Spencer Tracy/Irene Dunne 1943 classic A Guy Named Joe. I should like to review the latter, in this thread or another one, only I can’t find my copy. It’s probably in a VHS box somewhere. So any references I make to it will have to be from memory.
I love the young Holly Hunter. Her character (‘Dorinda Durston’) in Always happens to be my physical and emotional ideal. She’s so cute! Richard Drefuss (‘Pete Sandich’) and John Goodman (‘Al Yacky’) are great actors who work well together. Brad Johnson (‘Ted Baker’) is… well, he’s okay. But his part could have been played by anybody.
A Guy Named Joe took place in WWII. When Pete Sandidge (Tracy) heroically gives up his life in order to attack a German wasrhip, he returns to become the ‘inspiration’ for pilot Ted Randall (Van Johnson). Of course Johnson falls in love with Dorinda Durston (Irene Dunne). Sandidge has to guide Randall through his flying, and at the same time come to terms with the fact that he is dead and thus has lost the love of his life Dorinda.
Always is the same story, as it would be, being a remake, only set against the backdrop of firefighting aircrews in Idaho. Now airborne firefighting is a dangerous business, as has been shown in the last couple of year when bombers have crashed. In the film Al Yacky’s PBY Catalina gets a little too close and an engine catches fire. Yacky uses the engine fire extiguisher to no avail. ‘I think I’m screwed,’ he says. Sandich comes to the rescue in his A-26, dropping a load of fire-retardant slurry onto Yacky’s stricken aircraft. Unfortunately the A-26 is still heavy and Sandich comes very close to the ground when he pulls out. Now his engine is burning. The plane explodes.
Pete finds himself in a forest. Hap (Audrey Hepburn, in her last role) gives him a haircut and explains the situation. Pete Sandich is dead. He must return to Earth to become the inspiration – ‘that little voice’ – for another pilot. That other pilot is Ted Baker.
Always opens with an excellent use of telephoto distortion, making it appear that Yacky’s PBY is going to run over a couple of guys in a fishing boat. Excellent shot! There are a lot of good shots in the film. And a lot of comedy. Some of the comedy works, some doesn’t. The verbal interplay between Drefuss, Hunter and Goodman is great. The bit with a runaway aircraft tug falls flat. There’s just no reason for it. Marg Helgenberger (‘Rachael’) plays the frustrated mechanic. There’s not much reason for her character except for a scene where she thinks Baker is falling in love with her. It’s awkward.
Spielberg tries too hard in some places. Or maybe he doesn’t try hard enough. Sandich has a distinctive donkey-like laugh. In a scene where Baker does a donkey-laugh and Dorinda comments on it, it seems forced. There’s also a scene where Dorinda and Baker are dancing. Pete and Dorinda’s ‘song’ comes on. Dorinda stops dancing with Baker. The way she breaks it off doesn’t really work. Before Pete’s last flight, he and Dorinda have decided he’s going to hang up his spurs and become an instructor pilot instead of flighting fires. The phone rings, and Dorinda tells Pete not to answer it. ‘I won’t,’ he says, ‘It’s not my phone.’ Then he immediately goes over to the phone and answers it.
There are a couple of technical flaws as well. In the beginning of the film Pete runs out of fuel and has to make a dead-stick landing. Spielberg shows us his A-26’s altimeter as it winds down to zero. Only zero feet on an altimeter is zero feet sea level, not AGL. They’re up in the mountains. Two other scenes show Dorinda’s wacky landings. I can’t believe any pilot would consistently (as is implied by the dialog) land a plane like that. S/He’d certainly flunk the Biennial Flight Review. Spielberg uses the sloppy technique so that Pete will know that Dorinda is flying. (Victor Fleming may have done it in A Guy Named Joe. i don’t remember.) It seemed clumsy to me.
Spielberg really likes classic films. It seemed to me that he really wanted to make a loveing recreation of one of his favourites. But there are bits where he seems to phone his direction in. Or maybe he was tired. Some bits just don’t work. They’re embarrasing.
Nevertheless, the parts he gets right are very well done. Most of the time he really brings out the vulnerability in Hunter’s feisty character. Most of the time he does build suspense. And many of the comedic scenes (e.g. John Goodman sitting on a hill under an umbrella, drinking a soda through a very long straw and listening to a goofy song about matza balls – while Pete pulls a naughty prank by telling Baker to aim for the umbrella-shaped targed) are pretty darned funny. And there are the planes. Most of the flying scenes are great, and how often do you get to see a PBY or an A-26 fly? (Okay, I used to a lot. There was a tanker base at Fox airport when I lived in Lancaster.) Holly hunter is cute. Richard Drefuss is a smart-arse. John Goodman is the Goofy Fat Guy with a Big Heart.
Always is a fun, romantic story that’s easy to like. It took me many viewings before I just couldn’t take the awkward scenes anymore. Worth a look. Possibly a good date video.
Incidentally: I saw this film at its L.A. premiere with some friends who had connections. There’s a scene where Pete’s soul is crushed (not literally!) when he realises he really has lost Dorinda. It was heart-wrenching. As it happened I got something in my eye right at that moment. Piece of eye-grit or something. I reached up to rub it out – just as a female friend looked over at me. I never could convince her that I wasn’t crying and that it was just a piece of grit. (And yes, it really was a piece of grit.)