ALWAYS IS PROBABLY Steven Spielberg's most idiosyncratic movie, in that it stands as the only example of the filmmaker ever remaking someone else's work, in this case Victor Fleming's 1943 ghostly WWII melodrama, A Guy Named Joe.
Among Spielberg devotees there are those that feel he falls into two camps as a filmmaker — a deeply personal director who chronicled his feelings regarding his parents' divorce through E.T., and spectacularly remade his early childhood movies (and childhood obsessions) with the likes of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, and the later obligated father figure he seems to have become — a man who acknowledges his responsibilities and sets out to make concentration camps, America's history of African slavery and the D-Day landings a visceral and educational experience for the audience he has both lulled and culled.
Always falls between these two stools — it is at once a homage to all the movies and the styles of movies he ever loved growing up, and in many ways his own sad personal goodbye to the pure and honest flights of fancy those movies allowed him. It is consequently a movie made by a man who found himself caught between a sense of personal history and an obligation to what he felt was his wider role in history. Ironically, this makes it one of his most personal films.
Spielberg first saw A Guy Named Joe as a suburban child. He later recalled that, "it was the second movie, after Bambi, that made me cry. I didn't understand why I cried. But I did." While shooting Jaws, the emergent filmmaker discovered a fellow devotee in his star Richard Dreyfuss. Both huge Spencer Tracy fans (Tracy starred as "Joe" in the original) Dreyfuss joked that if Spielberg ever remade it, he had to play the lead.
Spielberg began seriously playing with the notion as early as 1980, retaining the film's original title and, over the ensuing years, making his way through 12 drafts of the screenplay. He later said, "I think it all came down to the fact that I really wasn't ready to make it." A smart observation, because at that time Spielberg simply wasn't mature enough to give the emotional basis it needed.
Always is a pivotal film in the Spielberg canon because in many ways it marks his own quiet goodbye to his childhood. The previous year's Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade was his ultimate Boys' Own adventure, his final Saturday morning hurrah. Always was his transitional movie. (Okay, he briefly paused on Hook to assess why a grown man can't be a child again, but floundered.)
Always — at a domestic box office gross of $43 million — remains one of Spielberg's least successful movies financially, but it's almost impossible to see him progressing as a filmmaker without having made it.
A Guy Named Joe's WWII setting was transposed here to a group of pilot forest fire-fighters, a group that John Goodman's character Al Yackey tellingly views as akin to those World War II flying aces. Key among the
group is Spielberg's "Joe", here named Pete (and, true to his promise, played by Richard Dreyfuss, the closest the director has to an on-screen alter-ego.) Pete is wild, reckless and in love with fellow pilot Dorinda, perfectly played by Holly Hunter. But when Pete dies on the job, his spirit is forced to face up to her grief — he must learn to love her enough to let her love another — in this case flying dufus Ted (Brad Johnson — the film's weak link.)
Where often before Spielberg found his visual strength in the use of his self-named "God light," here he delights in the notion of visual juxtaposition right from the opening shot — a small fishing boat about to be eaten by the (Jaws-like?) maw of a water guzzling plane. It's a motif that plays throughout the film — the diminutive Hunter leaving the frame as Goodman's bulk bursts in; soot covered fireman's feet retreating in awe of Dorinda's virgin white-shoed elegance. In many ways this is Spielberg at his most visually playful and inventive.
But more importantly this is a film about loss. And for those that claim the director dabbles in faux sentimentalism, (or earnest historical guilt) this is a film about real emotions, spurred in part by his own recent divorce (from Amy Irving), and his ultimate acceptance of adulthood.
It is also, however, a film about moving on — Pete has to let go of Dorinda to free her to live and love again, just as Spielberg had to give up his own love of childhood, in this case one of his favourite films, A Guy Named Joe.
These feelings of loss were, of course, accentuated by the delightful final screen appearance of Audrey Hepburn as Pete's after-life guide/angel, Hap (a role, curiously, originally offered to Sean Connery.). Heavenly sequences shot with otherworldly grace in woodland glades and vast, golden corn fields. Not his most successful movie, by any means, but a transitional, poignant delight nonetheless.