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Steven Spielberg’s Always: 30 Years later

Guest blogger, Fran Del Pizzo takes a look at Steven Spielberg's underrated, 'Always'

Few films in Steven Spielberg’s oeuvre are as contentious as the 1989 romantic drama Always. Tending to occupy a spot near the bottom of the list in articles that rank the directors’ body of work, it is also, in the vein of Empire of the Sun (1987) and 1941 (1979) one of his lesser successful works commercially too. Despite this, it’s clear that the film was a very personal project for its director - his admiration for the Victor Fleming film that it was based upon, and the timing of his decision to make the picture at a key moment in his own life, as well as the themes and motifs that Always explores, makes it a fascinating film to look back upon on its 30 year anniversary. On a personal note, it is, along with The Terminal (2004), my favourite ‘underrated’ entry in the long career of its director and one that should be re-reviewed as a ‘quintessential Spielberg film’ (Koresky, 2012), rather than simply the ‘rom com’ that it is categorised as.

Based upon the 1943 wartime film A Guy Named Joe (Dir. Victor Fleming), starring Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne, Always follows Pete Sandich (Richard Dreyfuss) and his friend Al Yackey (John Goodman) as pilots battling forest wildfires in old WWII bomber planes. Pete’s heedless approach to his dangerous work deeply worries his girlfriend Dorinda (Holly Hunter), who believes Pete to be one more mission away from death. After she tearfully urges him to quit his work, he agrees to take a safer job teaching trainees - but the next day, Pete is killed on his last flying mission after sacrificing himself to save Al’s life.

At this point, the film’s supernatural element takes over; Pete finds himself in a state of limbo, where he meets an angel named Hap (Audrey Hepburn, in her last film role) who sends Pete back to earth as a ghost to help mentor a rookie firefighting pilot named Ted (Brad Johnson) and to his horror has to witness Ted and Dorinda slowly fall for one another. Whilst he is unable to directly communicate with others back on Earth, he is able to influence their thoughts; an ability which he utilises initially to sabotage the burgeoning relationship, until he can fully allow himself to let go of his jealous and selfish tendencies to allow Dorinda to be with someone else.

Although he had the rights to legendary writer Dalton Trumbo’s original script for A Guy Named Joe, Spielberg didn’t feel that his version was a remake, but instead described it as an ‘adaptation’ when interviewed by British critic Barry Norman. Shifting the setting from the 1940s to the modern day Monush argues, is a way of making the concept of accepting the loss of a loved one ‘timeless’ (2018: 39) and something that wasn’t restricted to the heroic atmosphere of WWII. While this is true, it is this ‘heroic’ atmosphere of A Guy Named Joe which is dismantled somewhat for Always, and serves to heighten Pete’s recklessness and immaturity since he is no longer putting his life at risk for the sake of his country in a conflict, but instead simply for a job that he loves. His behaviour is similar to the roguish, daredevil aspects of Indiana Jones’ personality, specifically in one moment at the climax of The Last Crusade (which was coincidently released the same year). As Indy finds himself hanging from a chasm, clinging for life to his father with one hand whilst reaching for the Holy Grail with another, he’s initially more preoccupied with the egotistical sense of pride that will come with retrieving the grail than he is for the safety of his own life, much like the foolhardy Pete when he’s attempting life-threatening manoeuvres in the air.

If Richard Dreyfuss’ pitch to Spielberg for landing the leading role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), was to convince him that the film needed a ‘man child’ to play Roy Neary, then this came in to play again over ten years later when he was cast in Always. Like Neary, Pete is (initially) lacking in both responsibility and maturity, marking Always as ‘one of several films to address the directors’ obsession with the difficulties of growing up’ (Fowkes, 2010: 82). Paul Bullock notes that this portrayal of Always’ main character was an intentionally self referential and critical move on the part of the director; an ‘autobiographical element’ which reflected his desire to grow up and focus on directing more serious fare. Given that he had just made the more ‘adult’ Empire of the Sun and The Colour Purple (1985), it is logical that a film about grief was further demonstration of Spielberg’s ‘drive for maturity that he was undergoing in the 80s’ (Bullock, 2017). While this maturity still doesn’t seem to be something that Spielberg felt that he had fully reached by the end of the decade, evidenced in an 1989 interview when he revealed that Schindler’s List was a film that his company was ‘definitely’ going to produce, but not a film that he was going to direct himself (Quoted in Royal, 1989: 147), Always can still be seen as an incredibly important touchstone in developing his courage as a filmmaker. Just a few years after its release, he would indeed go back on his word and overcome the insecurity he felt at tackling the tragic and monumental topic that his 1993 epic explored. Despite Hook existing in-between Always and Schindler’s List, the former does seem to be a swansong of sorts, McCabe writes that it’s ‘a pivotal film in the Spielberg canon because in many ways it marks his own quiet goodbye to his childhood…… it’s almost impossible to see him progressing as a filmmaker without having made it’ (2010).

The story goes that Spielberg and Dreyfuss would spend their free time on the set of Jaws (1975) quoting lines from A Guy Named Joe, and it was an aspiration for the both of them to remake the picture they loved so much. Despite their enthusiasm and the fact that a first draft script for the film existed as early as 1980, it (yet again) took a while before Spielberg felt mature enough to tackle the themes that Always dealt with. It took a while too, for him to believe that his leading man was ‘grown up’ enough to play the role, initially approaching Robert Redford and Paul Newman who both fought for the role of Pete, until he eventually saw Dreyfuss to be ‘a possible contemporary reincarnation of Spencer Tracy’ (Cohen, 2010: 44). Like with Close Encounters, Spielberg was projecting aspects of his own personality onto the screen by casting Dreyfuss: ‘Richard played me in that [Always]… when I identify with a character I like to find someone who thinks like me… to me it’s an honour that he steps into roles that I identify close to’ (1998). However, Spielberg subverts the aforementioned childish traits that defined Roy Neary; when Pete finally ‘grows up’ and lets go of his egotistical attributes by the end of the film, it makes him similar to some of the Spielberg protagonists that were to come: Alan Grant (Sam Neill) in Jurassic Park (1993) and Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) in Schindler’s List for instance are initially either unwilling to take responsibility or are driven by selfish motivations, until they learn to move beyond ‘Peter Pan type figures’ (Clarke, 2004: 23) to act in a more compassionate manner and confront their obligations. Likewise, the aforementioned scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade draws parallels again with Always when Henry (Sean Connery) urges his son to “let go” of the legendary artefact he himself has been in search of for his whole life - it is a touching moment because it’s the instant when Henry finally realises the damage that his own obsessions have had upon his relationship with Indiana - just like Pete when Hap tells him that anything he does for himself over Dorinda’s own happiness is a “waste of spirit”.

Despite being a fantasy film with comedic elements, critic Dave Kehr agreed in his review that Always still explored feelings which were ‘manifestly personal and painful’ (1989). Spielberg himself stated that he had no regrets about making the picture despite the reception, because it was a good experience for him to make a film that was about ‘human emotions’ (Quoted in Schickel, 2012: 130). Although an optimistic movie considering the premise, Always is still a film that ‘reflected the rupture and permanence of loss’ (Haskel, 2017: 130) and with all of this in mind it is very difficult to look at it without taking into account the private life of the director at this point in his career. On April 24th 1989, Spielberg’s divorce to actress Amy Irving was announced (Mcbride, 2011: 403), and here we have him remaking a picture that as a child he would ‘find comfort in as his [own] parents’ marriage slowly crumbled’ (Bullock, 2016). Considering that he cites (in the 2017 Susan Lacy biopic documentary, Spielberg) this moment of his youth as literally the worst period of his life, he seems to similarly be finding solace in adapting a cherished film during what must have been a similarly traumatic period, making the themes of attachment and separation present in Always all the more poignant and personal.

Always of course, isn’t a film that is directly about divorce, but one that instead explores the heartache that comes from that passing of someone that you truly loved - and the supernatural element adds an interesting and unique spin here since it suggests that the deceased are just as incapable of moving on as the ones they left behind. Months have passed after Pete’s crash, and Dorinda is unable to get over the anguish she feels after his death; she moves to a house right next to a runway so that the sounds of aircraft passing overhead can constantly remind her of him, and she is only able to begin to start the healing process once her friend Al realises what she is doing to herself and forces her to move away. Similarly, Pete’s love for Dorinda didn’t die along with him, and although his possessive actions can be seen as selfish (Spielberg described his character as an ‘ornery type of guy’), it’s understandable because he too is experiencing the same type of grief as Dorinda, but with the added pain of jealousy when she finds someone else. Ultimately he finds it just as difficult to say goodbye as Dorinda does, and has to learn that as long as he is holding on to her, she herself will never be able to get over her distress and be happy once again, which he comes to realise is the most important thing. It’s this theme of yearning which is the most moving and memorable aspect of the film; whilst there are admittedly plenty of elements that don’t really work here, (considering he had just come off The Last Crusade which featured some of the most genuinely hilarious sequences in his career, there are comedic moments that just don’t hit the mark), the one thing that even detractors of the film agree on is the thoughtful and touching way Spielberg deals with the heartbreak between the two leads. Critic Molly Haskell for example, despite not being a fan of the picture agreed that this is something Spielberg genuinely understands; singling out the one moment in the picture which she admired, and one which I think ranks among the director’s best and most tear-jerking sequences. When Pete, unseen to Dorinda, dances with her to their favourite song, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, it is a painfully beautiful scene  which agonisingly underlines Dorinda’s loneliness and longing, while reminding us that for all the unfair criticism levelled at Spielberg in his career for his apparent overindulgence in schmaltz, his love of sentimentality isn’t a detriment to his ability to create authentically tragic moments that stick with us.

Perhaps a less obvious theme of the picture which seems to be close to Spielberg’s heart is the idea of inspiration: ‘There were days [on set] when I felt truly inspired’, he has said ‘…was Victor Fleming there, whispering in my ear?’ (Quoted in Royal 1989: 147). In this sense it’s odd to think that Always is (to more casual fans at least) such an unseen entry in his career, given that inspiration is massively universal topic; we have all, at some point in our lives felt spurred on by the encouragement or influence of others. After Pete’s death, his mission is to nurture the young and inexperienced pilot Ted and act as his guardian angel; transforming him into the hotshot pilot that he was himself (Hap reveals that Ted also had someone looking over his shoulder when he was learning to fly too). As an artist, Spielberg himself of course has been influenced by those who worked before him, frequently citing visionaries such as David Lean, Akira Kurosawa, William Wyler and John Ford as individuals who have helped to shape his own profession - he has even suggested that A Guy Named Joe was one of the reasons he became a director, and would say in an interview for Cinema Showcase that ‘Victor [Fleming] was my Pete when making this movie’. The inclusion of this motif, of an ‘unseen, guiding hand of compassion and encouragement’ (Clarke, 2004: 69) in Always seems to be Spielberg’s way of paying tribute to his filmic heroes who guided him in his own career - as someone who breathes cinema, Spielberg spoke about the importance of the directors that came before him and his fellow ‘movie brats’ in an interview with the AFI: ‘We all learnt from the masters of the 30s, 40s and 50s so we are all handing influences down and inspiring generation to generation’.

As per tradition, composer John Williams’ work here is what brings everything together; a largely low key score, it actually takes roughly 30 minutes before making itself heard at all. In a rare case for a film featuring music composed by such a master, it’s likely that it’s a piece of popular music, namely the aforementioned Platters track Smoke Gets In Your Eyes which will be stuck in your head after the film has finished, rather than an instrumental track written by Williams himself. That isn’t to say his score here isn’t the great, memorable work we have come to expect from him, quite the contrary; it’s a beautiful, dreamy and restrained composition that is perfectly suited to the more tender and quiet moments of the film in which is plays. When the score does become more soaring such as during the final moments on the runway, one is left wondering why Williams’ work here isn’t more appreciated, but perhaps this fact is simply a testament to how much incredible music there is to choose from in his unparalleled career. As with all Spielberg/Williams collaborations, it’s difficult to imagine the film being as emotionally effective as it is without one of the directors’ most trusted parters helming the music; this isn’t to take away from Spielberg of course, but even he modestly admitted (on the 10th anniversary of Williams’ tenure as conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra) that it’s John Williams who makes him “look good” whenever he makes a film! Always features an array of tracks that you really can’t listen to without immediately thinking of the scene in which said music accompanies - the below is my own favourite and plays when Pete is finally able to relay his regret to Dorinda about not expressing how much he loved her while he was still alive.

Always is a perfect example of how, even the minor works of Steven Spielberg offer so much to admire. As expected, it is a fantastic achievement on a technical level thanks to Mikael Salomon’s beautiful cinematography and the intense firefighting sequences which deserve to be spoken of in the same vein as Spielberg’s best action scenes he’s ever filmed. This visual ambition is clear from the opening sequence, which features a distorting telephoto shot of a plane looming down on two justifiably terrified fishermen and continues throughout, most obviously with a stunning long take in which Spielberg synchronises the mundane action of Al walking down a corridor to make a phone call with the camera tilting up to capture a plane passing overhead all in one unbroken shot. Despite all of this, it is the more understated aspects of Always which makes it a much more significant film in Spielberg’s career than it may seem like on the surface; the subjects that it explores and the central idea that, growth as a person sometimes involves the emotional pain of ‘letting go’ was key to Spielberg’s progression as an artist at the stage in his career that Always was released. The reception was further indication that some people just didn’t know what to expect from him by the time the 90s were around the corner: ‘audiences did not anticipate Spielberg’s melancholy attitude towards love… that it can be detrimental as well as nourishing, dangerous as well as uplifting’ (Friedman, 2006: 17). While many were still reluctant to accept his ambitions of making more mature pictures, it’s hard to imagine him being the versatile filmmaker he is today without him having adapted one of his most beloved childhood films.

Guest post by Fran Del Pizzo - 


BBC Film 90 Special: Barry Norman Talks to Steven Spielberg. Youtube. [Video File] Available here:

Bullock, Paul. 2016. Spielberg at 70: Indy, E.T., and the 1980s. Den of Geek. [Online] Available here:

Bullock, Paul. 2017. Mr Everyday Regular Fella: Spielberg’s Stars. From Director Steven Spielberg.  [Online] Available here:

Clarke, James. 2004. Steven Spielberg: The Pocket Essential Guide. Hertfordshire: Pocket Essentials.

Cohen, Clelia. 2010. Masters of Cinema: Steven Spielberg. Paris: Cashiers Du Cinema.

Fowkes, Katherine. 2010. The Fantasy Film. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

Friedman, Lester. 2006. Citizen Spielberg. Illinois: University of Illinois Press

Jim Whaley Interviews Steven Spielberg. Youtube. [Video File] Available here:

John Williams / Spielberg Collaboration: Evening at Pops 1990. Youtube. [Video File] Available here:

Kehr, Dave. 1989. With Always, Spielberg Becomes an Artist At Last. Chicago Tribune. [Online] Available here:

Koresky, Michael. 2012. Always: The Greenhouse Effect. Reverse Shot: Museum of the Moving Image. [Online] Available here:

Making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind Directed by Laurent Bouzereau. 1998. Youtube. [Video File] Available here:

McCabe, Bob. 2000. Empire essay: Always Review. Empire. [Online] Available here:

Monush, Barry. 2018. Steven Spielberg FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Films of Hollywood's Best-Known Director. New York: Hal Leonard Corporation.

Royal, Susan. 1989. ‘Always: An Interview with Steven Spielberg’ in Lester D. Friedman & Brent Notbohm (eds), 2000. Steven Spielberg: Interviews. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi.

Schickel, Robert. 2012. Steven Spielberg: A Retrospective. London: Thames and Hudson.

Steven Spielberg on the Importance of Studying Classic Films. Youtube. [Video File] Available here:

The Bearded Trio - The Site For Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Williams and a whole lot more.


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