I just looked through Steven Spielberg’s filmography and it is as I suspected: He has never directed anything that could qualify as a romance. He is an action-adventure sort of guy. And that’s fine; he’s good at it. This is as close as he’s ever come to a romance, and it’s a fairly off-beat one, with plenty of action.
It’s a remake of A Guy Named Joe, a 1943 wartime film. Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter take the places of Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne. In the original Dunne was a WASP (Women’s Airforce Service Pilot), a civilian who flew newly-built bombers across the Atlantic, so combat pilots would not have to. (Unsung heroines of WWII, in my book.) Tracy was a fairly reckless B-25 Mitchell pilot. They are in love from before the beginning of the picture, and Tracy is killed on what was to have been his last mission before transferring Stateside to become a flight instructor. Only he doesn’t completely die. He comes back as a ghostly presence, whose purpose is to be a sort of co-pilot for a raw recruit. But in the Pacific the rookie (Van Johnson) meets Dunne, and they fall in love. This doesn’t sit well with Tracy. He still hasn’t learned to abandon his Earthly concerns. It ends with a rather ludicrous scene where Dunne steals a plane and bombs a huge Japanese ammo dump, so Johnson won’t have to fly the mission.
Spielberg wisely chose to re-imagine the story with firefighters instead of soldiers. It makes Hunter’s presence a little more plausible. John Goodman is as good as he always is, playing the big loveable slob of a best friend for comic relief. The fire special effects are pretty amazing for their day, as is the flying. There are two glorious old A-26 Invaders, a PBY-5A Catalina, one of the more distinctive airplanes ever to fly, and a C-119 Flying Boxcar. It all worked pretty well for me.
The film is mainly notable, however, as the last film appearance of Audrey Hepburn, in the small role of a sort of angel who explains all this to Dreyfuss after his death. They play scenes in a burned-out forest. I can only imagine what a thrill it must have been for Dreyfuss to be able to work with a woman who is on the very short list of True Hollywood Giants. One of his career highlights, no question. Hepburn donated her entire $1,000,000 salary to UNICEF, a cause which she spent most of her later years promoting. Interesting tidbit: She had to be carried on and off the location on a stretcher, not because there was anything wrong with her (cancer would not get her for another three years) but because the soot and ashes from the smoldering trees all around would tarnish her all-white costume!