Steven Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss made no secret of the fact that they were enormous fans of the 1943 romantic adventure A Guy Named Joe, the story of a World War II aviator who dies during a bombing run only to come back as a ghost where he is forced to watch his best girl fall for someone else. Both the actor and the director had seen the movie more than 20 times and had its dialogue committed to memory.
That story, in and of itself, just sounds like a Spielberg confection and I give him points for trying, but maybe he didn’t do it justice enough. He transplants the story to modern times and turns the characters into aerial firefighters. The story is the same. After promising his girlfriend Dorinda (Holly Hunter) that he is out of the firefighting game, pilot Pete Sandrich (Dreyfuss) goes on one last mission and is killed when he maneuvers a risky dive and his engine catches fire and explodes. Sometime later, he comes back as a ghost that no one can see where he is forced to watch Dorinda fall in love with another man.
Revisiting the film again the other night, I was struck by how beautiful the romance is. The relationship between Pete and Dorinda has a great deal of weight and passion – you really feel that these two are in deeply in love. I was also caught up in the particulars of the job of aerial firefighters, and kind of wanted a little time getting to how and why they do this job.
Yet, both of those things go out the window once Pete comes back as a ghost. The weight and energy of the earlier scenes seems to drain completely out of the film as it meanders with Dorinda’s romance with a hot-shot newby (Brad Sullivan) and Pete’s buddy Al (John Goodman) attempting to start a flight school to train a new generation. For the first half hour, I sat there spellbound, then for the next 90s minutes I found myself in a state of indifference. I really didn’t care about the problems of Dorina’s new love, and I couldn’t care less about whatever Pete’s mission was that was keeping him here on Earth.
I was also a little confused by the presence of Audrey Hepburn as a character named Hap, a supernatural barber whose sole purpose is the explain the plot to Richard Dreyfuss and then disappear without a trace. This was Hepburn’s final film role, but she seems tragically underused in a role that could have been excised with no repercussions whatsoever. I wish, in fact, that the whole supernatural plot could have been scrapped. I would love to have seen a great love story about Pete and Dorinda set against the backdrop of an aerial firefighting school. Those parts of the movie I found fascinating, the rest should have been laid to rest.