A long time ago, I watched A Guy Named Joe, but just barely. I would have forgotten about it completely had I not recently seen the movie Trumbo (2015), which begins with a montage of the movies for which Dalton Trumbo had already written scripts before he got in trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. Presumably, the idea was to showcase these movies as evidence of what a good sreenwriter he was. So, I decided to take another look. In so doing, I learned that it was one of Steven Spielberg’s favorite movies, leading him to remake this movie as Always (1989). I find it all so hard to believe. If there was any movie that Trumbo should have written under a pseudonym, this was it. And as bad as that movie was, Always somehow managed to be worse.
A Guy Named Joe has two strikes against it. First, it is a combat film made during World War II. It is painful to watch these movies today, what with all the gung-ho patriotism they exude. Second, it is one of those Heaven movies, which are even more painful to watch. The fact that it belongs to both genres makes watching it all the way through a most trying experience. But I must say at the outset that as far as WWII combat movies go, this one is about average, but as far as Heaven movies go, this is one of the dumbest I have ever seen.
The title character of this movie is Pete Sandige (Spencer Tracy). Early in the movie, a child explains that in American slang, “Joe” refers to anyone who is a “right chap,” and that’s what Pete is. Pete loves being the pilot of a bomber so much that he is constantly taking risks disapproved of by his commanding officer, “Nails” Kilpatrick (James Gleason), and by his girlfriend, Dorinda Durston (Irene Dunne). She’s a pilot, working for the Ferry Service, and she takes risks too, for which Pete threatens to put her across his knee and spank.
Nails and Dorinda both want to take Pete out of combat, either by promoting him or by reassigning him to teach new officers how to fly. Pete is appalled at their suggestions. He says he’d go crazy sitting around in an officer’s club when he is not teaching “kids,” whom he hates. One gets the impression that he will be miserable when the war is over, when there will no longer be an enemy for him to drop bombs on.
Dorinda gets a premonition that “his number’s up.” In a movie, when someone has a premonition that something bad is going to happen, it always does. She really puts pressure on Pete to accept that teaching assignment and marry her, and he agrees. But first, there is this one last mission for him to fly in. His plane is damaged, but instead of bailing out, he flies the plane right over a Japanese aircraft carrier and blows it up. But then he crashes and dies.
The next we see of Pete, he is walking along on the clouds. He is still wearing his uniform. Is that the way it works in Heaven? Must you wear forever what you were wearing the moment you died? If so, then listen up, ladies. Remember when your mother told you always to wear clean underwear in case you are in an accident? And she was only worried what the nurses at the hospital would think. Suppose you die in that accident. Just imagine having to wear those dirty panties for all eternity. On the other hand, Pete’s uniform is not wet and wrinkled, as you would expect from the fact that he died in the ocean, but is all cleaned and pressed. So, maybe God will be merciful and give you a fresh pair of panties when you show up for your eternal reward.
Anyway, it’s good Pete is still in uniform, because Heaven appears to be a United States Army Air Force base. Another dead pilot, Dick Rumney (Barry Nelson), explains to Pete that he is dead and in Heaven. Pete says he never played a harp, but Dick says, “There’s not much time for harp playing up here. There’s plenty of work to do, and good men to do it.”
Work? In Heaven? Oh no! And here I was worried about what I might be wearing when I die. Don’t tell me I’m going to have to go back to work, doing what I did for a living for thirty-five years. Of course, Pete loves being a bomber pilot, and one of the conceptions of Heaven is that we get to do in Paradise what we enjoyed doing on Earth. He loves killing people by dropping bombs on them during wartime, so he gets to continue killing them now that he is in Heaven. Almost. The General (Lionel Barrymore) tells Pete that he will only be helping new pilots learn how to drop bombs on the enemy, so he will sort of have that teaching job Dorinda was talking about. Obviously, they won’t be dropping bombs in Heaven, so Pete will have to go back to Earth to help out those pilots. Presumably, there is also a Japanese air force base in Heaven where dead Japanese pilots are sent back to Earth to help their fellow officers become pilots too. Otherwise, how would Japanese pilots ever learn how to drop bombs on Americans?
Like most Heaven movies, we do not get to see God, the exception being The Green Pastures (1936). In fact, most of the other Heaven movies never even refer to God. There is always some administrator, like the title character in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), who talks about what was meant to be and what must be done. The people who make these movies probably know that there is something a little frivolous in their depictions of Heaven, and they are afraid that any reference to God might cross the line and move into the territory of sacrilege and blasphemy. Furthermore, if God did make an appearance, we would expect him to explain why he doesn’t just stop the war himself, thereby plunging the movie into the whole problem of evil that has bedeviled the faithful since the Book of Job and the dilemma of Epicurus.
Pete and Dick head back down to Earth, where no one can see or hear them. So, we wonder, how are they going to instruct anyone? They do it by planting thoughts in their heads. Pete is assigned to tutor Ted Randall (Van Johnson), and he gets him to relax by psychically putting the command to relax into Ted’s head. Pete doesn’t like Ted because he inherited four million dollars. “I never did see a guy that inherited a lot of dough that was any good,” he says. Now, that’s just the kind of commie sentiment that HUAC was talking about!
Anyway, Pete likes Ted even less when he starts wooing Dorinda, and she agrees to marry him. Then Pete starts trying to sabotage him by putting bad thoughts into his head, making him show off in the airplane, hoping he will be demoted and hoping his hotshot stunts will anger Dorinda. It doesn’t work, and Pete has to go back to Heaven for a reprimand from the General. Finally, Pete sees the light and psychically tells Dorinda to forget about him and marry Ted, right after she commandeers a bomber to fly a dangerous mission destroying an ammunition dump so that Ted won’t have to fly it and possibly be killed. Yeah, that’s right. The Heaven part of this movie wasn’t ridiculous enough, so they had to throw this absurdity into the plot as well.
And so, as far as this movie is concerned, Heaven is a means to an end, its function being to help someone achieve some worldly good, such as killing the enemy or getting the girl. By implication, without this world to concern itself with, Heaven would be pointless. But then, there really is nothing new about this. Aristotle may have said that God spends all his time thinking about himself, but the gods as conceived of by the rest of mankind always seem inordinately occupied with the doings of man, and so much so that we wonder what they would do without us. The Bible should have begun, “In the beginning, God was bored.”
While I was girding my loins in preparation for watching Always, the remake by Spielberg, of whom I am not a fan, I was trying to imagine which war would be the setting for this movie. Since it was made in 1989, the Gulf War was a year away, so my thoughts drifted to the Vietnam War. But the idea of Pete as a pilot in that war who loves dropping napalm just didn’t have the same feel, especially when he would later be sent back from Heaven to help Ted drop that napalm. Well, since ten years earlier, Spielberg made 1941 (1979), which was set in World War II, perhaps that would be the setting here.
As it turned out, there is no war at all. There are World War II planes, however, which pilots fly to drop fire retardant on forest fires, rather than bombs or napalm. But it just isn’t the same, and Spielberg even has Al (John Goodman) openly express that very sentiment while talking to Pete (Richard Dreyfuss):
What this place reminds me of is the war in Europe…. I wasn’t in it, but think about it. The beer is warm, the hall is a Quonset, there are B-26s outside, hotshot pilots inside, airstrip in the woods. It’s England! Everything but Glenn Miller. Except we go to burning places and bomb them till they stop burning. You see, Pete, there ain’t no war here…. That’s why they don’t make movies called Night Raid to Boise, Idaho or Firemen Strike at Dawn. And this is why you’re not exactly a hero for taking the chances you take. You’re more of what I would call a dickhead.
And so, through the mouth of Al, Spielberg makes explicit what we would all be thinking anyway. As if that were not enough, Dorinda (Holly Hunter) does her part to deflate the importance of what Pete is doing after she has her premonition and wants him to quit: “I could understand how you fly, if you were risking yourself for civilization.”
My guess is that Spielberg decided to remake A Guy Named Joe in a peacetime setting to avoid having Heaven be complicit in killing people, the price of so doing, however, being that the mission of putting out forest fires just doesn’t seem to warrant the attention of Heaven. But as Al indicates, it doesn’t warrant the attention of those of us in the audience either.
All right, there is a scene in which Pete gets to be a hero, saving Al’s life, but by that time we find the whole business unworthy of a movie, just as Al said. And Pete hasn’t even gone to Heaven yet. Well, at this point I figured there would be someone corresponding to Dick Rumney, who tells him there’s a lot of fires that need putting out, and he will have to help do it. Instead, there is Hap (Audrey Hepburn), who just says that he needs to help teach new pilots how to fly, just as he was taught to fly by the ghost of a dead pilot, who was taught by the ghost of a previously deceased pilot. She doesn’t explain how the first pilot learned to fly, however. She also tells Pete that he will have to spend all his time doing good for others, since it would be a waste of time worrying about himself because he’s dead.
They also talk about Einstein and space and time. Back when A Guy Named Joe was made, it sufficed to allude to God or Heaven to justify the unrealistic stuff you were seeing on the screen. But nowadays, when a movie defies common sense, someone will typically utter the magic words “Einstein” or “quantum mechanics” as a way of forestalling criticism that the movie is ridiculous.
Some parts of this movie are played seriously, but some parts are played for laughs. For example, Pete uses his psychic powers to put thoughts into Al’s head, making him do something silly, sort of like the way Froggy used to do on the Buster Brown Show, which I thought was funny when I watched it as a six-year-old child.
Anyway, just as in A Guy Named Joe, Dorinda flies a dangerous mission so that Ted won’t have to and possibly get himself killed. Then Pete leaves Earth and goes back to Heaven. “Wait a minute,” you might be saying, “he’s not through teaching Ted how to fly. That’s why Dorinda had to fly the mission instead.” Oh, well, there are probably plenty of other ghost pilots hanging around Heaven who can finish teaching Ted what he needs to know.
Before Pete leaves, he tells Dorinda that she can marry Ted. And it was important that he do so, because it is only through supernatural intervention that a woman is able to forget one man and move on to another. Perhaps that is why Pete is allowed to return to Heaven before finishing that teaching job, otherwise he would have had to watch Ted and Dorinda having sex. On the other hand, it might have been funny having Pete hang around so he could pull another Froggy routine, saying, “And then you put it in her butt.”