Pete Sandich (Dreyfuss) is an aerial firefighter, flying a war-surplus A-26 bomber dropping fire retardant slurry to put out forest wildfires. His excessive risk taking in the air deeply troubles his girlfriend, Dorinda Durston (Hunter), a pilot who doubles as a dispatcher, and is also of concern to his best friend, Al Yackey (Goodman), a fellow fighter. On one flight, Pete makes one extra drop, runs out of fuel, and barely manages to glide onto the runway.
Pete shrugs off his brush with death and surprises Dorinda with a stunning white dress for her birthday, although it turns out to be the wrong day. Irate at first, she eventually puts on the dress anyway, and the couple dance to their song, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes".
Al sits Pete down for a beer and likens their situation to wartime England (Nissen huts, beer, and hotshot pilots flying bombers) in order to emphasize the key difference: "Pete, there ain't no war here. And this is why you're not exactly a hero for taking these chances you take." Al suggests Pete take a safer job that has just opened up, training firefighting pilots in Flat Rock, Colorado. Pete flatly refuses to consider it. However, when Dorinda confronts Pete and tells him that she hates worrying about him all the time, he decides to take Al's advice.
Pete takes one last mission, despite Dorinda's gloomy premonition. While on a bombing run, Al's Catalina water bomber hits a burning tree and an engine catches fire. When Al's fire suppression equipment fails to put it out, he appears doomed. In desperation, Pete makes a dangerously steep dive to skillfully douse the engine with slurry. He saves Al, but in trying to recover from his dive, his bomber flies through the forest fire. Pete manages to pull up and climb back up to a safe altitude beside Al, but a small engine fire spreads to his fuel tank, and his aircraft explodes.
The next thing he knows, Pete is walking through the burnt-out forest. Soon, in a forest clearing, he meets Hap (Audrey Hepburn), who explains to Pete that he is dead and that he now has a new purpose: just as he himself was inspired by others throughout his life when he needed it most, it is now his turn to provide Spiritus ("the divine breath") to others. As she puts it, “They hear you inside their own minds as if it were their thoughts.”
Six months have elapsed in the real world. Pete is assigned to guide a new firefighting pilot, Ted Baker (Johnson). To Pete's anguish, Ted falls in love with Dorinda, and she begins to respond and recover from her mourning. Pete selfishly tries to sabotage the growing relationship. The next day, Pete wakes up back in the forest with Hap. She reminds him his life is over, and also he was sent back not just to inspire Ted, but to say good-bye to Dorinda.
Ted, with Pete's inspiration, puts together an extremely dangerous mission to rescue a ground crew of firefighters surrounded by flames. Unable to bear the thought of losing another loved one, Dorinda steals Ted's aircraft to do the job herself. Pete, unseen to Dorinda, tries to talk her down, but she won't listen. Dorinda completes the dangerous task, with Pete's unseen help. On the way back, he tells her all the things he wanted to say, but never got around to while he was alive.
Dorinda is forced to make an emergency water landing on the lake. As the aircraft sinks into the lake and the cabin fills with water, Dorinda appears reluctant to try to escape until Pete appears before her, extending his hand. She takes his hand and they swim to the surface. As Dorinda wades ashore (now alone) to the waiting Ted and Al, Pete releases her heart so that Ted can take his place, saying, “That's my girl … and that's my boy.”
As Dorinda and Ted embrace, Pete smiles and walks the other way down the runway to take his place in Heaven.
As appearing in screen credits (main roles identified):
During production, Spielberg confided that while making Jaws in 1974, he and Dreyfuss had traded quips from A Guy Named Joe, considered a "classic" war film, that they both wanted to remake. As an "inside joke," a clip from A Guy Named Joe is included in a scene in Poltergeist, which Spielberg had produced. Dreyfuss had seen the 1943 melodrama "at least 35 times." For Spielberg, who recalled seeing it as a child late at night, "it was one of the films that inspired him to become a movie director," creating an emotional connection to the times that his father, a wartime air force veteran had lived through. The two friends quoted individual shots from the film to each other and when the opportunity arose, years later, were resolved to recreate the wartime fantasy.
Principal photography began on May 15, 1989. Production took place in Kootenai National Forest, Montana, with some scenes filmed in and around Libby, Montana. Some 500 people from nearby Libby were recruited for the film as extras to act as wildland firefighters. The scenes where the plane flies over the lake at the beginning and lands in the lake at the end of the movie was filmed at Bull Lake. The scenes set in "Flat Rock, Colorado" were filmed at and around the Ephrata airport in eastern Washington. The scene where Pete and Hap are walking through the wheat field was filmed at Sprague, Washington where they spent two weeks filming in June. Footage of The Yellowstone National Park's 1988 fires was used for the fire sequences. Sound stages were also used at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, California. Production wrapped in August 1989.
Always was the last film in which Audrey Hepburn appeared. After the film, she continued her work for UNICEF until she died of cancer in 1993.
Two Douglas A-26 Invader fire bombers (Douglas B-26C Invader No. 57] and Douglas TB-26C Invader No. 59) were prominently featured in Always. The flying for the film was performed by well-known film pilot Steve Hinton and Dennis Lynch, the owner of the A-26s.
A number of other aircraft also appeared in Always: Aeronca 7AC Champion, Bellanca 8KCAB Super Decathlon, Beechcraft Model 18, Cessna 337 Super Skymaster, Cessna 340, Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina, de Havilland Canada DHC-6-300 Twin Otter, Douglas C-54 Skymaster, Fairchild C-119C Flying Boxcar, McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and North American B-25J Mitchell. Two helicopters were also seen: Bell 206 JetRanger and Bell UH-1B Iroquois.
Always opened at #5 at that week's box office, grossing $3,713,480, competing with Christmas Vacation, Tango & Cash (opening the same weekend), The War of the Roses and Back to the Future Part II. Although now considered only a modest financial success when compared to other Spielberg ventures, the film brought back returns grossing $43,858,790 in the U.S. and $30,276,000 on foreign territories, for a $74,134,790 worldwide total.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times considered it "dated" and more of a "curiosity," calling it Spielberg's "weakest film since his comedy 1941". Variety gave it a more generous review: "Always is a relatively small scale, engagingly casual, somewhat silly, but always entertaining fantasy." The film received a 65% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Always was nominated in 1991 for the Saturn Award as Best Fantasy Film, while Jerry Belson was nominated for the Best Writing category of the award at the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films (USA). A number of critics have now considered the film as the progenitor of a new crop of "ghost" genre films, including Ghost (1990).The character Pete Sandich, played by Richard Dreyfuss, whistles "Garryowen" and the theme to Leave It to Beaver.
"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," performed live in the film by J. D. Souther and played later on tape by The Platters, is what romantic couple Sandich & Durston refers to as “our song”.