A Guy Named Joe walks a fine line between realistic World War II drama and fantasy, and it does so successfully for 95 percent of its two-hour-and-one-minute length, ending up an excellent example of how to make this kind of movie work. It's not quite as ambitious as the slightly similar Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger fantasy A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairwar to Heaven), but it has its own conjuring trick to pull off, mostly in the acting and dramatic departments rather than special effects, which are minimal. The presence of Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne helps immeasurably in achieving this finely textured mix of drama, romance, and fantasy; the two of them are such fine actors that they can make almost everything that the movie tries to do seem believable, even in the denouement as Dunne's character flies a solo combat mission. But primary credit must go to director Victor Fleming and his writers, who included future blacklistee Dalton Trumbo. Fleming, a man's man who also was involved with bringing off the most renowned screen fantasy of all, The Wizard of Oz, provides masterful direction throughout, even making the climactic Dunne-as-bomber-pilot sequence work. He knows the exact balance to strike, just how much whimsy to allow in amid the setting of World War II air combat, and when to focus on the more realistic interactions and relationships. Some of the dialogue verges on poetry in places, while other passages achieve a honest poignancy that was rare for a Hollywood war film.
Tracy gives one of the best performances of his career as a daredevil fly-boy who is even able to look death in the face without flinching; the only seeming flaw in his work lies in the early section of the movie, where one never gets a real sense of his character's love for Dunne's Dorinda Durston, and that seeming flaw is rectified in the second half, in which Tracy's Pete Sandidge realizes for the first time -- almost more deeply than he knows -- how much he loved her. Dunne has the unfortunate task of pretending she is much younger than she is; nothing that the makeup or lighting department can do can hide the fact that she's almost two decades older than Van Johnson (and, for that matter, four years older than Tracy), and her efforts at projecting a youthful, not-far-from-girlish charm seem awkward; but when she tells Ward Bond's Al Yackey how losing a man like Pete is something "you die over," it's also totally believable. (This is why until the 1960s, when appearances overwhelmed other considerations, one had to cast women ten to twenty years out of adolescence as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.) Equally striking is the almost erotic arousal that she displays late in the movie, as Dorinda (herself something of a daredevil pilot) watches Ted -- being guided irresponsibly by a jealous Pete -- engage in some daring and dangerous aerial maneuvers. Additionally, they get excellent support from Van Johnson, who was seriously injured in a car accident during shooting (and would have been replaced but for Tracy's insistence otherwise) and was hospitalized for three months. He's much more than a pretty, callow face here, and plays everything he's asked to do straight and perfectly, with a beguiling, youthful verve. The other player worthy of mention is Ward Bond, who should have been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor award for his performance here; he did most of his best work in movies directed by John Ford, but working under Fleming here he gives a beautifully understated and affecting performance, striking the perfect balance between comedy and drama in a role that's as much at the center of the plot and the drama as Dunne's.
It's doubly amazing that the movie holds up as well as it does, given that it required extensive retakes and a reshooting of the ending -- as originally scripted and shot, Dorinda dies on the bombing mission and joins Pete in heaven, but the Motion Picture Production Code office objected to this, interpreting the ending as a suicide, which was forbidden; so a new ending had to be written and shot. It all still held together, an amazingly poignant yet comforting fantasy-drama with some good moments of comedy and some exciting and extremely well-staged flying and combat sequences. The result is an engrossing, feel-good romance with enough action overtones to keep even the manliest of viewers entertained. Incidentally, the title of the movie is explained in the opening minutes of the movie as a reference to the slang of the period -- to quote one of the English children who idolizes Pete Sandidge, "In the American air forces, any man who's a 'right' chap is a guy named Joe."