The final collaboration between director John Ford and John Wayne, Donovan's Reef doesn't show any of its participants at the top of their game, but there's always been something about the film's easygoing, loose tropical island vibe that I find eternally charming. I've probably seen the movie at least a dozen times over the years, and it never fails to please in its own shaggy dog way, despite its undeniable faults. It's a film that is content to just amble along, with only the barest wisp of a plot, recycling some of Ford's common preoccupations: knockabout, brawling "Oirish" humor, the poetry found in shared, communal ritual and ceremony, the battle for dominance in male/female relations, an affectionate ribbing - yet absolute acceptance - of the Catholic faith, and pride in brave service during WWII. How much you enjoy it will depend on how much you like the people involved. It's reminiscent of (if nowhere near as good as) Howard Hawks' Hatari, another film which creates a world out of an exotic setting and a group of characters that are just plain good company to spend time with.
The film takes place on the South Seas island of Haleakaloha (presumably somewhere in French Polynesia, but actually filmed in Hawaii), the kind of island paradise that only truly exists in Hollywood fable. The story follows the antics of three former American navy men, Mike "Guns" Donovan (Wayne), Thomas "Boats" Gilhooly (Lee Marvin) and Dr. William Dedham (Jack Warden), who back in the war were the only survivors of a torpedoed destroyer, who landed on the island and fought a vigorous cat-and-mouse game against the occupying Japanese forces there. After the war, both Donovan and Dedham decided to stay on, the doctor starting up a much-needed hospital (and marrying the beautiful island princess who aided them in the war) and Donovan a bar and shipping line. Donovan and Gilhooly share a birthday (on December 7th, no less) and every year Gilhooly visits the island for an annual birthday brawl with his old sailor pal.
The film opens on one such birthday, as Gilhooly jumps ship off a merchant vessel and swims his way to a triumphant greeting from the natives on shore, promptly marches up to Donovan's saloon, changes into one of Donovan's white suits, and begins to get sloshed and wait for the fisticuffs to begin. The Doc arrives to break up the fracas (clearly one of the highlights of the year for the local townspeople, rubbernecking outside) and we meet Doc's three children from his deceased wife, the budding teenage beauty Lelani (Jaqueline Malouf), the impish Sally (Cherylene Lee) and the Stan Musial-loving Luki (Jeffrey Byron) - plus a colorful host of supporting characters, including the courtly French governor, the Marquis Andre de Lage (Cesar Romero), who has an eye for young ladies; his Harvard-educated Chinese adjutant, Mr. Eu (John Fong); an over-the-hill floozy, Lafleur (Dorothy Lamour), who wants Gilhooly to make an honest woman of her; the tiny French priest Father Cluzeot (Marcel Dalio); the local bull of a policeman (Mike Mazurki) and assorted other players.
The plot - such as it is - kicks in when Doc's daughter back in Boston, Amelia (Elizabeth Allen), comes to the island, ostensibly to prove that the father she has never met is morally unfit to inherit a large portion of shares in the Dedham shipping empire. Unsure of her motives and protective of Doc, Donovan, Gilhooly and the governor decide to pass off Doc's children as Donovan's until Doc returns from a two-week trip visiting his patients on the outlying islands. Donovan and Amelia get off on the wrong foot right away, but in a refreshing development, we quickly learn that the seemingly austere, buttoned-down Amelia is actually decent and kind, and warms immediately to the children. Her attitude to Donovan also begins to thaw when she finds out he's a successful businessman in his own right, and the two grow more and more close, much to the chagrin of the governor, who finds her $18 million net worth even more attractive than her lissome physique. Doc is nonplussed at his friends scheme when he returns shortly before Christmas, and it isn't long before the truth about his background comes out, and Amelia's true character is revealed.
Along the way, Ford makes time for some more barroom brawling with some visiting Australian sailors (captained by Wayne's son, Patrick), some halfhearted attempts by the governor to sour Amelia on Donovan, more combatative romance and plenty of bonding between Amelia and her new siblings. We're also treated to some of those lovely little vignettes of ritual that the director excels in - in this case, a Christmas mass in Father Cluzeot's church that gets interrupted by a torrential downpour, the water pouring in through the holes in the roof, the parishioners prepared with an array of multi-colored umbrellas, and a climactic native ceremony honoring Lelani, the last descendant of the island's royal family, replete with a procession of dancing hula girls.
While no one could make the claim that Donovan's Reef was on a par with the ailing Ford's best earlier work, the film goes down easy thanks to its blend of fun characters, lackadaisical charm, picturesque setting and lilting Hawaiian music. There are even some moments of genuine, heartfelt yet underplayed emotion, largely courtesy of some fine acting by Allen as she meets her father for the first time, and also when she finally realizes Lelani is her sister.
The cast is chiefly responsible for the good will the film engenders. Marvin is criminally underused but plays the good-natured drunken lout Gilhooly in a very entertaining fashion. Even though she's never been one of my favorite actresses, I have to admit that Lamour is also largely wasted in a rather cruel part as a shopworn tart past her prime (the often sadistic Ford apparently treated Lamour shabbily until she called him on his behavior; he later profusely apologized). Despite the lack of screen time, both actors add spice to the overall ensemble brew, giving the feel of a large, unruly family coexisting on the island.
John Wayne could do this sort of role in his sleep and sparks well with the much younger Allen (Wayne was 56 here and Allen 34). Wayne generally liked to work with strong female lead actresses, and while somewhat prone to mugging and funny faces, had a facility for comedy that often goes underrated. It's Allen who's really given the most to do and she carries her potentially unsympathetic part off well, channeling a little bit of a patrician Katherine Hepburn vibe but adding a lithe, athletic sensuality to the role. Only nine years older than Allen, Warden also makes the most of his limited role as her dad (though Doc's eventual excuse for why he didn't come visit his young daughter earlier doesn't really pass muster). The child actors are pleasant enough and don't grate, which is a feat unto itself, there's a nice bit with Edgar Buchanan as the Dedham family's cynical lawyer, and Cesar Romero brings an agreeable mixture of genteel charm and seedy vice to the part of the governor.
The film is a product of its time and some viewers may find some of the racial and sexual politics on display dated, but the movie wears its good intentions on its sleeve and is so genial and silly that few should find it overly offensive. (Frankly, this viewer finds the rampant littering - people are constantly throwing glass beer bottles around and casually tossing cigarettes into the water - amidst such beautiful nature much more jarring). When this film was made, it was still early days for Hollywood to be talking about racial acceptance and mixed race families, and Ford was clearly trying to make a statement of racial equality here. While not subtle, the film manages to carry its message fairly lightly thanks to its overall larky, inconsequential atmosphere, perhaps faring better in this respect than more serious "message' pictures of the time.
William H. Clothier's cinematography nicely captures the idyllic beauty of the locations (filmed mostly on Kaua'i in Hawaii), and the lovely choral music of Hawaiian standards (orchestrated by Cyril Mockridge) adds much to the film's warm, friendly tone. John Ford's beloved yacht Araner gets not only name-checked but makes a few appearances. For Ford, Wayne, Marvin and their families, the project was designed to be a bit of summer fun, a last hurrah in paradise of sorts for the director. But making the film wasn't exactly smooth sailing:
"Ford had not been on the island twenty-four hours when he learned that Paramount had pulled the financing from Donovan's Reef, although they still agreed to distribute it. He decided to produce the film himself, even though a screenplay did not exist. Ford rejected Jimmy Grant's first draft and fired him. He then asked Frank Nugent to come up with something quickly. 'The results are what you saw on screen,' cameraman Bill Clothier said. 'I suppose you've got to blame the Old Man for that. It was just plain bad judgment.' Lee Marvin, at his boozy worst in 1962 and still years away from Alcoholics Anonymous, was so often hung over in the morning that shooting had to be rescheduled. Elizabeth Allen [...} remembered one night when a smashed Lee Marvin removed every stitch of his clothing, climbed up on the bar at the Kawaii Hotel, and performed a hula. Shorter-tempered than usual, Ford was more irritable than ever. Wayne, very protective of Ford and aware that the old man was slipping, again became almost assistant director." (1)
While it's true that the resulting screenplay is not exactly the model of wit or focused narrative, it's what happens in the spaces between that gives the film its ineffable appeal. What the movie does especially well is communicate the feeling of slow, lazy island living. We hear the breeze sighing through the palm trees, witness the caprices of weather, with sudden, lashing storms and expansive, sunny skies, observe the cheerful, brightly-garbed native Polynesians, the chattering Chinese tradesmen, the pious French nuns, and the various barflies, floozies and sailors that populate Donovan's bar. It might be just a white male fantasyland, filtered through an aging and ailing filmmaker's mind, but it's an interesting and vibrant world, and I for one enjoy the time spent there. The hour and 45 minutes fly by, despite there not being much tension or dramatic stakes...but then, not all films have to be slave to such plot mechanics.
Donavon's Reef offers a romanticized slice of early 1960s island life, and should prove relaxing fun for those willing to go along for the ride. It might not make it into my personal Top Ten John Wayne movies, but it wouldn't be far down the list of runners-up, either.
DVD Note: Paramount's widescreen DVD looks nice on a big screen monitor, but could benefit from the added clarity Blu-Ray could provide. I imagine we'll see an HD release of the film someday, given John Wayne's continued popularity.
Source Note: (1) excerpted from John Wayne American, by Randy Roberts and James S. Olson, published by the Free Press, 1995.
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