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Donovan’s Reef (1963)

by on November 15, 2021
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I didn’t think I would like “Donovan’s Reef.” And I guess I didn’t, in that I think it’s a pretty silly movie that seems to exist mostly because the legendary Johns, Ford and Wayne, got together with Lee Marvin and some other buddies to go off to some sunny exotic locale to do a bunch of drinkin’ and swimmin’ and fishin’ on the studio’s dime.

But inconsequential as it is, it’s also undeniably enjoyable and well-made. 

I’ve talked about some movies, such as “Promising Young Woman,” that I respect the artistic integrity behind even if I believe the film itself is deeply flawed. “Donovan’s Reef” is the flip of that: if it’s possible to like a movie without respecting it, here it is.

The story is that three U.S. Navy veterans were shipwrecked on the (fictional) French Polynesian island of Haleakaloha during World War II, wound up befriending the natives and led an insurgency against the Japanese for the rest of the war, and never really left. Now they’re basically the local god-kings, carousing and getting into fights, much admired by the islanders but also serving as their entertainment.

James Michener originally was tasked with developing the concept, dubbed “South Sea Story,” though he ended up not being credited in the screenplay by Frank S. Nugent and James Edward Grant, story by Edmund Beloin. The basic idea is ‘hijinks and romance in the South Sea.’

Ford himself dubbed it “a spoof picture – a whammy, crazy sort of thing. We’re not going for any prizes,” according to its Wikipedia page, and his health was so wanting during production in Hawaii (read: ability to show up to the set sober) that Wayne reportedly directed most of it himself.

Wayne plays Michael “Guns” Donovan, after his former rank of gunner’s mate, while Marvin is Thomas “Boats” Gilhooley, as a boatswain’s mate. They both share the same December birthday, and have a lovable tradition of always having a knock-down fistfight on that day, for reasons neither can remember, a tradition they’ve had going for 22 years.

The story opens with this event, as Gilhooley returns to the island after jumping ship from a merchant vessel he signed onto. It seems that while Donovan has stayed put in Haleakaloha, building up a small business empire with a modest fleet of smaller ships and the titular saloon, Gilhooley’s wanderlust will occasionally kick up and take him to other ports for a time, always returning for one reason or another, with the fight with Donovan as a sure-fire occasion.

There’s not too much to Gilhooley’s character, and indeed he doesn’t have a ton of screen time, and when he does he’s either drinking or fighting. It’s even suggested he might be simple-minded, and certainly he seems to have a child-like mind. All the native residents turn out for the big fight, as it’s practically an annual holiday.

The third leg of their bromance triangle is Jack Warden as William Dedham, a steady-handed doctor and their officer back in the war. He found the locals had a need for a man of medicine, so he built a hospital and often travels around the outer islands to deliver babies or attend to other health cases. 

Gilhooley and Donovan are both lifelong bachelors — but we shall see — though Dedham is a two-time widower with three kids by Manulani, the granddaughter of the last hereditary king of the island. There is Luke (Jeffrey Byron), a scrappy youngster obsessed with baseball and Stan Musial; Sally (Cherylene Lee), the plucky, adorable middle kid; and Lelani (Jacqueline Malouf), a preteen with big eyes and a bigger heart.

Turns out that Dedham also had a daughter born while he was at war, but he never returned to Boston and has not met her. The conflict is that his first wife’s family is very wealthy, and he is set to inherit stock in their shipping company that will make him the majority owner. His daughter, Amelia (Elizabeth Allen), is sent to the island to confirm that he shacked up with a local woman, which would violate the colonial-mindset morality clause and cause him to lose his shares.

So with all those pieces on the board, it’s not surprising how things play out. Amelia and Donovan immediately cross swords, giving way to a gradual detente and inevitable romance. Warned of her arrival while Dr. Dedham is away, he and Gilhooley cook up a scheme to pretend that the good doctor’s kids are actually Donovan’s.

Despite her clash with Donovan, Amelia is by all appearances kind-hearted and accepting of Donovan’s kids, and even more so when she finds out they’re her siblings, though at one point she refers to them as “half-castes.” Some lingering taint of Boston snobbiness…

Wayne and Allen were 22 years apart in age, and it shows, though at one point his character refers to hers as an “old maid.” (She should be 21 or 22 years old, assuming the doc shipped out right after Pearl Harbor while his wife was pregnant.) He’s not exactly svelte anymore, though he fills out his deck pants well enough without too much gut overhang. 

Wayne is certainly past his sell-by date as a romantic lead here, though he carries on with his usual bravado and makes it work.

I was surprised how fleshy and sensual the movie is. Allen displays a lot of bare leg, even having them photographed by a Japanese local, though she demurs at the red bikini they present her for swimming, opting for a more wholesome black one-piece. The native women are mostly covered up in bright, colorful outfits that probably are about as authentic as the musical score by Cyril Mockridge, which incorporates vaguely Polynesian sounds and instrumentation.

A few other interesting characters populate the background. Cesar Romero plays the French governor, a dapper older gentleman who hates living on the island despite the relative comfort he is afforded, including a Stamford-educated Japanese attache (Jon Fong). When he learns that Amelia is worth $18 million — $157 million in today’s dollars — he sets out with an elaborate but ineffectual plan to woo her away from Donovan. 

I liked Marcel Dalio as Father Cluzeot, the always-flustered island priest, who constantly receives donations to fix the church’s leaky roof but spends it on the poor instead. Ukranian wrestler-turned-actor Mike Mazurki somehow gets cast as a sergeant in the local police force, which mostly consists of chugging free beers at the Reef while declining to break up the ongoing fights there.

Dorothy Lamour turns up as Miss Lafleur, an aging saloon singer who desperately wants to get married, to anyone. She’d prefer Donovan, but is willing to settle for Gilhooley. 

There’s not much more to say about “Donovan’s Reef.” It’s just a big, dumb, fun movie in the sun. I suppose I could complain that it’s not very ambitious, but not every film can be “Cheyenne Autumn,” Ford’s next movie, nor should it try to be.

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