Christmas on Celluloid: “Donovan’s Reef”

Donovan's Reef 1963 posterI confess a fondness for Christmas movies that stray from the typical snow-covered farmhouses, nostalgic small-towns, holiday-decorated department stores, and parties overrun with good cheer. While non-traditional Christmas movies rarely achieve classic status, they are interesting for unusual or personal reasons.

I have always had an affection for Donovan’s Reef, partly because I watched it on Saturday Night at the Movies with my father when I was a little girl, and he enjoyed it so much. But, I was also taken with the film’s tropical setting, which made for an exotic backdrop for Christmas. I can’t help but wonder if my obsession with the romance of the tropics began with Donovan’s Reef.

Directed by John Ford in the twilight of his career, Donovan’s Reef takes place on the (fictional) Polynesian island of Haleakaloa, which was saved from the Japanese by three Navy buddies—Dr. William “Doc” Dedham, Michael Patrick “Guns” Donovan, and Thomas Aloysius “Boats” Gilhooley. Based on the names alone, it is easy to tell that this knockabout comedy is going to be all about the boys. Thinking Haleakaloa a paradise, the three sailors can’t get the island out of their minds after the war. Doc returns to found a hospital for the islanders, while Guns establishes a couple of businesses, including a saloon called Donovan’s Reef. Gilhooley jumps ship from time to time to swim ashore to Haleakaloa for the sole purpose of starting a fistfight with Guns on their mutual birthday—apparently something of a tradition. The actual narrative begins when Doc’s adult daughter, Amelia, arrives from Boston to find her long-lost father. Doc attempts to hide his island family from her, because he fears she would not accept that he had married a native woman and fathered three children. Guns steps up and pretends the half-breed children are his. In typical Ford fashion, Amelia and Guns are attracted to each other but can’t get along.

THE DOMINANT MOTIF IS FIGHTING: BOYS WILL BE BOYS, EVEN IF THE ARE OVER 50.

THE DOMINANT MOTIF IS BRAWLING, THOUGH IT IS A FORM OF PLAY: BOYS WILL BE BOYS, EVEN IF THE ARE OVER 50.

The film is based on “The South Sea Story” by James Michener, but I doubt if much of the original plot can be found in the movie. Apparently, ten screenwriters worked on the adaptation, with Ford favorite Frank Nugent pulling together the final shooting script—a script that Ford chose to ignore as he improvised his way through some of the sequences. The legendary director also faced problems with Paramount, because the studio backed out of the financing at the last minute. While they still agreed to distribute the movie, Ford had to find his own financing. He delivered the film at a budget of $3.62 million, and it grossed $5,763,000 on initial release.

CESAR ROMERO, WHO COSTARRED IN FORD'S WEE WILLIE WINKIE, PLAYS THE FRENCH MARQUIS.

CESAR ROMERO, WHO COSTARRED IN FORD’S ‘WEE WILLIE WINKIE,’ PLAYS THE FRENCH MARQUIS.

Film scholars, Ford biographers, and film reviewers disagree when it comes to evaluating the significance of Donovan’s Reef, which is something of a mess. In 1963, when the film was released, reviewers trashed it as “foolish” and “childish.” Even today, some dismiss the film as merely a romp for Ford and his favorite actors—perhaps a much-needed change of pace after the somberness of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Several Ford favorites do appear in the film, including John Wayne who plays into his familiar star image as the noble but fun-loving Guns Donovan. Dorothy Lamour, a long-time friend to Ford who costarred in The Hurricane (1937), dons floral prints once more to play native Miss Lafleur. Wayne’s son Patrick appears in a tiny part as an Australian navy lieutenant involved in one of the movie’s many brawls. Another Ford friend, Anna Lee, lent her children, Tim and John Stafford, to play island offspring. Mae Marsh and John Qualen, lesser-known members of the Ford Stock Company, have uncredited cameos. Lee Marvin, who had just made a name for himself as the title character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, costars as Boats. Jack Warden, as Doc Dedham, seems to be the only major actor who was not part of Ford’s film family.

ISLAND RESIDENTS ATTEND THE MULTI-CULTURAL CHRISTMAS PAGEANT.

ISLAND RESIDENTS ATTEND THE MULTI-CULTURAL CHRISTMAS PAGEANT.

Looking past its reputation as a mere comic romp, some scholars admire the film’s racial message, which was a nod toward the pro-integration issues of the Civil Rights era. Amelia’s stuffy Boston upbringing makes her a candidate for racial prejudice against her mixed-race siblings by her father’s second marriage to an island princess, though Amelia turns out to be more accepting than Doc and Guns assume. Gilhooley and Lefluer’s courtship is played mostly for laughs, but the two marry at the end, accounting for another mixed marriage. The most interesting sequence is the version of the nativity story performed by the community—a multi-cultural affair featuring Americans, French, Chinese, and Polynesians in the cast and in the audience. It doesn’t look like a traditional Christmas pageant or nativity, but its inclusiveness expresses the true meaning of the holiday. However, the pro-integration politics of the narrative will likely go unnoticed by today’s audiences, because, while topical at the time, the depiction of race in the film was not radical or even enlightened. There are jokes made at the expense of the Chinese, plus Haleakaloa’s social institutions are controlled by white men who lord it over the natives while they themselves squabble, brawl, drink, and otherwise wallow in immature behavior. A mixed message to say the least.

THE SPANKING SCENE MAY BE CRINGE-WORTHY TO MODERN VIEWERS, BUT SYMBOLICALLY IT MEANS THAT GUNS HAS LEFT BEHIND BRAWLING WITH THE BOYS FOR FIGHTING WITH AMELIA.

THE SPANKING SCENE MAY BE CRINGE-WORTHY TO MODERN VIEWERS, BUT SYMBOLICALLY IT MEANS THAT GUNS HAS LEFT BEHIND BRAWLING WITH THE BOYS FOR “BRAWLING” WITH AMELIA.

FORD'S EYESIGHT WAS FAILING AND HIS FOCUS FALTERING DURING SHOOTING. WAYNE STEPPED UP TO MAKE SURE THE DAILIES WERE UP TO FORD'S STANDARD.

FORD’S EYESIGHT WAS FAILING AND HIS FOCUS FALTERING DURING SHOOTING. WAYNE STEPPED UP TO MAKE SURE THE DAILIES WERE UP TO FORD’S STANDARD.

Ford biographer Joseph McBride, as well as scholars Peter Wollen and Robin Wood, suggest that Donovan’s Reef  has a more personal significance to the director. McBride notes that by the mid-1950s, Ford talked of spending his old age sailing around the Hawaiian Islands on his yacht, the Araner. He considered Hawaii to be an earthly paradise—a perfect escape from the outside world. As social problems plagued the US into the 1960s, Ford lost faith that communal harmony—an ideal so often found in his films—could ever be achieved and maintained in America. Wood notes that three of Ford’s last films—Donovan’s Reef, Seven Women, and Young Cassidy (which he became too infirmed to complete)—were made outside the U.S., perhaps representing a kind of mental flight from his country. Just as tellingly, his last western, Cheyenne Autumn, was about the desperate trek of a people to return to their native country, to return to the way it used to be.

Thus, Donovan’s Reef is heavy with nostalgia for the camaraderie of brawling boys, the understanding of sympathetic women, and the peaceable kingdom of an exotic paradise. If that place would never exist in the real world, then John Ford created it on the big screen. As Peter Wollen reflected, Haleakaloa is “Valhalla for the homeless heroes.”

 

 

11 Responses Christmas on Celluloid: “Donovan’s Reef”
Posted By LD : December 15, 2014 3:46 pm

It wouldn’t be Christmas in my home without DONOVAN’S REEF, usually viewed early in the season. Overall, it is a fun movie. The underlying theme of racism and interracial children is similar to the one in SOUTH PACIFIC, although it is more difficult for Nellie in that film to accept the children than it is for Amelia. Later, DIAMOND HEAD would present a somewhat darker version.

With that being said, hopefully making DONOVAN’S REEF was as enjoyable as it is to watch.

Posted By Susan Doll : December 15, 2014 3:56 pm

LD: Am glad to find another fan of the movie. From the background info I read, I think there was a lot of fun on the set, despite John Ford’s age and infirmities. Everyone brought their families and kids for a vacation in paradise. Many of the kids ended up in the scenes with children. Lee Marvin accepted the part without reading the script because it was shot in “paradise.”

Posted By Ghijath Naddaf : December 16, 2014 12:24 pm

I love Donovan´s Reef. It´s the same kind of relaxed late career
masterpiece ( yes,i mean it) as Hawks Hatari.
It´s maybe not a great piece of art, like My Darling Clementine
or The Searchers, but if you are truly into Ford you can´t miss
it.

Posted By KATHLEEN : December 16, 2014 6:55 pm

One of my favorite John Wayne movies – So adorable!

Posted By george : December 16, 2014 11:09 pm

Ford was quite a crusty curmudgeon in interviews. (“How am I eccentric, and in what way?”)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2P2fY75Qlxs

Posted By Henry Ottinger : December 17, 2014 8:19 pm

I’ve always enjoyed this movie and I loved watching it in the basement in my home theater in 16mm. I do wish it were out in Blue-ray now though.

Posted By swac44 : December 18, 2014 1:01 pm

What I wouldn’t give to spend Christmas at Donovan’s Reef…I started out thinking this movie is a mess, but by the time it got to Amelia accepting her “half-caste” siblings, it had totally won me over. Actually, it had me at the moment that Donovan mentions the names of his boats, and they’re all named after the Aran Islands (in Galway Bay). I’m five generations removed from the auld sod, but the blarney runs thick in my veins anyway.

But that whole thing with John Wayne and spanking adult women (see also: McClintock) still weirds me out.

Posted By Autist : December 19, 2014 3:46 pm

I’m sorry to be the only naysayer here, but I saw Donovan’s Reef for the first time recently and found it embarrassingly bad. I love Ford’s other movies–which is the only reason I watched it–but this one is cringeworthy. Unless you’re a Ford completist, skip it.

Posted By george : December 20, 2014 3:07 am

I wouldn’t call it “embarrassingly bad,” though it’s certainly not one of Ford’s best. Like Hawks’ HATARI, it’s a laid-back movie about friends goofing around and having fun. Taken in the right spirit, it can be quite charming.

Maybe Ford needed to relax after his masterpiece of the previous year, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE.

Posted By Autist : December 20, 2014 2:41 pm

Well, I think it’s bad, and it’s embarrassing that Ford made it. Now, if Roger Corman had made it….

Posted By Phyl : January 21, 2015 5:54 am

One of my family’s favorite John Wayne movies! My mom told us about this movie when we were kids so we were really excited when we finally found the old recorded VHS and watched it. We call it “Boolah Boolah” like the first words of the song at the beginning of the movie :)Pure entertainment.

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