1960s, 2.5/4, John Ford, Review, Romantic Comedy

Donovan’s Reef

Donovan's Reef (1963) - IMDb

#52 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.

Essentially just an excuse for John Ford, John Wayne, and Lee Marvin to have a paid vacation in Hawaii while Ford said goodbye to his yacht which he had to give up to help pay some taxes, Donovan’s Reef is a movie in search of a story, meandering from one scene to the next, buoyed almost entirely by its cast and an ending that’s just so good-natured that it’s hard not to say something nice about it. It’s not enough to save the film as a whole, but I didn’t hate the experience of watching it.

A small group of WWII veterans who ended up on the island Haleakaloha during a battle have settled there over the past twenty years. The film begins on December 7 with Gilhooley (Lee Marvin), having been shanghaied into service on a steamer, jumping overboard just off the coast of the island when the boat gets near and swimming ashore. Gilhooley is immediately greeted by Michael Donovan (John Wayne), and the two get into their annual birthday brawl (they share the same birthday which is also the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, an idea that does very little for the film) before getting broken up by Doctor William Dedham (Jack Warden). This is the life on the idyllic island.

Then comes Amelia Dedham (Elizabeth Allen), Dr. Dedham’s never seen daughter from Boston, conceived before the war. She and her father have inherited equal shares in a shipping company, and she’s decided to show up unannounced on Haleakaloha to determine if Dr. Dedham is living a moral life to fulfil a clause in the inheritance that says if he isn’t then he can be stripped of his shares. He, of course, is not living that moral life, having fathered three children with a Hawaiian princess who died giving birth to their third child. Amelia’s arrival, though, coincides with Dr. Dedham going to another island to help with some medical issues, and the captain of the boat Amelia is on radios ahead about her arrival. It gives Donovan the time to arrange for the three children to treat him like their father and move into his small living space above his saloon, Donovan’s Reef.

The bulk of the film is a meet cute between Donovan and Amelia (a romance that made Wayne feel uncomfortable, especially when Ford refused to cast the older Maureen O’Hara instead of Allen, and led to him declining these kinds of May-December romances in his movies from then on) as they start hating each other and grow to love one another. There are entertaining events like when Amelia purchases a bathing suit from decades before that covers her from head to toe as an act of defiance. There’s a swimming race between the two. They go up into the mountains to get a tree that will work as a Christmas tree where Amelia sees the oldest of the three children, Lelani (Jacqueline Malouf), giving homage to the gods of her ancestors.

In the realm of “a place is magic” that turns people’s lives around, Donovan’s Reef, is a minor example because the effort is so confused. They effectively didn’t film with a script, just taking an easy approach to the whole film, and the film feels like it. There’s no strong narrative drive, and Amelia’s falling for the island and Donovan feel disconnected from each other as well as her eventual meeting with her father. Reminding me of how the final moments of Mogambo suddenly eschewed the rambling nature of that film for the dramatic elements it had been avoiding, we get an interesting scene between Amelia and Dr. Dedham when they finally meet, Amelia having learned to love or something, and finding that his explanation for abandoning her as a child is completely fine because he’s a man dedicated to medicine on this remote island and he could have gone home, replaced by another doctor, but he just didn’t. I mean…okay. It was great until the conversation just gets interrupted and never brought up again, at least. This feels like the center of the film, the point where there is the most dramatic potential, and it gets avoided for the longest time because it wants to be a fun romantic comedy. I would be okay with a fun romantic comedy like The Quiet Man, but the central drama isn’t part of that romantic comedy angle. Yeah, this movie is kind of a hodgepodge.

After a completely random fight between an Australian ship crew and Donovan and Gilhooley in the saloon, the movie becomes rather endearing. Lelani is revealed to be the hereditary princess of the island, Amelia realizes the true relationships between the children and her father, and she just comes to accept it. The marriage proposal between Amelia and Donovan is nice as well. The finale does nothing unpredictable, but it does it sweetly.

I kind of wish that they had gone for a more straight forward romantic comedy. The elements are there for a The Quiet Man in Hawaii, but it was just too loosely built with a dramatic element that didn’t really fit. Its ending does a bit to save the film, but not quite enough to elevate it to goodness. As it stands, it’s nice in fits, but little else.

Rating: 2.5/4


15 thoughts on “Donovan’s Reef”

  1. This is another one I own.
    It’s not a good movie. But it is a good hangout.

    I’m fascinated by the idea of old WW 2 vets sorta hanging out in the Pacific after the war, avoiding responsibility and basically enjoying paradise. I’d do that, if I’d been a Navy man after the war.

    That’s it, nothing deep or exciting, the movie is just a hangout. Like Once Upon A Time in Hollywood….only without righteous hippie slaying….and with a worse soundtrack. (OT: James Gunn badly wants to be Quentin Tarantino)


  2. I haven’t seen it in years, but I remember I didn’t care for this one at all. I don’t mind some meandering movies, but they need to come to a head at some point, and I just thought this one wandered too much. When you’re watching and you think “Would it make any difference if they cut this scene?” and the answer is usually “No”…


      1. I do remember thinking it was fit that Lee Marvin got an electric train set that he could put his energy into. But I may be thinking of a different movie, as mentioned, it’s been years.


    1. I think it’s actually six. The first one, Deadroom, seems unavailable anywhere while the second one, St. Nick, seems to have some presence on Mubi, but it doesn’t actually seem available. I also don’t see physical releases of either of them, so tracking those down might be a challenge.

      In terms of the other four, I own two of them (A Ghost Story and The Green Knight) while I’ve seen Pete’s Dragon but not Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. I actually saw The Green Knight in theaters with the intention of reviewing it, but I walked out not really able to organize my thoughts. I just knew that I liked it, and that was about it. He’s definitely one to watch.


      1. I’ve also seen A Ghost Story and The Green Knight. The first is a masterpiece, and the second does need some thought before judging–much like the main character, I guess.

        I’ve downloaded The Old Man and the Gun but haven’t seen it yet. He definitely seems to tap into that David Lynch realm of “I’m seeing this but not sure what I’m seeing” thing. As you say, someone to watch–someone who has interesting things to say. (I haven’t seen Pete’s Dragon.)

        Hopefully he won’t be directing the next version of “Birds of Prey” but who knows.


  3. Rewatched this tonight, for the first time in forever, and with the expectation that it “wasn’t much” I enjoyed it more. Still, the best shot in the film is the first bit with Lee Marvin focused on his model train. That’s A Moment.


    1. It’s not bad at all. It’s just light fare that entertains slightly as it plays and doesn’t merit much thought.

      It really was an excuse to spend Ford’s final days with his yacht before he had to sell it to pay some taxes while he hung out with a couple of movie star friends.


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