Donovan's Reef Review
"We've been through one war together. Dark and bloody days. Let's put an end to this fight. Fleur, break out the beers!"
Donovan's Reef is almost entirely a film about the past, as the above quotation suggests. The final collaboration between the great director John Ford and his equally great star John Wayne. it's a loose, nostalgic and self-indulgent comedy about old times, brawling, boozing and men who behave very badly indeed. Modern viewers tend to find it all a bit too much to bear but fans of Ford and Duke are likely to get a great deal of enjoyment out of it.
Set on the idyllic South Sea island of Haleokaloa, the film deals with a group of American men who have decided to stay on the island in the hope of finding some kind of earthly paradise where, as one character says, "It's hard to believe the war ever came within a million miles of a place like this." The men are Patrick "Guns" Donovan (Wayne), William "Doc" Dedham (Warden) and Tom "Boats" Gilhooley (Marvin). Donovan and Gilhooley spend a large part of their time drinking and fighting while Doc, having abandoned his American family and married the island princess, devotes his time to a charitable hospital set up with French missionaries. All seems perfect until news arrives on the island that Doc's father has died, leaving him the owner of a huge shipping business. Good tidings it seems until it is learned that there is a clause in the will that if the heir can be proved to be of unsound moral character then the inheritance will go to his daughter instead. So Doc's daughter, Amelia (Allen) arrives on the island in the hope of discovering her father in a state of moral depravity.
Not that the storyline really matters. In fact, John Ford arrived on location without a script, having disliked the first draft by Jimmy Grant. His old collaborator Frank Nugent came up with a screenplay on spec and the film was pulled together in somewhat ramshackle fashion. By this point in his career, Ford was 67 and finding the whole filmmaking process somewhat trying. Donovan's Reef was an excuse for one last trip on his yacht, the Araner, and an opportunity for him to work with his old friend Duke. But from the start there were problems. Ford arrived on the island of Kaiau only to discover that Paramount no longer intended to finance the picture, having decided that they only wanted the distribution rights. He dug into his own pocket to pay for the film but even his old friends like cameraman Bill Clothier suspected that his judgement might not be as good as it once was. It didn't help that the intended 'happy family' feeling was impaired by the casting of Lee Marvin, usually drunk and unable to work first thing in the morning. Ford's increasing irritability came out in his harsh treatment of Dorothy Lamour, who only continued on the picture after Ford made a personal apology for his behaviour. It was left to John Wayne to keep a close eye on the proceedings and offer Ford support. Not that Hawaiian material was new to Ford. His 1935 film The Hurricane was set on a similar island and also featured Dorothy Lamour.
The film shows some of the strains of production, largely in its rather shapeless nature. Events pile on top of each other, especially during the first half hour, and the performances suggest actors who haven't got anyone controlling them. Luckily, this is counterbalanced by the fact that if you're going to have performers running rampant then Wayne and Marvin are pretty good choices. They work beautifully well together, like an old fashioned comedy team and it's not only the casting of Lamour that causes reminders of the Hope-Crosby "Road" movies. Donovan's Reef has a similarly relaxed pace and the jokes build on each other in the way that Bob Hope's do. John Wayne, looking as if he's having the time of his life, brings the comic timing he demonstrated in Hatari! and is obviously enjoying the opportunity to do some broad physical comedy. Lee Marvin, already grey and grizzled, is a lot of fun as well, his own boozing history adding layers of reality to his character. The brawls between the two stars - and there are a lot of them - are well staged and surprisingly violent for a film with a 'U' certificate. But this is basically a live-action cartoon in which the punches and broken glass don't hurt anyone and everyone ends up happy-drunk. It's a world of no consequences where you can even drive a jeep full of kids with criminal negligence and not have any casualties. The only other actors to make a mark are the huge Mike Mazurki and the ever elegant Cesar Romero who is obviously relishing his role as the governor of the island who turns on his considerable charm whenever Amelia turns up. The women don't have so good a time and Elizabeth Allen is terribly wooden in the kind of role which actresses used to have to suffer; the uptight businesswoman who lets her hair down - literally in this case - when she finds a man who is tough enough to dominate her. Feminists will be open mouthed in astonishment by the climactic scene in which she gets spanked before being kissed. Unreconstructed men will probably love it.
John Ford's films were usually tinged with some humour, most of it the Irish-stage knockabout variety. It has been suggested that it was this, along with some lachrymose sentimentality, was what accounted for the popular success of his work. His all-out comedies are less interesting, at least for this viewer, than his Westerns which are where his true significance as a filmmaker lies. Having said that, it's hard not to enjoy his likeable comic style and while Donovan's Reef isn't nearly as successful a film as The Quiet Man it has much of the same charm. Ford stages slapstick comedy with a good eye and William Clothier's cinematography makes the most of the gorgeous Hawaiian locations.
There are some of Ford's usual interests coming out in the film. The undertow of sadness in most of the characters, notably the death of Donovan's wife in childbirth, is attractively poignant and suggests a deeper reason for the men choosing isolation than simply wanting a place to live out their fantasies. It's been said that, when on the island, they reject indigenous values but it seems to me that its the world outside that they are really rejecting. They make the island in their own image and it is a paradise but there are always reminders of the outside world to bring them back to reality. The men bond into a kind of family, itself interrupted by the arrival of a representative of Doc's 'real' family. This cobbled together family unit is interesting as, perhaps, an answer to the isolation of many of Ford's western heroes. Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Nathan Brittles in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and, most notably, Ethan Edwards in The Searchers are all wanderers, looking for home and hearth but doomed never to find it. In Donovan's Reef, Ford seems to offer a closure to this concept. Donovan and Gilhooley find the togetherness and acceptance in a community which is denied their forebears and you can sense Ford smiling - in his cryptic way - at this final gesture of generosity. The film has an air of finality about it. Even though it wasn't Ford's final film, it seems like his goodbye to two things he loved; his beloved yacht, which he could no longer afford to run, and his collaboration with John Wayne, which began in 1926 and ended with this film in August 1962. It's surely no accident that, after this, his films seem somehow anti-climactic despite the attractive poignancy of the messily apologetic Cheyenne Autumn. It would be a vast generalisation - and given Ford's distinguished career as a serious non-genre director with films like The Grapes Of Wrath a false one - to say that Ford and Wayne needed each other, but it is true to say that, together, they were as extraordinarily powerful a team as has ever been seen in Hollywood. With this, the partnership ended and something beautiful was lost forever. The real climax of their collaboration was the beautiful The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and, in comparison, Donovan's Reef is pretty trivial stuff. But it's good natured, funny and beautifully shot and recognisably the work of a great director who is, like his lead actress, letting his hair down
A recent release from Paramount, Donovan's Reef is a barebones release which has the advantage of an excellent transfer. I've certainly not seen the film looking this good before and it's a shame that other Ford films - notably his masterpiece The Searchers - haven't also been given this treatment.
The film has been transferred in 1.78:1, more or less the original ratio and a Paramount fetish, and it looks pretty damn good. I'd only seen it on VHS before and was not particularly impressed but this new release is gorgeous. It's the colours which knock you out with the bright reds and yellows proving especially spectacular. The blue of the sky and the ocean is breathtaking. There is a high level of detail to the picture throughout. There are occasional signs of print damage with scratches evident in places and some black and white 'popping'. Very few artifacts are visible however and the general standard of the image is excellent.
The soundtrack is in the original Mono format. Like the accompanying release Hatari! it's a good track which is particularly good on the dialogue and music. There's nothing spectacular here but it does the job very well.
The only extra is the original trailer which is a lengthy collection of punches and laughter, with John Wayne featuring heavily.
There are 17 chapter stops and a range of subtitles.
Donovan's Reef may well strike viewers who are unfamiliar with Wayne and Ford as a simple minded collection of play fights and drinking. In a sense, that's what it is but it's tempered with genuine love and affection and has enough serious undertones to keep it from becoming totally mindless. The DVD looks great and is likely to please anyone who likes the film.