Donovan's Reef

Donovan's Reef is a 1963 American motion picture from director John Ford. This film marked the last time Ford and John Wayne worked together. The film also stars Elizabeth Allen, Lee Marvin, Dorothy Lamour, and Cesar Romero.

The film is a morality play in the guise of an action/comedy. It deals harshly (though not in an obvious way) with issues of racial bigotry, corporate connivance and greed, American beliefs of societal "superiority" and hypocrisy (i.e., the Boston shipping company considers carrying rum to be immoral, so they euphemistically refer to it as "West Indies goods").

Plot summary

The film begins with Michael "Guns" Donovan (Wayne), an expatriate U.S.Navy veteran, returning to the Polynesian island of Haleakaloha from a fishing trip aboard an outrigger canoe. Donovan is greeted by news that William "Doc" Dedham (Warden), the only physician in the archipelago, is about to begin a one- or two-week pre-Christmas circuit of the "outer islands," taking care of the health needs of the residents. Dedham's three children are placed in Donovan's care.

The kids' plans for a peaceful celebration of Donovan's birthday are shattered by the arrival of Thomas Gilhooley (Marvin), a former shipmate who shares the same birthday. There is an unbroken 21-year tradition that Donovan and Gilhooley have a knock-down, drag-out fight every birthday -- to the delight of the local observers -- and their 22nd year does not break the tradition. The two vets meet in (and trash) "Donovan's Reef," the saloon owned by Donovan.

Miss Amelia Dedham (Allen) is a "proper" young lady "of means" from Boston, who has become the chairman of the board of the Dedham Shipping Company. Her father, of course, is Doc Dedham, whom she has never met, but who now has inherited a large block of stock in the family company, making him the majority stockholder. She travels to Haleakaloha in hope of finding proof that Doc has violated an outdated (but still in effect) morality clause in the will which would enable her to cheat him out of his stock and retain control.

When word reaches Haleakaloha that Miss Dedham is on the way, a scheme is concocted by Donovan, Gilhooley, and the Ivy-League-educated Chinese aide of Andre, the Marquis de Lage (Romero). De Lage is Haleakaloha's French governor, who hopes to find a post somewhere else. Donovan is to pretend to be the father of Doc's three hapa children (Leilani, Sarah and Luke), until Doc comes back and can explain things to the prim, proper Boston lady. The plan is reluctantly accepted by the oldest daughter, Leilani, who believes that the deception is because she and her siblings aren't white, a reflection of the bigotry of the period.

The plan works, and Amelia learns that her father, Donovan and Gilhooley were marooned on the Japanese-occupied island after their destroyer was sunk in World War II. With the help of the locals, the three men conducted a guerrilla war against the Japanese. She also learns that her father built a hospital, and lives in a large house (she had obviously expected to find a shack). A mystery develops, as enters the house and sees a portrait of a beautiful Polynesian woman in royal trappings. This, obviously, was Doc's wife, who had been mentioned as being named Manulani. Donovan mentions that Luke's mother (by implication, his own wife) had died in childbirth.

As the story develops, Amelia learns that life in the islands was not as she expected, and neither is Donovan, who proves to be educated and intelligent, and the owner of a substantial local shipping operation. Amelia, too, is not as expected, as when she strips off her clothes to reveal a tight swimsuit, challenges Donovan to a swimming race, and dives into the water. They develop a truce, as de Lage tries to court Amelia (or rather, her $18,000,000).

When Dr. Dedham returns, father and daughter meet for the first time (Amelia: "Doctor Dedham, I presume?"). He has been told about the deception, and over dinner he explains that he was serving in World War II when his wife (Amelia's mother) died. When the war ended, he felt that he was not needed in Boston, but was desperately needed in the islands, so he stayed. He has even signed over his stock to Amelia, as he intends to remain in the islands. Just as he is about to explain about Manulani and their children (described by Amelia as "half-caste"), a hospital emergency interrupts.

It turns out that Manulani was the granddaughter of the last hereditary prince of the islands, and on Christmas Amelia finally puts all of the pieces together to solve the mystery. Leilani -- Manulani's daughter -- is not only the island's princess, but Amelia's sister, a relationship which is tearfully but joyfully acknowledged by both girls.

Amelia and Donovan evolve their truce into marriage plans. Gilhooley also finally marries his longtime girlfriend, Miss Fleur (Dorothy Lamour). Donovan points out the new sign on the saloon, which is now "Gilhooley's Reef". Donovan has given the bar to his old shipmate as a wedding present.

Crisis resolved, life in the islands can return to normal.


Location and Production Notes

While Donovan's Reef is set on the fictional island of Haleakaloha, which has a French governor, the only Polynesian language exhibited in the film is Hawaiian -- "Haleakaloha" can be translated as "Home of Laughter and Love" (hale = home, aka = laugh, aloha = love) -- and Amelia has come from Honolulu by sailing ship, indicating a location much closer to Hawaii than to French Polynesia.

The movie was actually filmed on Kauai, Hawaii. Tourists continue to visit the shooting locations, decades after the film's release.

The other languages in the film are English, French, Chinese (Mandarin), and Japanese (spoken by Yoshi and Koshi, Doc's housekeepers).

When de Lage offers Amelia the use of his jeep, he describes it as a 1944, when actually it is a mid-1950s-vintage CJ-5. As Donovan drives an early-1940s GPW in other scenes, this appears to be a technical error, rather than mistake in the script. There are a few other technical errors (such as the jeep windshield being up at the beginning of Donovan's angry drive into town, then being folded down during the drive). There is one major historical error: French Polynesia was 4,000 km east of the farthest Japanese expansion, and there was no fighting there.

However, the cinematography values are up to the scenery, while at the same time seeming natural due to camera angles and actor blocking. Actions which would be centered and emphasized are instead either implied or partially hidden by scenery, props or other actors. Lighting is so well handled that it is difficult to know which interior scenes were on the sound stage and which were in buildings on location.

The writing and direction show an awareness and respect for Polynesian culture, especially as it takes influences from foreign immigrants, while effecting a change in those immigrants. This is clearly shown in the Christmas Midnight Mass scene, which is inspirational with comedic undertones (and ends with a sight gag), but had a ring of authenticity. Yoshi and Koshi offer leis (Polynesian honors) before the painting of Manulania, then give deep bows of respect (Japanese honors). This prompts the Amelia to offer her own Christmas flowers, then back away (European-style honors). Manulani is buried in the churchyard (European ritual) but her grave and marker are buried in flowers (Polynesian ritual). The Christmas march (European ritual) is performed in Polynesian style.

In a bit of tongue-in-cheek, portraits of the founder and leaders of the Dedham Shipping Company are all of Warden (in appropriate period dress). The portrait of Manulani appears to be a similar treatment of Allen, as she would appear if she were Polynesian or hapa.

John Wayne played a character named Wedge Donovan in The Fighting Seabees with an alternate title of the film being Donovan's Army.

One of the ships owned by Donovan is the "Innisfree", which is the name of the town in Ireland that John Wayne's character returned to in "The Quiet Man".

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