*½/**** Image A Sound B
starring John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Elizabeth Allen, Jack Warden
screenplay by James Edward Grant and Frank Nugent
directed by John Ford
by Walter Chaw One of legendary director John Ford's last films, and his final collaboration with John Wayne, Donovan's Reef is, like much of Ford's later work, a derivative amalgam of his earlier successes. Curmudgeonly and vicious, it's a lighter-than-air farce with a black heart that feels suspiciously like the mad rantings of an old soldier describing his vision of a bucolic Valhalla to which he one day hopes to return. Released in the same year (1963) that saw Sidney Poitier become the first black man to win an Oscar in a major category (for Lilies in the Field), Donovan's Reef is a shockingly, unapologetically racist and misogynistic film about braggadocio, therapeutic rape, and belittling the natives. In other words, John Ford apologists need to work overtime to dig their favorite auteur out from under this surreal bilge.
John Wayne is Michael Patrick "Guns" Donovan, a two-fisted war vet decorated with the Navy Cross and a handful of Purple Hearts who has settled in an immaculately tailored country club ideal of a Polynesian island, the fictional Haleakaloa. Guns meets fellow veteran Thomas Aloysius "Boats" Gilhooley (Lee Marvin) in Donovan's pub on their shared birthday to engage in an annual drunken brawl of indeterminate length and purpose. When their pal Doc's (Jack Warden) estranged daughter Amelia (Elizabeth Allen) makes an appearance to try to prove her father "unfit" to receive a large inheritance, Guns jumps into action to preserve Doc's "fitness."
The first of many disturbing elements is introduced by prim, Clementine-esque Amelia--the prerequisite of "fitness" precludes her estranged father from having had sexual relations, much less (gasp) matrimonial relations with a native of Haleakaloa. When she arrives amid much "Fantasy Island" lei floating and choral mumsing on the schmaltzy Cyril Mockridge score (a Lawrence Welk emulsion of a native folksong), it's clear immediately that what this woman really needs is to be broken in by a good man. Lucky for Amelia, Guns not only gets a quick grope of the goods while helping Amelia into a boat, he doesn't take "no" for an answer, eventually bending the terminally independent woman over his knee to administer a well-deserved spanking.
Donovan's Reef portrays the Chinese on Haleakaloa as ridiculously unkind buck-toothed caricatures ("You rike bikini? Velly nice! Noombah one!") who vacillate between cacophonous mobs of moronic gamblers, would-be photographers, servile cleaners, or house servants. Of the latter, Mr. Eu (Jon Fong), the unforgivable yes-man to Cesar Romero's Marquis Lage, is the worst (at one point calling his native language, Mandarin Chinese, "that barbaric tongue"), although a matched pair of geisha housemaids named "Yoshi" and "Toshi" rate pretty high on the distasteful list as well, honolahble mastah-son. The Japanese women's presence is all the more disquieting for a brief though furious tirade delivered by "Guns" about the sneaky and loathsome Japs.
Yet throughout Donovan's Reef there are clues pointing to the strange machinery at work in Ford's mind. The character shorthand of the three central male figures--Wayne's "Guns," Marvin's "Boats," and Warden's "Doc"--describes a desire to resurrect the main character constructions of Ford's best films: the man of action (foot soldier), the man of technology (engineer), and the man of healing (medic). Ford's pictures describe a masculine poetry comprising arrivals and departures--the hero called away on his quest and the hero returning triumphant after the fray. Ford is concerned about making a home, mourning the noble dead, hating a common foe, and feeling a perverse nostalgia for the winnowing flame of war and the macho bonds tempered in its heat.
Donovan's Reef, then, is a reflection of the greatest generation's warrior's playground--an all-white ruling class overrun by over-sexed dark-skinned and doe-eyed waihinis, mordantly amusing and ultimately harmless racial minorities, an endless supply of gin and beer, and cathartic bare-knuckle brawls that result in nothing resembling injury. When morning dawns and the broken glass has been spirited away by the shuffling Oriental valets, the warrior can wake with no hint of ill-effect from the night before and climb a hill overlooking a blue cove where stands a monument to your fallen comrades. Interestingly enough, the war memorial in Donovan's Reef carries the names of Guns, Boats, and Doc.
Poorly acted to the extreme (note the indescribably horrendous "performance" of young Jacqueline Malouf as a half-breed daughter, recalling Natalie Wood's character in Ford's The Searchers), with a grotesque cameo by Dorothy Lamour (resurrecting her character from The Hurricane) and an almost non-role for the freshly post-Oscar Lee Marvin, Donovan's Reef is a deceptively fluffy farce centering around the question of "wouldn't it be grand if...?" As in, "Wouldn't it be grand if heaven were a perfectly manicured lawn in a secluded island just south of Hawaii?" and, "Wouldn't it be grand if that lawn were peopled by sexually promiscuous native girls and servile (and humorous) Orientals?" Moreover, "Wouldn't it be grand if we got some good-looking uptight white girls that we could domesticate occasionally?"
Donovan's Reef is an arrested paradisial fantasy of pliant tools for the use of the conquering male hand and shallow diversions for the puerile mind. It's a pastiche of all the places John Ford went with his westerns and war films but filtered through the sepia tone of a very particular nostalgia. Without a grounding in human foible and realistic grit, Ford is just a comic-book artist dealing in male ravagers and wilting females, cowboys and Injuns, leathernecks and Japs. If Haleakaloa is a fantasy of heaven for John Ford and the characters he's created in the image of the western archetype, there are "no darkie" signs in the Rockwellian barbershop windows, and the revenge visited upon an amusingly squinty-eyed foe can be wrought until the Rapture.
Paramount's DVD release presents Donovan's Reef in a beautiful 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that shows off William Clothier's (Cheyenne Autumn) stunning cinematography. Sunsets and island dawns are displayed with equal Technicolor clarity. The Dolby 2.0 mono soundtrack is clear while exhibiting the occasionally muted shortfalls of a thirty-eight year old source, but the true test of understanding dialect and affected dialogue is passed with flying colors. The only extras to speak of are a dusty trailer and a French-language track. Originally published: June 17, 2001.