Here's a first for Dammaged Goods, a multi-site blogathon! The topic? The films of John Ford. Co-hosted by Krell Laboratories and Bemused and Non-Plussed, which is run by an old college chum of mine who will forever be in my heart for her love of John Carpenter and buying me Wendy's with her leftover meal stipend. I've seen a lot of Jack/Coach/Pop Ford's work but I can't say he's one of my favorite directors a la The Great Escape's John Sturges. But this near week long event seemed like fun and something different than my usual 80's and 90's awesome bullshit. Perusing through Ford's filmography, obvious titles like My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Quiet Man, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Searchers all jumped out at me but were already taken. Then I realized that his 1963 "WWII buddies who brawl in Hawaii" effort Donovan's Reef was still up for grabs. I didn't realize the flick was one of Ford's last directorial efforts and that the production faced a multitude of issues from the start. But we'll get into that...
wild eyed trouble maker Thomas Aloysius 'Boats' Gilhooley (Lee Marvin) who is scrubbing the decks of a freighter passing the French Polynesian island of Haleakaloha (actually Kauai, Hawaii). A Navy veteran, Boats has been shanghai'd by the turtleneck clad, blackjack toting captain who gets a mop handle to the face as Boats makes his escape and swims to shore. Then we meet Michael Patrick 'Guns' Donovan (John Wayne) on a fishing trip with three youngsters, Leilani, Sarah and Luki who are the children of local physician Dr. William Dedham (Jack Warden). From the simple introduction we can infer that Guns is a good man, a tough guy and a bit of a smart ass. Next we're introduced to island governor Marquis Andre de Lage (Cesar Romero) who is tired of the pretty local girls, bland food and sunshine and would rather be transferred to Miami Beach, Florida or Hollywood, California. As Boats makes his way to shore, horns are sounded and a singing, waving crowd gathers to welcome the seemingly island legend with layers of leis and passionate smooches from the women. Local law enforcement/French Legionnaire Sgt. Monk Menkowicz (Mike Mazurki) and Father Cluzeot (Marcel Dalio) are ready to kick Boats off the island but are disarmed by his roughneck charm. Boats and Monk head to Donovan's Reef, a local "men only" joint where we learn that Guns and Boats have partaken in an annual, all out brawl for the last 22 years following their service in World War II on their shared birthday summed up as "The Legion, The Legend and The Crowd". Guns attempts to call a truce but within minutes the beer bottles and punches fly as the two rumble through the bar. Doc Dedham breaks up the scuffle and reminds them that nobody even remembers what started their ridiculous birthday donnybrook that happens to fall on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
Ameilia Dedham (Elizabeth Allen), heir to a vast shipping company who is worth a very not bad $18 million bucks and wears skirts during snow storms. Following the death of an elder Dedham who bequeaths lucrative shares to Doc, the family lawyer suggests tracking Doc down to prove he is not of good morals and can then be denied the wills will. Word hits the island of Ameilia's arrival but with Doc traveling the outer islands for several weeks, Guns and the Marquis don't want to risk an angry daughter being confronted with 3 new siblings and ruin the deal. Guns then takes Leilani, Luki and Sarah (Jacqueline Malouf, Jeffrey Byron and Cherylene Lee) as his own until Doc can explain the situation which Leilani takes as their father being ashamed of their mixed heritage. Ameilia arrives and of course starts off on the wrong foot with Guns as they both plummet into the water while transferring vessels and she deems him an imbecile. But of course Ameilia's cold hearted, business woman facade starts to soften as she interacts with the adorable Luki, Sarah and Leilani, not knowing they're actually related and taking in the slow paced, relaxing lifestyle of the islanders. And of course Ameilia decides Guns isn't such an imbecile and after some oddly tense, funny, competitive and macho style courting, the two begin to fall for each other. Upon arrival Ameilia is surprised to find that her father doesn't live in some beach side shack but rather has a grand estate complete with a hospital and church on site. We learn that Doc, Guns and Boats were all on the same ship during the war which was attacked and sunk. They managed to reach the island where locals helped them survive and launch a guerrilla war campaign against the residing Japanese troops. Doc knew of Ameilia's birth but by the time the fighting ended, his wife/her mother had died and no one reached out to him. Meanwhile, the people of the island needed his help so he stayed on to repay their kindness before marrying the last descendent of island royalty, Princess Manulani, who died during childbirth.
I've always liked Donovan's Reef but haven't sat down to watch it in quite some time. The simple and funny premise, the lush ocean, beach and valley landscapes along with fun performances of John Wayne and Lee Marvin were enough to put a smirk on my face anytime I came across the title. Popping it in today, I realized how short the actual brawl scenes are and how long the movie feels. Not in a boring way, just a, I thought it was about one thing but it's actually about something else. You could make ties to racism, capitalism, greed, misogyny and the like but I'm not viewing this film in the context of it's release and can only see it through my eyes some 50 years later where the film stands out due to it's talented cast and crew and amusing run time. Wayne's Guns Donovan is a nice comedic departure for The Duke between war and western roles in fare like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Longest Day and McClintok! He's macho, tough yet paternal and likeable as uncle to the children and gets to rock short shorts which probably didn't happen in many of his other films during the time period. Lee Marvin plays Boats as a near cartoon character with broad physicality, crazy eyes and oblivious charm in what is a surprisingly small role upon repeat inspection. Apparently Marvin was deep into his drinking days and would show up hungover, thus making the production shuffle filming. I loved the bit where he has a string tied to a bottle of beer connected to his wrist though. Marvin was still playing heavies up to this point and was just around the corner from his leading man turns in Cat Ballou, The Professionals, The Dirty Dozen, Point Blank, Hell In The Pacific and PAINT YOUR WAGON!
In the two quick fight scenes, Wayne and Marvin mix it up in only the ways 60's Hollywood could with brutal looking hits, bodies smashing through tables, pianos and windows, chairs being broken over backs and all the best western style, bar room brawling we just can't seem to replicate today. In the middle of the mayhem, director Ford manages to keep things light with Guns chastising Boats to throw a bottle of beer, not expensive liquor or a broken slot machine finally paying out when someone is punched into it. I totally forgot that future Used Cars' co-star Jack Warden plays Doc with his great voice and strong demeanor utilized to good effect as the calm headed, responsible adult to Guns and Boats' manchildren. TV star Elizabeth Allen is fine as the uppity yet not unlikeable heir and estranged daughter who gets to treat the men like idiots, the children like royalty and show off some long slender legs in a bathing suit late in the film to remind Donovan that she is a woman, not an iceberg. A few years off from playing The Joker on the camp classic television series, Batman, Cesar Romero is dashing as the local authority who looks to woo the wealthy Ameilia while complaining about living in paradise.
Based on a story by Edmund Beloin with a script by frequent John Wayne collaborator Jimmy Grant (Hondo, The Alamo and James Garner's Support Your Local Gunfighter) that was rejected and revised by John Ford ally Frank Nugent (The Searchers, The Quiet Man), Donovan's story takes on weighty issues like the war, disgruntled family and interracial relations with lighthearted ease, never making a bold statement on any topic and using the subjects as jumping off points for our story and likeable characters. Aging and after years of drinking and his own war time injuries compounding, "Tough Irish Intellect" John Ford's health was said to be in steep decline during the making of Reef which was described as "8 weeks of summer fun" with all his old buddies. The film still plays as an enjoyable and breezy time that is amusing and funny with bits of action and heart placed throughout with some very fun characters and solid performances from all involved. Once in Hawaii, Paramount pulled financing but was still on board to distribute leaving Ford to fund the production that didn't have a finalized script. Released in June of 1963, Donovan's Reef would go on to become a mild success, placing 24th on the years highest earners behind flicks like The Great Escape, Hud, Dr. No, Charade and Wayne and Ford's own McClintok! and How The West Was Won. Ford's career was nearly at it's end as his next effort, the star studded apology to Native American depiction in film, Cheyenne Autumn, was not a success. Wayne still had The Sons of Katie Elder, El Dorado and an Oscar for True Grit in his future while Marvin would also win a statue for Cat Ballou 3 years later.
While it may not be the most "important" work of anyone involved careers, Donovan's Reef is a sun soaked bit of fun that shows off Ford, Wayne and Marvin having a good time and taking us with them. If it's not used as a a promotional tool to bring tourists to Hawaii, it ought to be.