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Donovan's Reef

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Review by DVD Savant | posted June 4, 2001 | E-mail the Author

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Although his crown is fading now, John Ford was the undisputed king of film directors during the heyday of the 'auteur theory'.  He was perfect for the role, having made 75 post-silent movies with consistent themes and a varied but personal selection of styles.  Just as his career was finally coming to an end, he made two last pictures for Paramount that sum up both his career, and many of the ironies of his personal philosophy.


Boston shipping heir Ameila Dedham (Elizabeth Allen) sails to the South Seas island of Haleakaloa to gather enough evidence to exclude her estranged Doctor father William (Jack Warden) from his inheritance.  There she finds him living in a retired sailor's paradise with his wartime pals Mike Donovan (John Wayne) and Thomas Gilhooley (Lee Marvin).  But Doc Dedham did violate Boston values by remarrying to a native princess and bearing two children; a fact that Donovan and Gilhooley try to conceal from her.

Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema said that Donovan's Reef was like some kind of heaven that Tom Doniphon and Liberty Valance, both fun-loving uncivilized types, had retreated to in the afterlife.   And it's the key to appreciating this broad comedy.

Just appreciating this show on any level will be an accomplishment for younger fans.  There's a lot they may despise here, starting with the faux-Hawaiian song concocted from 'tiny bubbles', a Lawrence Welk favorite. ( actually, lounge music fans may love it)   The use of Polynesians and particularly Asians is stock stereotyping at its most extreme ("plitty lady, show legs, nice picture?"), but is only the most salient aspect of a fantasy constructed almost entirely from stock ideas.   Even the critical champions of Ford had to make excuses for his favorite subplots involving amusing drunks and giant brawls where nobody's seriously hurt; Donovan's Reef is almost completely composed of this kind of material, a lot of which is fall-down funny, especially with Marvin and Wayne clowning around.

But that's the whole point.  John Ford obviously wanted to make a light comedy in the paradise of the South Seas he had reconstructed in The Hurricane 25 years before, and had seen for himself during the War in the Pacific.  Haleakaloa is no real place but instead IS the Valhalla for fallen Ford heroes, especially the misfits who don't belong in society.  'Guns' Donovan, 'Boats' Gilhooley and the Doc are refugees from Ford's more serious films, living in a paradise for Navy veterans.  A tourist's paradise it is, not unlike Shangri-La, a place populated by charming, clean natives who always smile, wear bright clothes and speak English with endearing child-like accents.  The natives of Haleakaloa might as well be sub-human Eloi, easy to convert to Christian spirituality and easy to take to bed, but not on the same level as the whites.  Blacks somehow need not apply; even Woody Strode's servile Pompey of Liberty Valance doesn't earn a place in paradise, it seems.

The brawling goes on non-stop, and is just another ritual for birthdays and Christmas in a film constructed almost entirely of Ford moments: arrivals, departures, memorials, church services, pagaents, parades.  Here's where the appreciation might kick in, for far from being some kind of stiff & square non-comedy by has-beens, Donovan's Reef comes off instead as a surreal, almost abstract progression of kabuki-like rituals from the world of John Ford.

There's the Clementine-like good girl from back East, who Donovan 'humanizes' with a spanking and a kiss.  There's also the local, dark, bad girl played by Dorothy Lamour, who evokes not only the Hope and Crosby comedies in her sarong, but reminds us that she started the fad with The Hurricane. In that movie her native husband Jon Hall travels afar and wants to buy her some special things to bring back as gifts; Lamour's 'Miss LaFleur' is like the ghost of that woman, singing boozily about a man promising to bring her petticoats and dresses.  The entrance of the boat into the harbor with 'heavenly' singing is a cliché practically invented by Ford in The Hurricane, that continues through The Long Voyage Home and even into Mr. Roberts. The feeling imparted is that the weary travelers have arrived at a place far from home free of civilization and its restrictions, where one can be at peace, as if it were a welcome refuge for everyone who's lost the essential Ford idea of Home.  3

Ford's heroes arrive at Haleakaloa by literally swimming ashore, but even on the beach there's a formal native gate that frames every arrival (Gilhooley greeted by his fans) and exit (the very surreal assembly at the end, with all marching forward & while staring out to sea).  Ameilia and Michael's first handshake is framed by this gate.  The fact that a 'native' runs through the frame with a handy towel for Ameilia to dry herself is a reflection of the lack of concern for realism.  Mike tear-asses around in his jeep, even with tots aboard, as harmlessly as in the comic barfights where nobody gets killed, despite the lethal blows that are being exchanged.  There are a lot of similarities between Haleakaloa and the Judgement City in Defending Your Life, where there are also no consequences for one's actions.

Mike Doniphon, I mean, Donovan, says that his destroyer was sunk offshore, and they swam to the island to be welcomed by the natives.  Donovan's Reef is so fantastic, it's fun to speculate that the sailors actually all went down with the ship, and that the whole film is the wishful thinking, Ambrose Bierce-style, of life-loving sailors killed prematurely.  After all, the Doc never contacted his family ever again, and Gilhooley and Donovan might as well have dropped off the face of the Earth with him.  It's an idea that goes only so far, but it does help explain why this tropical island is populated by fantasy natives from a Hollywood movie, why the only Asians are harmless comic relief, even why the houses and lawns are manicured to picture-postcard perfection.  This Polynesian paradise is the one of Tourist shows, with lines of smiling young women insultingly presumed to be available to the Howlies.  4  The reverence accorded the hereditary descendant of Manulani is amazingly sincere, given the bald tourist baloney of the pageantry surrounding her.

So Ford's film is the ultimate Navy fantasy, where grown men get to live in a state of frozen adolesence, playing with toy trains, the dark floozy gets to marry her hunk instead of dying off in the last reel, and the Clementine Carter character stops being such a priss and gets down to basic chemistry with the hero.  If modern teen movies can have every kid hero be a champion kickboxer, and warp historical events (Pearl Harbor) to indulge the selfish fantasies of 21st-century know-nothings, than surely John Ford and his pals - who actually lived through some of these world-changing events - should be permitted the luxury of having their own surreal fantasy, even if the fantasy includes unlimited beer and cigarettes.  In other words, they saved the world, so cut 'em some slack, already.   Much like loving the idea of America, loving John Ford movies is like loving an ideal that you know should not be confused with the Truth.  If my parents' generation had mastered the miracle of honoring the legend, but telling the Truth, well, things could have been a lot different.

16:9 enhanced and beatifully remastered, Paramount's Donovan's Reef is a visual treat almost as good as a vacation on Maui.  William Clothier's lush photography takes full advantage of what must have been inspiring conditions ... it's hard to believe there are bugs on the plants, and you want to rush forward and fix the divot ripped out of the lawn by Wayne's jeep. It's almost offensive when Wayne tosses his cigarette butt into a Hawaiian bay. Anyhoo, the disc is just gorgeous, and the restored proper framing makes Ford's formal intentions more apparent than on flat television prints.  The only extra is a trailer, but this title has a French mono track in addition to its standard English Mono.  The brief package notes are by someone who inanely says that the heroes brawl to 'stave off the sameness of tropical living.'  Sheesh, I'll take my crackpot theories any day.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Donovan's Reef rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Snapper case
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: June 3, 2001


3. This feeling of 'the lost home' is transmuted by Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch in the ride OUT of Agua Verde, where even the hardbitten outlaws are touched by their acceptance by the villagers.  The song they sing is 'La Golondrina', a sad tune about a bird, fast but tired, stranded in the 'lost region' and unable to fly.  The song describes perfectly the situation of Ethan Edwards at the end of The Searchers; in Ford, all the heroes are trying to build a home (Tom Joad, Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine, Grapes of Wrath and Drums Along the Mowhawk) or avoid one.  The 'avoiders' (Ethan Edwards, Tom Doniphon, Frank Wead) always end up with a horrifying sense of loss.

4. This is just the way WW2 'good neighbor' propaganda films pictured Latin America, with lots of bare-shouldered señoritas willing to hop in the hay with any gringo who comes along, particularly in uniform.  See the eye-opening, almost disgusting Panama Hattie sometime ... the implication is that the Latins & Polynesians are just 'culturally oversexed', not that economic destruction of their societies forced large numbers of women into prostitution.

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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2001 Glenn Erickson

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