Top critical review
John Ford + John Wayne + Lee Marvin + a tropical island = well... much, much less than could be expected...
on 3 February 2015
I found this film watchable, but it was still a disappointment, as I expected much more from such a great director and two of my favourite actors. Honestly, I think that this is the only film that John Ford at least partially messed up. Below, more of my impressions, with some limited SPOILERS.
The story takes place on Haleakaloha (a fictitious island), part of French Polynesia. Other than its native Polynesian population and some French immigrants (including the governor, local priest and some nuns) three Americans, veterans of US Navy, stayed there after WWII. The most eminent of them is William Dedham (Jack Warden), scion of a rich family from Boston, a greatly respected doctor in charge of local hospital. During the war "Doc" Dedham married Manulani, the queen of Haleakaloha and their marriage produced three children: teenage Leilani, young Sarah and little Luke. Tragically, when giving birth to the third child, Manulani died...
The other two American immigrants (and "Doc" Dedham best pals) are Michael "Guns" Donovan (John Wayne) and Thomas "Boats" Gilhooley (Lee Marvin). Those two men are a lot in common: they share the ownership of local most infamous watering hole for sailors ("Donovan's Reef"), they are both hardened bachelors and they also have the same birthday (7 December, of all dates...). Best friends since ever and forever, for some reason they always quarrelled on their common birthday. It lasted so long, that even if everybody, themselves included, forgot what all of that was about, they still have a traditional, highly ritualised and very public bare-fists fight every 7 December - to the greatest delight of local population, the lone constable ("gendarme") included...
Even if people still mourn Manulani, life is good on Haleakaloha, but suddenly "disaster" strikes, in the shape of Miss Amelia Dedham (Elisabeth Allen) from Boston - "Doc" Dedham's daughter... She was born after "Doc" left for war and as he never returned, she never actually saw him... Amelia is now a young lady, attractive albeit tending to hide it. She is also very rich and quite powerful, as the chairman of the board of the Dedham Shipping Company. Following a very serious development in the ownership of stock in the family company, she must - very reluctantly - make the trip to Haleakaloha to meet her estranged, reclusive father about whom she doesn't know much (to the point of ignoring the existence of her three mixed race half-siblings). This quite formidable and not very nice young lady has a secret agenda on this trip and her intentions are definitely not friendly... And then the film begins.
It was of course a very good project for a comedy to confront an arrogant, aggressive, authoritarian, prejudiced, repressed, humourless and very rich woman with a society peaceful, kind, informal, tolerant, joyful and in which people mostly don't aspire to great wealth. Including in this mix a lesson in racial tolerance was certainly not a bad idea either. Finally, describing a kind of slightly utopian society, poor but happy, many members of which are likeable slackers and screwballs (and in which even villains are just clueless and mostly harmless small time crooks) was another very promising move. But sadly, all those good ideas were in large part wasted by huge problems with the scenario.
WARNING! SPOILER ALERT! The biggest problem of this film is that Miss Amelia Dedham who leaves from Boston is not the same person who arrives on the island... The first one is a nightmarish, prickly, snotty, grim, bullying, ice-freezing cold, total-pain-in-the-@ss shrew (kind of not-nymphomaniac Ilsa She Wolf of the SS). The other one is the coolest gal in the world, gentle, humane, smiling, understanding, kids-loving, completely unprejudiced, brave, caring, champion of sea skiing, totally comfortable with being the butt of jokes and not averse to some flirtation. Such a transformation would be very OK - if it didn't occur in five minutes, at the very beginning of the film... Because of this humungous error in the scenario, Miss Amelia Dedham doesn't deliver. I almost could picture the director stocking a powerful explosive charge in this character and lighting the fuse - and all that went off was a wet firecracker...
WARNING! MORE SPOILERS! There are also many other weaker points in this film. I absolutely adore John Wayne, but in this film, at 57, he was clearly too old to play the love interest of a young woman. His "seduction" of Miss Dedham is a completely artificial and forced thing - it appears that she was destined to fall for Donovan from the first second she saw him, without him doing anything at all... I also absolutely adore Lee Marvin, but his character in this film was poorly conceived by the screenwriter and for once he played him even worse. Rather than an endearing alcoholised veteran sea wolf his Gilhooley seems rather to be a developmentally challenged, mentally unbalanced and borderline unpleasant guy... The complicated relation between Donovan and Gilhooley, rather than being a funny but touching oddity, is a freakishly weird nonsense, which seems to be forced on the reality by the scenarist who worked on a short deadline... "Doc" Dedham gets away really easily with the horrible betrayal he committed in his past - after all he abandoned his wife, as ruthlessly and carelessly as if she was old slippers and never bothered even to enquire about his new-born daughter, who also just lost her mother... Somehow, the moral implications of the fact that he is a really horrible deadbeat dad who ABANDONED his baby is completely eliminated from the scenario... Etc. etc.
One of previous reviewers said about this movie that making it was a kind of Hawaiian holiday for John Ford and his gang of old pals and I think that he was very right. This film was clearly not taken seriously by the director and the screenwriter - and the actors didn't care a whole lot about it either. As result, this film is a kind of pothole in John Ford's career, coming between two absolute masterpieces, "The man who killed Liberty Valance" made one year earlier and "Cheyenne's autumn" made one year later.
There is nothing wrong in taking a holiday by shooting a light-hearted comedy on a tropical island - but with just a minimum effort, it could have been done much better. If Ford and his team didn't want to make too much of an effort with the scenario, they had a great story ready to be picked up, "Terrible Solomons" by Jack London (you can read it online as part of Gutenberg project). This extremely funny story about a highly elaborated practical joke played on a young arrogant tourist Bertie Arkwright by an aged and very malicious tycoon was never turned into a movie - and I would give a lot to see a John Ford film made from this South Seas comedy. I can almost imagine John Ford himself appearing in a cameo as Captain Malu, John Wayne playing Mr Harriwell and Lee Marvin playing Captain Hansen... Well, it is not gonna happen and instead we got this thing... (sigh)
However, even if "Donovan's Reef" is disappointing, it is still a movie with John Wayne and Lee Marvin made by John Ford - therefore there is still enough here to make it watchable. There is the excellent character of the French priest, who started to receive generous donations to fix his half-ruined church already in 1945 - and the church is still half-ruined, because every single penny he received he gave away to the needy... There is a wonderful midnight mass on Christmas in a half-ruined church, with an absolutely splendid re-creation of the respects paid to Jesus by the Three Kings. There is some good humour, a surrealistic bar brawl, some good moments with secondary characters played by veterans Cesar Romero and Dorothy Lamour, THE bathing suit of Miss Amelia and then THE KISS, which, considering the age of John Wayne in this film, must be considered as the Grandfather of all the Kisses...))) And of course there are many charming moments with "Doc" Dedham's children: Leilani, Sarah and Luke.
So bottom line, this is a watchable film, but definitely not as good as it could and should have been. I consider it as a kind of weak spot in John Ford's amazing filmography. Even if I managed to watch it until the end, it was the first and ONLY time when I checked at the time counter on the DVD player when watching a John Ford/ John Wayne movie. A watchable thing, but it is definitely not a necessary purchase - renting it is probably preferable.