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Donovan's Reef

1963 movie poster
Directed by John Ford
Produced by John Ford
Written by James Edward Grant
Frank S. Nugent
Starring John Wayne
Lee Marvin
Jack Warden
Elizabeth Allen
Music by Cyril Mockridge
Cinematography William H. Clothier
Editing by Otho Lovering
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date(s) June 12, 1963
Running time 109 min
Country U.S.
Language English
Budget $2,686,585 (estimated)

Donovan's Reef is a 1963 American motion picture starring John Wayne. It was directed John Ford and filmed on location on Kauai, Hawaii.

The cast included Elizabeth Allen, Lee Marvin, Dorothy Lamour, and Cesar Romero. The film marked the last time Ford and Wayne ever worked together on a project.



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").


The film begins with Thomas "Boats" Gilhooley (Marvin), an expatriate United States Navy veteran, working aboard a freighter. When he realizes that the ship he signed up for is just passing by Haleakaloha, French Polynesia, and not actually stopping there, he jumps ship to swim to the island.

Next, Michael "Guns" Donovan (Wayne), another expatriate U.S. Navy veteran and a former shipmate of Gilhooley, returns from a fishing trip aboard an outrigger canoe. Donovan is greeted by William "Doc" Dedham (Warden), the only physician in the archipelago, who 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, on December 7, are shattered by the arrival of Gilhooley, 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 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 keep him from inheriting the stock and retain control.

When word reaches Haleakaloha that Miss Dedham is on the way, a scheme is concocted by Donovan, Gilhooley, and 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 she enters the house and sees a portrait of a beautiful Polynesian woman in royal trappings. This, the viewer understands, was Doc's wife, the mother of his children. Amelia is not told of the relationship, but she learns that the woman was 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 is 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 outdated "swimming costume" 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 Lafleur (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. The home of the French island governor, the white beach house with coconut palms and surrounding grass lawn, is the Allerton Estate home and former summer residence of Hawaiian Queen Emma near Poipu Beach, now a part of the National Tropical Botantical Garden (without the scenes of boats and canoes on the Wailua River, which were edited and merged with scenes filmed at the Allerton Estate).

There is one major historical error: French Polynesia was 4,000 km east of the farthest Japanese expansion, and there was no fighting there.

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.

A mistaken use of a blasphemy slipped past the censors. At the end of the first fight between John Wayne and Lee Marvin, after Jack Warden has broken it up, Wayne and Marvin start to get out of the pond, but Marvin slipped and fell back into the water. As he did so, he exclaimed, "Jesus!" Because it was funny, the error was left in the film, and because the sound of the water partially obscured the exclamation, the dialogue was also left unaltered.

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