November 27, 2014
Donovan’s Reef – US, 1963
At the time of the release of John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef, Hawaii had only been a state for about four years. The United States and the Soviet Union were in the midst of a Cold War and a space race, and John F. Kennedy was still president. The Civil Rights Movement was underway in the United States, yet many of its most important victories were yet to be won. Cinematically, it was six years after the arrival of Joshua Logan’s moving, yet problematic Sayonara, and two years after Rogers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song hit the big screen, delighting audiences with its high-energy musical numbers and all Asian-American cast. I mention these historical details because there are many people who will say that Donovan’s Reef should not be judged by present-day sentiments, that we must take into account the problematic times in which the film was made and not judge it too harshly for its less than perfect portrayal of non-white characters. There are even those who would look at the film and see it as an improvement on what came before it. Fair enough.
The film has a rather flimsy, paint-by-numbers plot that is still somewhat interesting. Its most interesting plotline involves a young woman from Boston who must journey to the island of Haleakaloha in French Polynesia to meet her father, Dr. William Dedham (Jack Warden), for the first time. The young woman, Amelia Dedham (Elizabeth Allen), has no connection with him, nor does she have any desire to make one now. The doctor is a widower with three children, and neither Amelia nor her three siblings are aware of one another’s existence. What brings them together is the morality clause in Amelia’s deceased mother’s will. If she can prove that her father is immoral, he will lose his share of the company. And where else, the family lawyer reasons, could a man be expected to have engaged in depraved behavior than a tropic island full of exotic beauties? After all, he could have added, look at the way they greet Lee Marvin.
This stereotype certainly existed at the time of the film’s release, and, to be fair, no one in the film is spared some form of stereotyping. Bostonians are depicted as being cold, calculating, and more than a little puritanical; soldiers of all nationalities seem to love nothing more than fighting and alcohol; and Chinese tourists are apparently such oddball characters that they’re willing to spend tons of time and money trying to win at a slot machine that is out of order. Individually, we get the area’s magistrate who is both greedy and unsatisfied living on such a beautiful island, his Chinese-American assistant who comes up with morally-questionable schemes and refers to Cantonese as a barbaric tongue, and the area’s local temptress, a Caucasian woman who has no qualms about seducing someone for the right price. Some of these stereotypes exist so that they can be shed later on; others are included simply for comic effect. And at times it’s anyone’s guess what their purpose is. For example, during a Christmas production, the three wise men bearing gifts are portrayed as being the leader of Polynesia, the emperor of China, and the “king” of the United States. Was I supposed to laugh or take this seriously?
Back on Haleakaloha, word reaches of Amelia’s imminent arrival. The problem is that Dr. Bedham has been called away, and the island’s French governor, Marquis Andre de Lage (Cesar Romero), is concerned. After all, as he explains it, “[H]ow can this girl help reaching all the wrong conclusions?” To give the doctor time to explain things in his own way, a crazy scheme is concocted: The doctor’s three children are to be introduced as Michael Donovan’s, and the doctor can correct this information later. Donovan (Wayne) hates the idea, and the eldest daughter, Lelani (Jacqueline Malouf), is convinced it was suggested because she is not white.
The film does include some nice moments. Wayne has a moving speech in which he explains how he and the other men arrived on the island. There is also a touching conversation during which we learn why Dr. Bedham remained on the island despite having a daughter back in Boston, and as the film progresses, it is interesting to witness Amelia’s gradual understanding of the ruse being played on her. There is of course the inevitable love story involving Amelia and Donovan, and at times it seems as if the film is more concerned about this story than the much more important one involving race and acceptance. Unfortunately, the film has its fair share of unnecessary characters, in particular, Lee Marvin’s Thomas Gilhooley, and an unwise reliance of violence as a means of creating humor. In fact, violence seems to be the norm in this film. It opens the film, is part of an annual birthday ritual between Donovan and Gilhooley, who share a birthday, and is the preferred action of practically every sailor who arrives on leave. Regrettably, it also rears its ugly end in the film’s final moments, and the way it transpired left me with a truly sickening feeling in my stomach.
Donovan’s Reef was the last film that John Wayne made with long-time director John Ford, and it is my least favorite of their collaborations. Its plot is too predictable, and Amelia’s changes occur too quickly. In addition, the film has a problematic portrayal of the women of Haleakoloha, for while it has respect for Dr. Bedham’s children and their deceased mother, its depiction of the rest of the women on the island provokes head scratching. It reminded me somewhat of early films such as Tabu and Legong: Dance of the Virgins, films that relied on the nudity and supposed sexuality of Polynesian women to draw moviegoers to theaters and tourists to Polynesian islands. Donovan’s Reef is different. It mostly relies on the star power of Ford, Wayne, and Marvin to attract viewers, and its main story involves the acceptance of different cultures and the discarding of labels. Also, gone is the nudity found in those early films. This is indeed progress. It’s just not quite enough for a strong recommendation, though. (on DVD)
2 and a half stars