Posted by Susan Doll on December 15, 2014
I confess a fondness for Christmas movies that stray from the typical snow-covered farmhouses, nostalgic small-towns, holiday-decorated department stores, and parties overrun with good cheer. While non-traditional Christmas movies rarely achieve classic status, they are interesting for unusual or personal reasons.
I have always had an affection for Donovan’s Reef, partly because I watched it on Saturday Night at the Movies with my father when I was a little girl, and he enjoyed it so much. But, I was also taken with the film’s tropical setting, which made for an exotic backdrop for Christmas. I can’t help but wonder if my obsession with the romance of the tropics began with Donovan’s Reef.
Directed by John Ford in the twilight of his career, Donovan’s Reef takes place on the (fictional) Polynesian island of Haleakaloa, which was saved from the Japanese by three Navy buddies—Dr. William “Doc” Dedham, Michael Patrick “Guns” Donovan, and Thomas Aloysius “Boats” Gilhooley. Based on the names alone, it is easy to tell that this knockabout comedy is going to be all about the boys. Thinking Haleakaloa a paradise, the three sailors can’t get the island out of their minds after the war. Doc returns to found a hospital for the islanders, while Guns establishes a couple of businesses, including a saloon called Donovan’s Reef. Gilhooley jumps ship from time to time to swim ashore to Haleakaloa for the sole purpose of starting a fistfight with Guns on their mutual birthday—apparently something of a tradition. The actual narrative begins when Doc’s adult daughter, Amelia, arrives from Boston to find her long-lost father. Doc attempts to hide his island family from her, because he fears she would not accept that he had married a native woman and fathered three children. Guns steps up and pretends the half-breed children are his. In typical Ford fashion, Amelia and Guns are attracted to each other but can’t get along.
The film is based on “The South Sea Story” by James Michener, but I doubt if much of the original plot can be found in the movie. Apparently, ten screenwriters worked on the adaptation, with Ford favorite Frank Nugent pulling together the final shooting script—a script that Ford chose to ignore as he improvised his way through some of the sequences. The legendary director also faced problems with Paramount, because the studio backed out of the financing at the last minute. While they still agreed to distribute the movie, Ford had to find his own financing. He delivered the film at a budget of $3.62 million, and it grossed $5,763,000 on initial release.
Film scholars, Ford biographers, and film reviewers disagree when it comes to evaluating the significance of Donovan’s Reef, which is something of a mess. In 1963, when the film was released, reviewers trashed it as “foolish” and “childish.” Even today, some dismiss the film as merely a romp for Ford and his favorite actors—perhaps a much-needed change of pace after the somberness of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Several Ford favorites do appear in the film, including John Wayne who plays into his familiar star image as the noble but fun-loving Guns Donovan. Dorothy Lamour, a long-time friend to Ford who costarred in The Hurricane (1937), dons floral prints once more to play native Miss Lafleur. Wayne’s son Patrick appears in a tiny part as an Australian navy lieutenant involved in one of the movie’s many brawls. Another Ford friend, Anna Lee, lent her children, Tim and John Stafford, to play island offspring. Mae Marsh and John Qualen, lesser-known members of the Ford Stock Company, have uncredited cameos. Lee Marvin, who had just made a name for himself as the title character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, costars as Boats. Jack Warden, as Doc Dedham, seems to be the only major actor who was not part of Ford’s film family.
Looking past its reputation as a mere comic romp, some scholars admire the film’s racial message, which was a nod toward the pro-integration issues of the Civil Rights era. Amelia’s stuffy Boston upbringing makes her a candidate for racial prejudice against her mixed-race siblings by her father’s second marriage to an island princess, though Amelia turns out to be more accepting than Doc and Guns assume. Gilhooley and Lefluer’s courtship is played mostly for laughs, but the two marry at the end, accounting for another mixed marriage. The most interesting sequence is the version of the nativity story performed by the community—a multi-cultural affair featuring Americans, French, Chinese, and Polynesians in the cast and in the audience. It doesn’t look like a traditional Christmas pageant or nativity, but its inclusiveness expresses the true meaning of the holiday. However, the pro-integration politics of the narrative will likely go unnoticed by today’s audiences, because, while topical at the time, the depiction of race in the film was not radical or even enlightened. There are jokes made at the expense of the Chinese, plus Haleakaloa’s social institutions are controlled by white men who lord it over the natives while they themselves squabble, brawl, drink, and otherwise wallow in immature behavior. A mixed message to say the least.
Ford biographer Joseph McBride, as well as scholars Peter Wollen and Robin Wood, suggest that Donovan’s Reef has a more personal significance to the director. McBride notes that by the mid-1950s, Ford talked of spending his old age sailing around the Hawaiian Islands on his yacht, the Araner. He considered Hawaii to be an earthly paradise—a perfect escape from the outside world. As social problems plagued the US into the 1960s, Ford lost faith that communal harmony—an ideal so often found in his films—could ever be achieved and maintained in America. Wood notes that three of Ford’s last films—Donovan’s Reef, Seven Women, and Young Cassidy (which he became too infirmed to complete)—were made outside the U.S., perhaps representing a kind of mental flight from his country. Just as tellingly, his last western, Cheyenne Autumn, was about the desperate trek of a people to return to their native country, to return to the way it used to be.
Thus, Donovan’s Reef is heavy with nostalgia for the camaraderie of brawling boys, the understanding of sympathetic women, and the peaceable kingdom of an exotic paradise. If that place would never exist in the real world, then John Ford created it on the big screen. As Peter Wollen reflected, Haleakaloa is “Valhalla for the homeless heroes.”
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