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Donovan’s Reef



Donovan’s Reef


Director: John Ford
Writer: Frank S. Nugent, James Edward Grant
Starring: John Wayne, Lee Marvin
Review By: Griff


Let me just come right out and say it from the beginning. Donovan’s Reef is not a great movie. It has been the victim of harsh criticism and most of it is justly deserved. Those familiar with films like The Searchers will know that on occasion John Ford could have some issues with racial stereotypes in his movies. Donovan’s Reef is certainly not going to do anything to help his case. The movie also has fine examples of misogyny to the point where John Wayne actually takes a woman over his knee and gives her a spanking! Then there is Lee Marvin’s performance. Lets just say that this is not his most subtle and nuanced performance.

Despite its many flaws however its a movie that I just couldn’t help but enjoy. It’s pretty light fare to be sure but it’s such a strange beautifully shot little picture that it let me forget it flaws.

Donovans Reef Still 2

The movie starts out with Thomas “Boats” Gilhooley (Lee Marvin) jumping ship off the coast of Haleakaloha. Every year Gilhooley meets up with old friend “Guns” Donovan. The two of them share the same birthday and every year they celebrate it with a fist fight. This year is no different and the two men have a throw down inside of a bar in town that Donovan owns. It seems like business as usual for these two men and their other friend “Doc” Dedham who also lives on the island. All three men were together in the Navy and moved to the island following the war.

Then we shift to Boston where we meet Ameilia Dedham (Elizabeth Allen). She is the daughter of Doc and it turns out that Doc is from a very wealthy family in the shipping business. It turns out that Doc has recently inherited a large share of the stock in the business and is now the majority shareholder. There is a clause in the will however, if someone can prove that Doc is living in a immoral manner than he will have to forfeit the stock. Amelia has never met her father but she assumes that since he is living on some obscure Polynesian Island that he must be up to no good. Amelia decided to travel to Haleakaloha to try and prove that her father is undeserving of the family fortune.

The story is really a pretty basic fish out of water rom com. Once Amelia gets to the island she has trouble adjusting to life outside of provincial Boston. She has a very stand off relationship with Donovan but eventually falls for him and of course everything eventually gets tied up in way too neat of a little bow.

Donovans Reef Still 3

Still there is something about that I enjoyed. It is a definitely a rom com made for men. Half the movie is men getting in fist fights and pounding beer in Donovan’s bar. On the other hand it was filmed in Hawaii and features some amazing scenery. Then there is an interesting little cast of side characters that make the movie fun. Cesar Romero as the Marquis Andre de Lage is a stand out.

If some of you have seen this one then you know that there really isn’t much I can do to defend myself from it’s critics but it’s still a movie that I found enjoyable. This arguably one of John Wayne’s best comedic performances and if you are a fan of his it’s worth checking out. Donovan’s Reef gets 2 guys from me.

2guys copy




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  • Marilyn Armstrong June 7, 2013, 7:43 pm

    Excellent review. There are so many movies like this, where yes, they are flawed … but we enjoy them anyhow. If we wait for perfection, it’s will be a long long wait. My husband is a serious fan of John Wayne and John Ford, painfully aware of both the racism and the misogyny … and with the awareness, still loves the movies. I think it bothers him more when people pretend the racism and misogyny isn’t there than to simply acknowledge it, deal with it, and move on. He mentioned (on my site) that the embedded racism in Ford’s movies is unavoidable, even if you are a fan … so now he’s battling the “No no it’s not true” crowd, which is very annoying and also (IMO) stupid. So I appreciate your review even more.

    • Griff June 11, 2013, 1:46 pm

      Thanks Marilyn, It’s a marginal entry into the Wayne and Ford catalog but it’s still a fun watch. You could nitpick Ford to death but the movie is 50 years old. Even Disney has made some stuff that they can’t release today. I am looking at you Song of the South!

  • Chris June 7, 2013, 8:00 pm

    Nice post Griff, looks like an episode of Gilligan’s Island. :)

    • Marilyn Armstrong June 9, 2013, 11:07 pm

      You know, I never thought of it … but Gilligan’ s Island is not a bad analogy :-)

    • Griff June 11, 2013, 1:35 pm

      Lol, yeah I guess it does!

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