You’ve got to be carefully taught.
Even though I missed a St. Patrick’s Day viewing of The Quiet Man, I figured I could make it up to the Church of the Duke by plopping down in front of a John Wayne movie I’d never seen before, and just in time for Easter, where John Wayne will rise from the grave to show his grace upon those who excused him for making The Conqueror. Yes, that sounds a bit silly, but growing up with my Dad, you might have thought John Wayne was the fourth part of the Sign of the Cross. In fact, I’m sure as soon as this review gets posted I’ll have both of my parents telling me whether or not they have seen Donovan’s Reef, and whether or not it measures up to McLintock! or Rooster Cogburn. As far as that remake they just did of True Grit?
Fill your hands, Jeff Bridges!
I kid, I kid. But you have to admit that John Wayne is awesome. John Wayne and John Ford? Even better. John Wayne, John Ford, and Lee Marvin? Now you’ve got yourself a recipe for Valhalla. Strangely enough, these three bastions of unbridled awesomeness (and Cesar Romero! woo!) come together in this movie not to have a rip-snorting, knock-drown-drag-out manly contest, as one might assume. All of this comes together on a sleepy little south Pacific island to give us, of all things, a morality play on the issue of race.
Now, before you go and start scratching your heads and being all “WTF, yo?” I’ll tell you that this is still a John Wayne movie with Lee Marvin. There is still booze and broads and bullets, except the bullets are made of fists and there’s really only one broad of consequence, and she’d probably kick your Gilhooleys off if you called her a broad. But still… John Wayne! Lee Marvin! They fight, I promise! In fact, the entire opening of the movie is based on how John Wayne and Lee Marvin (as the eponymous Donovan and rascally Gilhooley) always have a big ol’ brawl on both of their birthdays, which just so happen to be December 7th, Pearl Harbor Day, and they used to be in the Navy, and… basically it’s an excuse to break beer bottles.
Lee Marvin, Thank God! He’s always drunk and violent.
But soon enough, the plot has to get in gear and it turns out that the island’s philanthropic and beloved sawbones (who I last saw crushing Norm McDonald’s Gilhooley’s in Dirty Work) had some kind of child with some lady back in Boston. Whether it’s an illegitimate or out of wedlock thing is brushed over as quickly as the topless picture in The Rescuers, as this was still 1960s America and you just didn’t talk about thing like that outside of whispered gossip in the church pews. So, the now-all-grown-up daughter of the Doctor packs her big, fancy bags and brings her big, fancy self all the way down to the little spittle of an island. You see, if she can somehow get the Doctor to sign away his considerable inheritance (convenient), the daughter will stand to gain several million dollars, which still meant something in the 1960s but today is about as much as your average black-hearted CEO’s salary bonus for taking a dump, there’s money to be had, so this Uptown Girl heads for Bali Hai to get her check.
As you can assume, there’s the standard “fancy lady gets all ruffled by folk that ain’t into all that spiffyin’ and spanglin” routine, and Elizabeth Allen plays the tsundere here to perfection, starting as the Ice Queen of Beantown but defrosting just in time to get a victory spanking from old John Wayne in a scene that would probably get a director lynched by angry Oprah viewers today. What was it with John Wayne and spanking dames, anyway? I seem to remember that being a major plot point in McLintock! Oh, well. The usual comedic hijinks are found here, all the way down to the implacably pwecious children hollering their lines into the camera like bellicose baby boars, but it’s in some of those kids that the movie really lowers the boom. Remember, this is 1963 when people first watch this. The Civil Right Act wouldn’t be passed until the next year, and here we have a character claiming her half-sister won’t accept her because she’s not white.
I’m dead serious. She actually says “it’s because I’m not white!” and runs off the screen at one point. Turns out the Doctor married Polynesian royalty on the island here (which has a name but I reeeeally don’t want to type it… Haleakaloha, so there) and everyone is worried that the WASPy Bahhston daughter won’t take to the hapa children who are technically her siblings. There’s a whole big scheme concocted where John Wayne says that they are his, leading to more shunning and shaming from the proper folk because there’s no mother to be seen.
This all gets resolved, of course, and there’s some truly touching and poignant moments of race relations that are truly daring for a movie from this era. Only fourteen years ago, you had the “Happy Talk” from South Pacific, with one tiny song about race that was allowed maybe two minutes and is almost never mentioned again. To move this far on such a sensitive subject, especially guised as a comedy, shows a lot of impressive work from Director John Ford (who still holds the record with 4 Best Director Oscars) and some very forward thinking from the production… and then John Wayne talks about fighting the “Japs” and you’re reminded that nothing is perfect. But hey, if you know your History, those fourteen years were pretty darn big for America as a cultural entity.
Like I said… nobody’s perfect.
Unlike South Pacific, however, I feel like Donovan’s Reef has held up pretty well. The comedy is solid when it’s there, and the more serious moments work in a historical way, even if they would be the fodder of after-school specials or a very special Boy Meets World in this day and age. There are some genuinely fun scenes, some genuinely tense ones, and some genuinely heartwarming ones, most particularly the Christmas celebration in the old dilapidated church. That last one must really be seen to be believed. All in all, I enjoyed the movie: it’s got a great director, a great cast, and a daring story for the time which, while often a little manic/depressive in its thematic content, still works well enough that you’re smiling by the end. It’s one of those good old-timey movies you can watch with at least three generations present, and everyone should enjoy it, much like I enjoyed watching some of John Wayne’s classic stuff when I was a kid. Sure, it got a little tiresome after the fourth or fifth time my Dad wanted to see John Wayne shoot up the black hats, but looking back now I should be happy I was allowed to watch that with my family and share that time with my Dad, as opposed to today’s youth who usually get subjected to some of the worst programming dreck ever thought up by man, beast or bacteriophage.
Give Donovan’s Reef a try, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. A lot of old movies don’t hold up, but I think this one does.
Until we meet again, I tenderly remain,