Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Pax Pacifica: Donovan’s Reef

This post is part of the John Ford Blogathon, hosted by Krell Laboratories and Bemused and Nonplussed. Oh, and there are spoilers.

John Ford turned fifty-five in 1949, and if his contribution of that year to the all-time roster of cinema classics, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, is any indication, retirement seems to have been on his mind. It’s hard to imagine him not seeing something of himself in Captain Nathan Brittles, the august and honorable but curmudgeonly and slightly antiquated commandant of Fort Starke, whom Ford gives an exalted sendoff, courtesy of Brittles’ extended U.S. Cavalry family.

In 1953’s The Sun Shines Bright, often cited by Ford as one of his personal favorites among his own films, he puts noble, patriarchal old Judge Billy Priest out to pasture as a parade of admirers—Priest’s extended family—passes his home in his honor. A parade of a different type passes the defeated Mayor Frank Skeffington in Ford’s The Last Hurrah in 1958. Unlike Brittles or Priest, Skeffington does have an immediate family, a son. Yet, besides a nephew, his cadre of political cronies—brothers in arms through many campaigns, as it were—comprise his real family . . . not unlike Ford, whose Field Photo Farm he used as a gathering place for former members of the Field Photographic Division of the Office of Strategic Services (a forerunner of the CIA), who had served under Fords command during World War II

The overarching mood in each of these films is elegiac, melancholy.  

Five years after Hurrah, at the age of sixty-nine, Ford was considered by just about everybody but the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd to be a spent force, a former purveyor of beloved, if sentimental, historical fare and Westerns, despite his well-received, reflective elegy to the Old West and scathing exposé on western myth of the previous year, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. By this time Ford—once one of Hollywood’s elite directors, with six Academy Awards to his credit—needed the star power of his perennial leading man and alter ego John Wayne (whose career Ford had set on its upward course with 1939’s groundbreaking Stagecoach) to guarantee box office success for, and studio interest in, a film project. Yet he seems to have come to terms with his own perceived antiquity in the generally upbeat Donovan’s Reef.

Often dismissed as a brawling romp (which it is, up to a point), Donovan’s Reef, scripted by James Edward Grant and Ford veteran Frank S. Nugent, unfolds much like Ford’s The Wings of Eagles, with liberal doses of broad, free-for-all slapstick, transitioning into a serene, if not sober, reverie. Ford’s image of the dustbin of history, the purgatory of social impotence into which old soldiers are relegated, however laudatory their sendoffs (think of Spig Wead in Wings and Marty Maher in The Long Gray Line), has morphed into permanent residency in a tropical paradise, albeit a flawed one (as will be discussed below)—a Valhalla of sorts, according to film critic Andrew Sarris. The mood is lighthearted, especially for later Ford. The mortal enemies of Liberty Valance, John Wayne and Lee Marvin, have become friendly combatants who are bound by a shared birthday (significantly, December 7th) and having fought side by side in the Pacific in the Second World War. 

Ford and Wayne on location for Donovan's Reef.

The film opens with “Boats” Gilhooley (Marvin) diving off a merchant ship after realizing he’s been shanghaied, and swimming to the nearby island of Haleakaloha, French Polynesia, which, we come to realize, is his annual destination on December 7th, where he carries out the time honored tradition of a birthday brawl with his old Navy buddy, “Guns” Donovan (Wayne). Later it is revealed that, following World War II, Donovan and his (and Gilhooley’s) former commanding officer, “Doc” Dedham (Jack Warden), made their homes on Haleakaloha, which they had defended against the Japanese, guerilla style, during the late war. Doc’s wife passed away while he was overseas and, though he had a young daughter back home in Boston, opted to stay in the island chain, where his physician’s skills were desperately needed by the natives. Donovan built a saloon—the Donovan’s Reef of the title—and Doc married Manulani, the granddaughter of the last hereditary prince of the islands. He had three children with her; she died giving birth to the third. His daughter by his first wife, Amelia (Elizabeth Allen), now an adult, stands to inherit enough stock from her great aunt to give her a controlling interest in the family shipping business if she can prove her father—to whom the shares were bequeathed—to be of less than acceptable moral character, “by Boston standards.” Donovan and Gilhooley get wind of her coming to Haleakaloha to meet her father.

As in all of Maine native Ford’s works, Boston is a breeding ground for all manner of screwballs, and it is presumed by those close to Doc that Amelia is a racist. Thus, a plot is hatched—unbeknownst to the doctor, who is currently on the outer islands ministering to the sick—by Donovan, Gilhooley, the local Catholic priest, Father Cluzeot (Marcel Dalio), and the governor of the island, Marquis Andre de Lage (Cesar Romero) to lead Amelia to believe that Doc’s children by Manulani belong to Donovan until Doc returns and can tell her in his own way that they are his. The kids and their belongings are removed from his house and are taken, in an almost funereal procession/parade, to Donovan’s living quarters above his saloon.

Next to the Governor, who is not much more than a scheming Lothario and a comic, benign descendant of Raymond Massey’s martinet of an island governor in Ford’s The Hurricane, Amelia is the nearest thing to a villain in Donovan’s Reef. But before all is said and done we, and the plotters, eventually realize that our/their presumption of racism on her part was unfounded. She and her eccentric, haughty assemblage of relatives are certainly no match for the controlling, bigoted WASP brain trust of the “New England City” of The Last Hurrah.

De Lage (Cesar Romero) attempts to charm Amelia 
(Elizabeth Allen) onto his list of conquests.

Nevertheless, other forms of racism do exist within this island community, a quasi-paradise at best: remnants of French imperialism, racism toward “half-castes,” de Lage’s Amherst-educated Chinese assistant’s prejudice toward his own “barbarian” countrymen. Ford also reminds us, through Amelia’s substituting “Donovan” with the first Irish name that comes into her head—a motif that would show up the following year in Cheyenne Autumn—that Irish-Americans were discriminated against for many years. There is jealousy: Miss Lafleur (Dorothy Lamour, another callback to The Hurricane), sees Amelia as a threat, and treats her with disdain. There is nepotism: the pampered, pompous Governor de Lage is cousin to the French minister of foreign affairs. It is a microcosm of society, warts and all.

Yet “pax” (a running gag between Donovan and Amelia*) can be achieved there. At a time when the world was in the deepest throes of the Cold War and religious unrest was beginning to rear its head in the Middle East and Northern Ireland, there is coexistence between various races and religions in Ford’s paradise. Catholicism lives peaceably alongside traditional Polynesian beliefs and rituals. One of the markers in the church graveyard bears a Star of David. Multiple races, cultures, and nationalities inhabit the islands, and all are allowed to live as they choose. While the white, Western minority is unmistakably the ruling class, according to the then-accepted post-WWII model, it rules with a soft touch, with benevolence and tolerance. 

* Pax Americana is a term that was used by then-sitting President John F. Kennedy. Amelia mentions the Kennedy family late in the film.