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. 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.

Ford’s beloved, unofficial “stock company” was dwindling by 1963, and with it some of the familial qualities that over the years had helped make his films greater than the sum of their parts. Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Barry Fitzgerald, and tragically, in the execution of a stunt during the filming of The Horse Soldiers, stuntman Fred Kennedy, had all passed away in recent years. Ford found something of a McLaglen replacement to play Police Sergeant “Monk Menkowicz in veteran film heavy Mike Mazurki (their similarities extended to the fact that McLaglen had once been a boxer and Mazurki a wrestler), whom he would call upon again for Cheyenne Autumn and the underappreciated 7 Women (1966). Elizabeth Allen is an adequate enough substitute for Ford’s strong-willed favorite, Maureen O’Hara, who was presumably not available . . . but is there really anyone who can replace her?

Ford's Yacht, the Araner, as itself.

Perhaps due to the sharp decline of the studio system by the early 1960s and the tightening of budgets for films directed by near-septuagenarians, precious few privileged “Fordian moments” made their way into Donovan’s Reef. While touching, Marcel Dalio’s brief reverie at Manulani’s gravesite carries little of the gravitas of similar scenes in the past in which characters talked to dead loved ones: Will Rogers, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, or, for that matter, Edward G. Robinson’s “conversation” with his old friend Abraham Lincoln in the yet-to-be-made Cheyenne Autumn.

The Christmas service comes closest to capturing the sublimity of those revered signature moments in the Ford oeuvre. Cesar Romero is at his finest here, as his lecherous marquis/governor redeems himself*, softly, majestically reading the Christmas story to the assembled congregation. When he gets to the part about about the Wise Men, Haleakaloha’s appointed representatives of these biblical figures enter, one by one, bearing treasured gifts: the “King of Polynesia” (Police Sergeant Menkowicz, in full native regalia, with an array of tropical fruits), the “Emperor of China” (de Lage’s assistant, with an assortment of teas), and the “King of the United States of America” (Gilhooley, as the Statue of Liberty, with robe and paper crown, carrying his beloved, “busted” Victrola that he keeps at Donovan’s Reef). At first, de Lage is surprised at these coarse representations and their seemingly unsatisfactory offerings, but, in a beautiful bit of acting on Romero’s part, his countenance is transformed into the very picture of paternalistic understanding—as much as they are the emotional Father Cluzeot’s, these are all de Lage’s “children” too, whom he has been appointed to govern with wisdom and kindness, and he gracefully grants them the dignity which he now sees that they deserve. Their gifts are the equivalent of the Biblical widow’s mite.

* Until the following scene at least, when he attempts to sully Donovan’s name in Amelia’s eyes.

The scene becomes more poignant when, as rain starts to pour in through the deteriorating church roof (all money donated for its repair is routinely given to the poor by Cluzeot), the faithful automatically—and without missing a beat as they solemnly sing “Silent Night”—open their umbrellas, which they have all brought with them as a matter of course. Such squalls are a part of their lives, which they accept without complaint.* The scene is punctuated by the comic image of a drenched Gilhooley, who is positioned directly under a particularly gaping hole. Like a good soldier, he remains dutifully and nobly at his post. As in much of Ford, the scene is ostensibly played for laughs, but just under the surface there is a deeply felt spirituality. We empathize with the dismayed, defeated Father Cluzeot as rainwater fills his sanctuary. 

Makeshift observances of sacred rites under adverse conditions are dear to Ford (The Fugitive3 Godfathers).

Throughout the course of the film a testy romance has developed between Donovan and Amelia, but she feels insulted and betrayed when she discovers the ruse, via de Lage, of her half-siblings being passed off as Donovan’s illegitimate offspring. Doc nevertheless persuades her to make “pax” with Donovan before she departs for Boston. The lovers are reunited, but not without some degrading treatment of Amelia’s derrière—which has been persistently battered in another running gag, this one distasteful, that does not hold up well after five decades—as she is spanked by Donovan. He’ll show her who’s going to wear the pax/pants in this family.

But will he? Amelia possesses more than a trace of Ford’s ideal of feminine/feminist tenacity, Katharine Hepburn, the unrequited love of his life, and Amelia doesn’t seem to be the type to surrender full authority to the man of the family. Gilhooley and Lafleur are betrothed as well; the lady has apparently tamed the nihilist, with the help of an electric train set—an engagement gift from Amelia, which melts his heart. 

Order, such as it is, is restored to the island paradise, in a relatively rare Ford happy ending. Most importantly the Dedham family, immediate and extended, is restored. The latest incarnation of Ford’s recurring parade, of which all the principals are a part—unlike those of The Sun Shines Bright, The Long Gray Line, and The Last Hurrah, which the main characters can only watch—returns to Doc’s house, accouterments in hand. 

Sadly, Ford would not quite experience the happy endings he had given Captain Brittles or the WWII veterans of Donovans Reef. The property he had purchased eighteen years earlier to more or less serve as his own Valhalla on Earth, the Field Photo Farm, had to be sold in 1965 due to lack of funds needed for upkeep. He would only complete two more feature films and, though he would finally receive the honor due him—his grandson Dan Ford and John’s young acolyte and fellow filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich would each produce TV documentaries about his life and career in 1971, and he would become the first recipient of the American Film InstituteLife Achievement Award and receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Nixon in 1973—he would spend his remaining years waiting for the phone to ring, in the hope of making another picture. He died at the age of seventy-nine in August of 1973.

© Jon Oye, 2014 
The image of Ford and Wayne is from A Certain Cinema.


  1. As a child I adored the family dynamics among the characters and the unbelievably lovely setting in this movie. To this day, it is a place of comfort and my sisters and I always call Lee Marvin The King of the United States of America. Whatever the shortfalls as art of "Donovan's Reef", it certainly works as a "movie".

  2. It sure does. Even when Ford wasn't crafting masterpieces he was still making very engaging, entertaining, visually stunning movies. And yes, his examination of these particular family dynamics is worth an entire essay itself. The "family," in all of its various incarnations - immediate, extended, military, or the community at large - was extremely important to Ford.

  3. I haven't seen this one, and not sure why that is. After reading your excellent review, I feel I should seek this out ASAP!

  4. Thanks.
    It's definitely worthwhile. As with all Ford, critic Gary Giddins' astute observation applies:
    "(Ford’s) famously stubborn refusal to elucidate himself of his work or to admit that what he did had anything to do with art honors the audience. Art implies intellect, which is unequally distributed, and Ford demands emotion, which ruthlessly seeks out the common denominator in us all. The implication is that if he has your heart, your mind will follow, if only afterward as the justification for losing your emotional grip."