Program Notes: Donovan's Reef (1963)

Donovan’s Reef (1963) is a film of John Ford’s old age.

And depending on how you look at it, it can be seen either as a gentle reverie or as an escape from all the things in real life which were making Ford a cranky old man.

Set in French Polynesia, it centers on “Guns” Donovan (John Wayne) and “Boats” Gilhooley (Lee Marvin), two Navy veterans of WWII who “went native” and never left the South Pacific.

Donovan operates a bar. Gilhooley spends much time there, and at a certain point in every drinking binge he challenges Donovan to a fight.

In this they are not unlike Flagg and Quirt, the two brawling soldiers in Ford’s 1952 WWI film What Price Glory?

There’s a third ex-Navy man here: Dr. Dedham (Jack Warden), an MD who runs a hospital for the natives.

Film Screening:
Donovan’s Reef (1963)
Monday, Mar. 26 at 6:30 p.m.
Central Library

When Dr. Dedham’s high-society daughter Amelia (Elizabeth Allen) arrives from Boston, the Doc panics – he has a brood of children with a native woman and fears his starchy daughter won’t approve.

So Donovan agrees to pretend that the kids are his.

As it turns out, not even Amelia can long resist the charms of living on the tiny island of Haleakaloa (it is, after all, Ford’s personal vision of an earthly paradise). She quickly becomes best friends with a young Polynesian princess (Jacqueline Malouf).

Of course, Amelia’s romance with Donovan seems suspect, not only for their age difference but for Donovan’s undiluted male chauvinism. My advice: Just roll with it.

Donovan’s Reef has been called a “mulligan stew of knockabout comedy, pictorial beauty, boozy sentimentality, and earnest preachments about multiculturalism.”

Fair enough. But as Ford biographer Joseph McBride notes, the film also represents Ford’s “loss of faith in America.”

Like the characters in the film who have dropped out of conventional American society, Donovan’s Reef may be seen as Ford’s way of escaping the social tensions of ‘60s, America’s drift to the left, and the widespread mocking of values the director held in high regard – home, family, the military, justice, tradition.

Many of Ford’s films were about community, but now American society was fragmenting into factions defined by race and age.

So why not fantasize about living in a tropical paradise and siring a brood of half caste children?

Ford biographer Andrew Sinclair calls it “not so much a film as a farewell.”

It was the last of 14 films the director made with John Wayne. It was his last film to show a profit.

And it marked the end of his 30-year relationship with The Araner, his beloved sailboat. The boat, a huge drain on Ford’s bank account, was leased to the movie for $5,000.

As soon as filming was completed on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, Ford sold it. Renamed the Windjammer, it became a tourist cruise boat.

But most of all, filming Donovan’s Reef allowed Ford a last opportunity to be with friends and colleagues on a beautiful location.

We leave the last word on the film to Ford biographer Scott Eyman:

“If caught in the right, undemanding mood, Donovan’s Reef can be a mellow, sunlit idyll. Perhaps it’s best to take it on the same level that Ford took it – good summer fun.”

Other films in the series “John Ford: Not a Cowboy In Sight”

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:


Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:


Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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