Retro Review: DONOVAN’S REEF

It’s Christmas, so what better than revisiting a classic bit of Christmas viewing? Outposter OKpitboss returns with a look at an old favourite – Donovan’s Reef. You too could see your name on screen and bask in the reflected glory of your adoring fellow Outposters, simply send your article submissions to [email protected].


Donovan’s Reef

Wouldn’t it be great to star in a film shot in the Hawaiian Islands?  It’s wonderful, you get to be in paradise for a few weeks and get paid for it. Legendary director John Ford thought so and that was the pitch he made to Lee Marvin when he was casting the movie. It doesn’t matter what the story is, you get a free holiday in Hawaii. I’m thinking Adam Sandler has seen this movie several times. Welcome to Donovan’s Reef!

Haleakaloha is a beautiful island in French Polynesia. Michael ‘Guns’ Donovan (John Wayne) owns several ships that service the islands along with a saloon which gives the movie its title. Dr. William Dedham (Jack Warden) serves as the island’s physician. Thomas ‘Boats’ Gilhooley (Lee Marvin) was born on the same day as Donovan and returns every year on their birthday to initiate a brawl with him. There’s never a clear explanation about the nature of this brawl but it seems to have something to do with Donovan hoisting a skank on Gilhooley.


An elder Dedham passes away and the controlling stock in the family’s shipping company will go to Dr. Dedham. The controlling stock will be forfeited to his daughter Amelia, who he hasn’t seen since the beginning of the war, if she can show he is of low moral character. Off Amelia goes to Haleakaloha to prove her dad is a terrible person. Of course, he’s not a terrible person, he’s taken care of the local islanders and started a family of his own with a native islander who has passed away.

Word gets out that Dedham’s’ daughter is coming to visit and it’s determined that the best course of action is to pretend that Dedham’s kids are Wayne’s kids…hijinks ensue. Amelia gets to the island, and it doesn’t take her long to figure out what’s going on.


Cesar Romero is the island’s governor who has designs on Ameilia and her wealth. This adds nothing to the plot, but Romero must have been under contract, so he has a few scenes.

By the time everything is over, Dedham and his daughter make up, Donovan and Amelia fall in love, and Dedham is ok with his war buddy taking up with his daughter…. oh well, Merry Christmas!

Donovan’s Reef had a budget of just under $2.7 million and started shooting in July 1962 on the island of Kauai. It would go on to gross $6.6 million in North America. Ford’s health was deteriorating at that point and Wayne helped with directing.


Ford and Wayne worked together on 14 films over the years and Donovan’s Reef is certainly at the lower rung of that ladder. Ford called it:

“…a spoof picture – a whammy, crazy sort of thing. We’re not going for any prizes.”

Elizabeth Allen who plays Amelia was 22 years Wayne’s junior and even he complained to Ford that someone more ‘age appropriate’ should be cast.  He was pushing for Maureen O’Hara, but it didn’t’ happen. Patrick Wayne appears in small part as an Australian sailor… imagine that.


But it’s still a fun movie, it’s a comfort food movie. Wayne and Marvin are on cruise control here, drinking and fighting and not much more. Is this a Christmas movie?  No, but it takes place during Christmas, so like Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and others it gets tossed in the Blu-Ray player during the holidays. Merry Christmas Outposters!


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