AMAD Special Tribute: Randy Cook on DONOVAN’S REEF (1963) Look at you! You’re worse than a couple of kids!
Published at: Jan. 15, 2009, 2:32 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here to introduce today’s special tribute AMAD column, written by one Randall William Cook. Randy is going to be the only instance of someone who appeared in one of the A Movie A Day columns to actually contribute to one themselves. Randy is most known for his special effects work, including such great and memorable stop motion work in flicks like THE GATE, FRIGHT NIGHT, GHOSTBUSTERS, JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING and 2010. He is also known for being, in essence, Gollum’s father heading the Weta Digital team during LOTR.
But what I was referring to was his lead appearance as the baddie in the bizarre ‘80s horror flick I, MADMAN, which I covered in October’s all-horror AMAD. He also provided the same kind of stop motion effects that I loved in THE GATE.
Randy’s one of the good guys. A really talented and kind man… and also one of AMAD’s biggest cheerleaders, so it was only natural I went to him when I thought up asking industry friends to contribute.
He chose DONOVAN’S REEF starring John Wayne, Lee Marvin and directed by John Ford, which, in an odd bit of role-reversal, is a film I have seen (it was usually Randy commenting on the stuff I hadn’t seen in our AMAD correspondence).
And now the floor is Randy’s!
John Ford is one of my longtime favorite filmmakers, and one of the most universally-respected directors the medium has produced. Although he’s widely considered (and sometimes derided as) an action and/or Western director, his pictures, whether epic or intimate, always primarily concerned themselves with his characters’ feelings and ---more often than not--- contained sublime moments of touching human poetry. That subtlety was invariably abandoned during his “humorous” interludes, however: his idea of high comedy invariably seemed limited to having a couple of drunken Irishmen kick the shit out of each other.
Now, I don’t feel the need to reconcile these two aspects of Ford’s picturemaking; he had many facets, like most people. He put the low comedy in his serious pictures for reasons of texture and pace, of course; I just seldom found the humor particularly funny. But I felt that the great stuff in his pictures made the labored, cornball (and often sadistic) comedy elements worth tolerating.
It’s for that reason that I’ve long avoided watching DONOVAN’S REEF, supposedly a straight comedy. Two hours of ageing fratboys boozin’ and brawlin’? A relentless procession of stuntmen and breakaway props? No, thanks: give me Lubitsch or Sturges or Wilder.
Well, I watched the picture last night, for the purpose of this column, and I have to admit I laughed. A lot.
I’d wanted to write about a picture I knew and loved (THE THIRD MAN, for instance; now out on Bluray and heartily recommended: it’s about perfect). But Quint demanded I play by the rules, so I chose one of the few Ford pictures I hadn’t seen.
The movie stars John Wayne, who’d been hired by Ford in the 1920’s as a propman. Wayne worked as an extra and bit player in a few Ford pictures; Ford finally starred him in STAGECOACH (1939), although Wayne had by then played the lead in Raoul Walsh’s THE BIG TRAIL, a 1930 widescreen epic shot in 70 mm (no kidding), as well as in a series of very low budget B westerns. I can’t say that I was ever a big fan of the Duke, although he has many preceptive and intelligent partisans. Certainly, in a post-Schwarzenneger context, Wayne looks a lot better to me than he did when I was a kid. And Ford knew how to get the best out of him (see THE SEARCHERS).
This was their last film together, and I always found it sad ---before actually seeing it---that their final encore should be such a trifle. Certainly the previous year’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE would’ve seemed a more fitting summation (even if they did do one TV show and a segment of HOW THE WEST WAS WON in the interim). Between STAGECOACH and DONOVAN’S REEF they racked up an enormously impressive body of work, many films being classics that defined the Western genre. But DONOVAN’S REEF always seemed a movie too far.
As I said, DONOVAN’S REEF purports to be a flat-out action comedy. It’s something of a cartoon, really (and as a lover of cartoons I don’t consider that a slam). Composer Cyril Mockridge certainly scores it like something from the old MGM Animation Department, I’m sure with Ford’s connivance. The fictional south sea island of Haleakaloha (actually Kauai or, to many of you, Isla Nublar) is awash with the music of pedal steel guitars. It’s first seen from the deck of a freighter where we meet Thomas “Boats” Gilhooley (Lee Marvin), who’s booked passage so he can reach the island by today, December 7th. Trouble is, the blackjack-wielding first mate isn’t letting him off: Gilhooley’s been shanghaied. What’s an amiable sociopath to do? Simple, he just busts a mop handle across the mate’s head and jumps overboard.
All this takes place within a minute of the fade-in: the exposition, as in all cartoons, is nothing if not efficient.
On Haleakaloha, Michael “Guns” Donovan (Wayne) is busy being nice to some island kids, whose widowed father, Dr. Dedham (Jack Warden) runs the island hospital. We meet them all in another, longer, scene of sympathetic character stuff (a minute and a half, this one). All is light and happy in this photogenic Island Paradise.
There’s some more exposition with Duke and the kids encountering the Governor of the French Polynesian Island where everyone speaks Hawaiian, but what the hell (and the Governor’s played by that great French actor Cesar Romero). The kids are endearing (in a Hollywoodish, trained-child way, albeit given to striking cartoonish postures meant to symbolize whatever emotions they are meant to be experiencing) . They are also devoted to “Uncle Guns”, and vice versa. But a fly lands in the ointment: Gilhooley’s come ashore.
It seems that there’s a tradition to be observed here. For the last 22 years, every December 7th Gilhooley and Donovan meet at Donovan’s bar (“Donovan’s Reef”) and celebrate their mutually-shared birthday. And how do they celebrate it, you ask? They drink a lot of beer and---you guessed it—kick the shit out of each other.
So far, about what I expected, although I must say that the shit-kicking is not bad, thanks to some good gags, some obliging stunt doubles, and some very broad playing by Wayne and Marvin (neither of whom was a stranger to barroom brawling in real life). The fight’s also mercifully brief, with Doc Dedham breaking it up to provide the backstory: Dedham, Donovan and Gilhooley are three pals who settled here after WWII. Exposition exposed, Doc leaves, and Donovan coldcocks Gilhooley. End of scene.
Meanwhile, back in snowy Boston, Doc Dedham’s aunt has died, leaving him the controlling shares in an 18 million dollar shipping company which is being run by his snooty daughter Amelia (Elizabeth Allen), who has never met her father. Her sleazy lawyer (wonderful Edgar Buchanan) advises her of a peculiarly Bostonian morality clause in the will: living on a South Sea Island among “those native girls,” he may well have behaved in a way that won’t live up to Boston standards of conduct. If that can be proved, he tells her frankly, “then you can cheat him out of his stock, and his money.” Sounds good to her; she’s off to Haleakaloha.
Doc’s off ministering to the locals on the surrounding islands, but Donovan and Gilhooley get wind of Amelia’s plan. Doc’s late wife was a “native woman” (Donovan is disgusted by the phrase, being an egalitarian) but, against his better judgement, Donovan conspires to have the Doc’s kids pose as his own, so Doc’s fortune won’t be jeopardized. The elder daughter, Lelani (!), is no dummy and realizes why she’s being hidden: “It’s because I’m not white.” And she’s heartbroken.
Sneakily, Ford has suddenly steered the cartoon into more serious waters.
A heartfelt anti-racist theme underscores the rest of the piece, though it remains foremost a comedy. Much credit goes to the underappreciated Elizabeth Allen, whose gift for physical comedy allows the hypocritical Amelia to be appropriately humiliated in a series of very nice falls. And make no mistake whose side Ford is on: in a quick succession of ancestral portraits, he’s shown that the “respectable” fortune of the Dedham Shipping Company has unmistakable roots in piracy. Amelia’s on a mission of piracy herself, stealing her father’s fortune on a technicality. But karma and deft plotting prevail and she’s made to pay for this misdeed, before she sees the light.
One thing that won me over in this film is the way some of the cartoonish characters, especially Amelia, become human over time. As in life, people here aren’t always what they at first seem. Some are much more than they seem, in fact. They surprise and impress, then disappoint and hurt, but most eventually redeem themselves. Much of the plot involves deceit of one kind or another, either malicious or well-intentioned, but there’s always a price to be paid by the deceivers.
I won’t go into any more plot, because I’d hate to wreck the film for any of you who might care to check it out. Those of you who know your Shakespeare realize that comedies inevitably end in marriage, and this film---though blissfully stupid on the surface--- is well aware of that concept.
Let me say that this is not a neglected Ford masterpiece. Not a major canvas, it’s more a series of marginal doodles, but enjoyable because they’re facile quick-sketches by a first-rate artist.
It has definite faults, too. Some of the actors are too damn old, Wayne particularly. He’s wearing a rug, but from the hairline down he occasionally looks like Lyndon Johnson. This, when he’s playing a love scene with Elizabeth Allen, is not exactly a plus. Dorothy Lamour, pushing fifty and still wearing a sarong, is given a musical number that would fit right in at Talent Night at the Motion Picture Country Home. However, Ford wanted to take his old pals to Hawaii for a bit of fun, and doubtless they all saw each other through younger eyes. The film’s full of character actors from Ford’s earlier films, and Ford kids, and Wayne kids. There’s even a bit part for Ford’s yacht.
Some of the actors try too hard. It’s possibly pointless to decry broad comedy in the Age of Will Farrell, but a lot of the comedy is labored, and corny and (worst of all) badly played. Troglodytic Mike Mazurki is one of the worst offenders, when he tries to be funny… but when he plays it straight (as in a farcical island Christmas pageant) he’s hysterical.
And for a film about, ultimately, racial equality…well, it’s hard not to cringe at some of the Oriental stereotyping. Then again, virtually everyone’s a caricature in this movie, and nobody more so than moronic Lee Marvin who, nevertheless, is ultimately a delight. Good caricature seldom wins points for subtlety or compassion.
I won’t get into the Ford-as-racist/Ford-as-liberal controversy here; you guys can slug it out in the talkback. But please remember that there are two sides to the complicated story of John Ford and the Native Americans.
Elizabeth Allen, though, needs no excuses. A damn good physical comic with intelligence and beauty, she also has moments of genuine warmth and feeling. I can’t help but think that, had she been better cast earlier in her career, her name would not today be obscure.
If you’ve never seen a Ford film, try not to let this be your first. MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, THE QUIET MAN, THE SEARCHERS, YOUNG MISTER LINCOLN, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY are but a few of his many “real” movies worthy of your attention.
But there is some enjoyment to be had in DONOVAN’S REEF if you are in the proper mood. The whole cartoonish style of the film made all the goofy, corny, violent comedy work (for me, at least), and it might hand you some laughs as well. Ford’s characteristic visual flair is soft-pedalled here, so as not to let the grandeur of nature overwhelm the proceedings. Though shot mostly on location, the film has an almost off-the-cuff feel, like a home movie rather than an epic. In the preceding year’s MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, Carol Reed and Lewis Milestone covered similar visual territory, with vast compositions and a cast of thousands (or at least many hundreds). DONOVAN’S REEF seems to have a cast of dozens, at best, but it’s in keeping with the intimacy of the piece.
This film’s not essential, and not for everyone, but it’s ultimately a nice little fairy tale, breezily tossed-off by a very skillful storyteller.
By the way, did I mention that the film’s concluding action set-piece features a whole saloon-full of drunken Irishmen kicking the shit out of each other? Except that they’re singing “Waltzing Matilda”, so I guess they’re supposed to be Australians.