Donovan's Reef

Donovan's Reef is a 1963 American Technicolor light-hearted comedy film starring John Wayne. It was directed by John Ford and filmed on location on Kauai, Hawaii.

Donovan's Reef
1963 poster
Directed byJohn Ford
Produced byJohn Ford
Screenplay byFrank S. Nugent
James Edward Grant
Story byEdmund Beloin
StarringJohn Wayne
Music byCyril Mockridge
CinematographyWilliam H. Clothier
Edited byOtho Lovering
John Ford Productions
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • June 12, 1963 (1963-06-12)
Running time
109 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$6,600,000[1]

The cast included Lee Marvin, Elizabeth Allen, Jack Warden, Cesar Romero, Dick Foran and Dorothy Lamour. The film marked the last time Ford and Wayne collaborated.


The film begins with Thomas "Boats" Gilhooley ("boats" is a nickname for a boatswain's or bosun's mate) (Lee Marvin), an expatriate United States Navy veteran, working aboard a freighter. When he realizes that the ship is passing by Haleakaloha, French Polynesia, but not actually calling there, he jumps ship to swim to the island.

Next, Michael "Guns" Donovan (John Wayne) ("guns" is a Navy nickname for a gunner's mate), another expatriate U.S. Navy veteran and a former shipmate of Gilhooley, returns from a fishing trip aboard an outrigger canoe. Donovan is greeted by William "Doc" Dedham (Jack Warden), also a U.S. Navy veteran and the only medical doctor in the archipelago, who is about to begin a one or two week pre-Christmas circuit of the "outer islands," taking care of the health needs of the residents. Dedham's three children are placed in Donovan's care.

The kids' plans for a peaceful celebration of Donovan's birthday on December 7 are shattered by the arrival of Gilhooley, who shares his birthday. There is an unbroken 21-year tradition that Donovan and Gilhooley have a knock-down, drag-out fight every birthday—-to the delight of the local observers-—and their 22nd year does not break the tradition. The two vets meet in (and trash) "Donovan's Reef," the saloon owned by Donovan.

Miss Amelia Dedham (Elizabeth Allen) is a "proper" young lady "of means" from Boston, who has become the chairman of the board of the Dedham Shipping Company. Her father is Doc Dedham, whom she has never met, but who now has inherited a large block of stock in the family company, making him the majority stockholder. She travels to Haleakaloha in hope of finding proof that Doc has violated an outdated (but still in effect) morality clause in the will which would keep him from inheriting the stock and thus enable her to retain control.

When word reaches Haleakaloha that Miss Dedham is on the way, a scheme is concocted by Donovan, Gilhooley, and the Marquis de Lage (Cesar Romero). De Lage is Haleakaloha's French governor, who hopes to find a diplomatic post somewhere else — Miami Beach or Hollywood, by choice. Donovan is to pretend to be the father of Doc's three children (Leilani, Sarah and Luke), until Doc comes back and can explain things to the prim, proper Boston lady. The plan is reluctantly accepted by the oldest daughter, Leilani, who believes the deception is because she and her siblings are half-castes (Hapa).

The plan works, and Amelia is told that her father, Donovan and Gilhooley were marooned on the Japanese-occupied island after their destroyer was sunk in World War II. With the help of the locals, the three men conducted a guerrilla war against the Japanese. She also learns that her father built a hospital, and lives in a large house (she had obviously expected to find a shack). A mystery develops as she enters the house and sees a portrait of a beautiful Polynesian woman in royal trappings. This was Doc's wife, the mother of his children. Amelia is not told of the relationship, but she learns that the woman was named Manulani. Donovan mentions that Luke's mother had died in childbirth.

As the story develops, Amelia learns that life in the islands is not as she expected, and neither is Donovan, who proves to be educated and intelligent, and the owner of a substantial local shipping operation. Amelia, too, is not as expected, as when she strips off her outdated "swimming costume" to reveal a tight swimsuit, challenges Donovan to a swimming race, and dives into the water. They develop a truce, as de Lage tries to court Amelia (or rather, her $18,000,000).

When Dr. Dedham returns, father and daughter meet for the first time (Amelia: "Mister Dedham, I presume?"). He has been told about the deception, and over dinner he explains that he was serving in World War II when his wife (Amelia's mother) died. When the war ended, he felt that he was not needed in Boston, but was desperately needed in the islands, so he stayed. He has even signed over his stock to Amelia, as he intends to remain in the islands. Just as he is about to explain about Manulani and their children (described by Amelia as "half-caste"), a hospital emergency interrupts.

It turns out that Manulani was the granddaughter of the last hereditary prince of the islands, and Amelia finally puts all of the pieces together to solve the mystery. Leilani — Manulani's daughter — is not only the island's princess, but Amelia's sister, a relationship which is tearfully but joyfully acknowledged by both of them.

Amelia and Donovan evolve their truce into marriage plans, despite her blaming him (correctly) for the attempt to deceive her as to her half-siblings' true paternity. Gilhooley also finally marries his longtime girlfriend, Miss Lafleur (Dorothy Lamour). Donovan points out the new sign on the saloon, which is now "Gilhooley's Reef". Donovan has given the bar to his old shipmate as a wedding present.

In the final scene, Leilani and Amelia walk hand in hand down the driveway to Doc Dedham's house, trailed by Leilani's two younger siblings, Donovan and Gilhooley carrying Amelia's luggage, and the local constabulary toting Leilani's piano as the newly extended family returns home.



The film was based on original material for Paramount prepared by James Michener (although Michener is not credited in the final film).[2] In February 1962 Paramount announced that John Wayne and John Ford would make the film, then called South Sea Story, from a script by James Edward Grant. Martin Rackin helped put together the deal at Paramount.[3]

Ford called it "a spoof picture - a whammy, crazy sort of thing. We're not going for any prizes."[4]

While Donovan's Reef is set on the fictional island of Haleakaloha, which has a French governor, the only Polynesian language exhibited in the film is Hawaiian -- "Haleakaloha" can be translated as "Home of Laughter and Love" (hale = home, aka = laugh, aloha = love) -- and Amelia arrives from Boston, Massachusetts by sailing ship.

Filming started in July 1962 on Kauai, Hawaii. [5]

The home of the French island governor, the white beach house with coconut palms and surrounding grass lawn, is the Allerton Estate home and former summer residence of Hawaiian Queen Emma near Poipu Beach, now a part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden (without the scenes of boats and canoes on the Wailua River, which were edited and merged with scenes filmed at the Allerton Estate).

The unit then returned to Hollywood to finish scenes at Paramount studios.


Box office performance

Donovan's Reef was a moderate financial success. Produced on a budget of $2,686,000,[1] the film grossed $6,600,000 in North America,[1] earning $3.3 million in US theatrical rentals.[6] It was the 24th highest-grossing film of 1963.

Critical reception

A. H. Weiler of The New York Times wrote that the movie was "sheer contrivance effected in hearty, fun-loving, truly infectious style".[7] Variety called it an "effort-less effort", but praised the photography.[8] Currently, the film holds a rating of 60% "Fresh" on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.[9]

See also


  1. Box Office Information for Donovan's Reef. The Numbers. Retrieved September 5, 2013.
  2. Nick Adams Will Film 'Naked Lover': Busy Star Also in TV Series; Pair to 'Shoot' Vegas Shows Scott, John L. Los Angeles Times (9 July 1962: C11.
  3. Looking at Hollywood: Base South Sea Film on Michener Work Hopper, Hedda. Chicago Daily Tribune 21 Feb 1962: b4.
  4. VIEW FROM A LOCAL VANTAGE POINT: Traditional Heirs By EUGENE ARCHER. New York Times 14 July 1963: 69.
  5. Entertainment: New Novel Bought for Warner Film Los Angeles Times 17 July 1962: C5.
  6. "Top Rental Features of 1963", Variety, January 8, 1964 p 71. Please note figures are rentals as opposed to total gross.
  7. Weiler, A.H. (July 25, 1963). "Screen: Excitement on Haleakoloha:'Donovan's Reef' Opens at Three Theaters John Ford Production Stars John Wayne". The New York Times. Retrieved July 24, 2014.
  8. "Review: 'Donovan's Reef'". Variety. December 31, 1962. Retrieved July 24, 2014.
  9. Film reviews for Donovan's Reef. Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved September 5, 2013.
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