Look, I’m still on a high from meeting and talking to a stuntman and Hollywood legend who was actually IN one of the epic slugfests in Donovan’s Reef — among many, many other epic slugfests — so while I digest that information, here are a few words on this very fun movie:
Donovan’s Reef was directed by the great John Ford, co-written by frequent Ford collaborator Frank S. Nugent (The Searchers.) It stars John Wayne as Donovan and Lee Marvin as Gilhooley, his old army buddy. Donovan and Gilhooley enjoy a few things: Travelling, pretty girls, drinking, the ocean, and punching each other.
Donovan has settled in the Polynesian Islands where he runs a bar (hence the title), but he and Gilhooley have an annual fist-fight tradition going back twenty years. Plenty else happens in the movie, some of which concerned with issues of love and marriage and race and friendship, but the primary appeal of this movie is to see John Wayne and Lee Marvin beating the crap out of each other throughout the running time.
You can say what you want about Wayne (I have my opinions but they belong in a longer piece). On the other hand, I won’t hear a single bad word about Lee Marvin, who is probably my favorite movie star of all time. He’s great. There’s never been anyone remotely like him in the history of movie stars. His entrance into this movie alone is amazing – the dude jumps off a ship and swims to the island he’s been trying to get to, emerges from the ocean and immediately goes looking for Wayne. From this entrance follow some of the best bar fights of all time. Trust me.
You combine that with the Hawaii locations and the way that William Clothier’s photography captures them in that warm, friendly old-Hollywood Technicolor way, and you really have something special. It’s no great capital-C classic, but it’s a solid and sturdy old-school entertainment that thrills and relaxes. Donovan’s Reef is a movie that just feels comfortable to me – it’s a cold tropical drink at the end of a long and busy day at the beach.
Please enjoy this YouTube excerpt, and see if that puts you in a mind to go see this sweet little piece of old-Hollywood red velvet cake.