In assembling his cast and crew for Donovan's Reef, Ford called on old friends and frequent collaborators. Among them were his most frequent star John Wayne, personal friend Dorothy Lamour (whom he called "Toujy," short for "Toujours L'Amour"); cinematographer William Clothier, who shot the great Cavalry epic Fort Apache (1948) and other Ford pictures; character actor John Qualen; and former silent star Mae Marsh, who often turned up in uncredited bits in Ford's movies. He also gave the second male lead to his new pal Lee Marvin, who played the villainous Liberty Valance and took the role in Donovan's Reef without ever seeing a script, succumbing instead to Ford's pitch: "Don't you want your kids to be brown as berries? Don't you want to spend eight weeks in Hawaii this summer? Then do the picture."
In recent years, however, some film analysts have re-evaluated Donovan's Reef as more than merely a throwaway vacation project, finding in it a bittersweet elegy for days gone by. In both the fictional world of the film and in the advancing twilight of Ford's life and career, it reveals a sharp topical edge in its exploration of racism. The story concerns the efforts of two boozing, brawling former war buddies (Wayne and Marvin) to conceal the truth about the relationship between their good friend, an ex-military doctor, and an island princess when the doctor's straight-laced New England-bred daughter arrives on the island. Wayne's character, owner of the waterfront dive that gives the movie its title, imparts to the young woman a sense of tolerance and adjustment to the easy island ways, falling in love with her in the process.
The production was not an easy-going frolic by any means. Ford, never the easiest person to deal with, even in the best circumstances, had his share of temper tantrums. In one particularly nasty outburst, he berated Lamour mercilessly in front of the entire company for complimenting Marvin after a take; she stormed off the set and would not return until the director apologized in person. This was neither the first nor last such episode that occurred on location.
Part of Ford's edginess may be attributable to having to finance much of the production himself after learning, less than 24 hours after arriving in Hawaii, that Paramount had pulled the backing he expected, although they still agreed to distribute the picture. Beyond that, he also spent more than $70,000 getting his yacht ready to use in the location shoot. Most of that expense represented a net loss, although not regretted by Ford, who was pleased to give his beloved vessel one last blaze of glory before age and the cost-prohibitive upkeep made it necessary for him to retire the Araner.
Ford's irritable nature may have also stemmed from his awareness that he was no longer at the top of his game, at least in John Wayne's estimation. Ford was having particular trouble with his eyesight, so Wayne deputized himself to watch the rushes every day to make sure everything was all right. The stress of the working environment caused Wayne to snap at Ford, something he had rarely done in their many years of working together (it was frequently the other way around). Wayne was also feeling the pressure of being miscast (in his opinion) in the rowdy role of Donovan, especially since he was paired with a leading lady more than 20 years his junior. He also suffered an injury in an on-screen fight with Marvin when he crashed through a table and fell to the floor (a shot Ford kept in the movie).
It all ended amicably enough, but it was definitely the end of Ford and Wayne's collaboration. After 35 years and more than 20 pictures, Ford and Wayne, one of the most iconic teams in the history of motion pictures, never worked together again. Ford completed only two more feature films, Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and Seven Women (1966) and was later replaced after falling ill during the production of Young Cassidy in 1965. He spent his final years working on two documentaries, Vietnam! Vietnam! (1971) and Chesty: A Tribute to a Legend (1976, released after Ford's death), before succumbing to cancer at the age of 78 in 1973.
Director/Producer: John Ford
Screenplay: James Edward Grant, Frank S. Nugent, story by Edmund Beloin (and James Michener, uncredited)
Cinematography: William H. Clothier
Editing: Otho Lovering
Original Music: Cyril Mockridge
Art Direction: Eddie Imazu, Hal Pereira
Cast: John Wayne (Donovan), Lee Marvin (Gilhooley), Elizabeth Allen (Amelia), Jack Warden (Dr. William Dedham), Cesar Romero (Marquis de Lage), Dorothy Lamour (Miss Lafleur).
C-109m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon