Plot: “Guns” Donovan (John Wayne) and “Boats” Gilhooley (Lee Marvin) are old Navy buddies who live in the lush of tropics of Hawaii, but this is not paradise all the time. The two spend most of their time inside Donavan’s Reef, a saloon and there, they argue and fuss, sometimes until their tempers explode. As such, the two end up in fisticuffs often and the other locals try to intervene, since they know how good of friends the two are, under their tough exteriors. So life is simple and pretty much normal, until Amelia Dedham (Elizabeth Allen) arrives in search of her father Doc (Jack Warden), another friend of Donovan and Gilhooley. She wants to take over control of the family business, but not with permission from Doc, instead through legal vessels. But as Amelia soon discovers, the island works in a much different fashion than the normal world, which means she could be in for much more than she expects…
Entertainment Value: A light, brisk action/comedy set in the tropical paradise of Hawaii seems like an odd fit for John Wayne and Lee Marvin, but this John Ford directed picture is a solid watch. The pace is on the slow side at times, but that suits the laid back, relaxed tone of the material and even in those deliberate stretches, we have some light humor and even wild brawls. The narrative does indeed feel laid back, but Donovan’s Reef also touches on some serious issues, from racial issues to xenophobia, interesting topics for Ford and Wayne to explore, of course. If you’re looking for a traditional John Wayne movie however, you might be let down here, as this film is not a hard charging western or war picture. Instead, the emphasis is on humor with some light action, as well as a romance that becomes more prominent as the movie unfolds. The tone is perhaps a little inconsistent, but I think Donovan’s Reef has a chill charm and a good cast doesn’t hurt, so I have fun with this one. I wouldn’t rank it with Ford or Wayne’s better movies, but it is a more than decent watch.
I really like the cast of Donovan’s Reef and while John Wayne has the lead, Lee Marvin has a memorable role as well. I don’t think I could ever tire of watching Marvin punch people in the face and that does that often here, including a fun bar brawl against The Duke himself. The two play aging rivals and couldn’t be better cast, as both feel right at home as tough guys growing older and they embrace the characters, leading to some solid performances. Marvin is often either drunk or fighting someone, sometimes even both, while Wayne has a more upstanding type character, though he isn’t averse to some fisticuffs if the need arises. But this is a much more relaxed part than most of Wayne’s characters and while I appreciated the change of pace, I can see how some might not like the shift from his usual routine. To me, Donovan’s Reef is worth a look just to see Wayne and Marvin battle it out. The cast also includes Elizabeth Allen, Dorothy Lamour, Cesar Romero, and Jack Warden.
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