Donovan's Reef (1963)

Donovan's Reef (1963), produced and directed by John Ford.

You don't often get a John Ford comedy starring John Wayne and Lee Marvin set in a tropical paradise and filmed in lush technicolor, so it's worth seeing for that alone. And it's a Christmas picture!

It's fun but could have been better. The comic mugging is very broad and the sentiment syrupy sweet. The business with the bigger-than-life brawling, saloon-destroying old Navy pals: a little goes a long way. Well, sometimes you're in the mood for it.

Set in French Polynesia, filmed in Hawaii, it's Pacific fantasy with a mix of Hawaii, Japan, loads of comical Chinese and brawling Aussie sailors. That a beautiful young woman could fall for Wayne's ugly mug: only in the movies. And we have the King of the Uglies: Mike Mazurki as a gendarme, a terrifying sight in knee socks.

And yet: we learn a backstory that is strangely moving, of the War over 20 years earlier when the Americans were shipwrecked on the island and helped the locals fight a guerilla war against the invaders. Afterwards some stayed and some kept coming back. The Doc married a Princess and had three children. That the comical old folks have a serious history always comes as a shock to the younger generation when they unearth it.

Which leads to the race angle. In the traditional screwball device of a conspiracy to conceal what doesn't need concealing, they try to hide the children's parentage from Doc's grown, supposedly prim, Boston daughter. The eldest girl sums it up: "It's because we're not White." The conspirators get off easily for that one.

Edith Head costumes.