The cast included Elizabeth Allen, Lee Marvin, Jack Warden, Dorothy Lamour, and Cesar Romero. The film marked the last time Ford and Wayne ever worked together on a project.
The film is an action/comedy. Donovan's Reef is a light-hearted movie.
The film begins with Thomas "Boats" Gilhooley ("boats" is a nickname for a 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, and not actually stopping 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 physician 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 the same 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 She travels to Haleakaloha in hope of finding proof that Doc has violated an outdated (but still in effect) morality clause in the will which would keep him from inheriting the stock and thus enable her to retain control.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 post somewhere else. 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 not white.
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: "Doctor 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 mansion, 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.John Wayne as Michael Patrick "Guns" Donovan
Elizabeth Allen as Amelia Dedham
Jacqueline Malouf as Lelani Dedham, Dr. Dedham's eldest daughter by Manulani, hereditary ruler of the island
Lee Marvin as Thomas Aloysius "Boats" Gilhooley
Jack Warden as Dr. William Dedham
Cesar Romero as Marquis Andre de Lage, the French governor of the island
Dorothy Lamour as Miss Lafleur, Gilhooley's sometime girlfriend
Cherylene Lee as Sally Dedham, Dr. Dedham's younger daughter
Jeffrey Byron as Luke Dedham, the doctor's son and youngest child
Marcel Dalio as Father Cluzeot
Edgar Buchanan as Francis X. O'Brian
Mike Mazurki as the Police Constable
Patrick Wayne (son of John Wayne) as an Australian naval officer
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 has come from Boston, MA by sailing ship. The movie was actually filmed on Kauai, Hawaii. 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).
Donovan's Reef was a moderate financial success. Produced on a budget of $2,686,000, the film grossed $6,600,000 in North America, earning $3.3 million in US theatrical rentals. It was the 24th highest-grossing film of 1963.
A.H. Weiler of The New York Times wrote that the movie was "sheer contrivance effected in hearty, fun-loving, truly infectious style". Variety called it an "effort-less effort", but praised the photography. Currently, the film holds a rating of 60% "Fresh" on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.