Movies on Kauai—John Wayne, Elvis Presley, and Frank Sinatra

Of all the movies that have been filmed on Kauai, some of the most memorable were those starring John Wayne, Elvis Presley, and Frank Sinatra. I think of this as I sit in my Kauai Condo and gaze out over the beauty of the Garden Island.

John Wayne was Hollywood’s most popular star when he arrived on Kauai in 1962 to film Donovan’s Reef. In the movie, John Wayne plays “Guns” Donovan, a former United States Marine who opens a tropical bar in the South Pacific. The main filming set for Donovan’s Reef was Hanamaulu Beach and nearby Ahukini Pier on Kauai’s eastern coastline. Various other Kauai sites were also utilized for filming, including Waimea Canyon, the Wailua River, and the Allerton Estate at Lāwai.

On April 12, 1961, Elvis Presley began filming Blue Hawaii, his first movie on Kauai and also his most commercially successful movie. In the film, Elvis plays Chad Gates, who avoids working in his family’s pineapple business by working for a travel agency. Much of the film was shot on the grounds of the Coco Palms Hotel with other filming done at Wailua Beach, Lydgate Park, Kealia Beach, and Anahola Bay.

Notable Elvis songs in the movie included Blue Hawaii, Rock-a-Hula Blues, and Can’t Help Falling in Love. Elvis also sang the renowned Hawaiian song Aloha Oe, which was written by Queen Liliuokalani. The Hawaiian Wedding Song was sung by Elvis in the famous wedding scene atop a canoe in the Coco Palms lagoon.

Elvis returned to Kauai in 1964 to film Paradise Hawaiian Style, playing ex-airline pilot Rick Richards who runs a helicopter sightseeing business and finds romance at different Island locations. Co-stars in the film were Suzanna Leigh and James Shigeta, and songs by Elvis included Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home, Sand Castles, and A Dog’s Life.

Paradise Hawaiian Style was released in 1966, and in 1967, Elvis and Priscilla Presley were married in Las Vegas. The couple then came to Hawaii, where Elvis re-enacted the famous Blue Hawaii wedding scene at Coco Palms, and renewed his vows to Priscilla.

Frank Sinatra first came to Kauai in the early 1950s when he performed at the Kauai County Fair. In April of 1964, Sinatra returned to Kauai, directing and starring in None But the Brave, the story of a group of United States Marines who crash land on a Pacific island controlled by the Japanese during World War II.

The main set of None But the Brave was located at Pilaa Beach on Kauai’s northeastern shore, and Sinatra stayed at the Coco Palms Hotel in Wailua.

One Sunday afternoon while Sinatra was swimming at Wailua Beach he saw Ruth Koch, wife of movie producer Howard Koch, in trouble in the strong ocean currents. Sinatra swam out to help her but instead found himself quickly pulled out to sea while Koch made it safely to shore.

After about 20 minutes in the water, Sinatra was rescued, apparently just in the nick of time as he was starting to turn blue and was on the verge of drowning. An ambulance was called. Fortunately, Sinatra was able to recuperate, only missing one day of work before returning to the set.

I think of these events as I look out the window of my Kauai Vacation Rental at the crystal blue waters of the sea, an ocean that is so beautiful but certainly needs to be respected as it almost took the life of one of our most famous singers and movie stars of all time.