THE BARBARIAN AND THE GEISHA tells the story of Townsend Harris, an adventurous and successful trader sent by President Pierce as the first American Consul General to Shogunate Japan. The diplomatic endeavor, marked by patience and tact, opened the isolated Empire to international trade in 1858. A hundred years later, another crafty chief executive, Buddy Adler, Head of Production for 20th Century-Fox, dispatched to Japan two adventurous and successful cinema titans, working together for first time: their mission to make Townsend’s tale live anew in CinemaScope and De Luxe color. High hopes soon went out the window, along with patience and tact: for star John Wayne and director John Huston the experience wasn’t a peace treaty but rather a debacle closer to Pearl Harbor.
In 1856, American envoy Townsend Harris (Duke) and interpreter Henry Heusken (Sam Jaffe) arrive in Japan at the coastal Shimoda Prefecture. Sent to open a consulate and eventually meet with the young Tokugawa Shōgun in Edo (Tokyo) for trade talks, Harris is continually stalled by the suspicious governor (So Yamamura) and the hostile populace. The governor commands beautiful geisha Okichi (Eiko Ando) to ‘attend’ to the foreign visitor, and the two become enamored of each other while braving a cholera epidemic, attempted assassinations and sundry other problems.
Initially, it seemed promising. Huston felt that Wayne, a “better actor than he knew” and his “massive frame, bluff innocence and rough edges would be an interesting contrast to the small, highly cultivated Japanese…the physical comparison would help serve to emphasize their dissimilar viewpoints and cultures.” Wayne wanted a hit; of his three 1957 releases, The Wings Of Eagles and Legend Of The Lost had under-performed and Jet Pilot crashed on impact.
But things shortly went sour and stayed there. From the get-go, the script, credited to Charles Grayson, was flawed, and later uncredited contributions from Alfred Hayes, Nigel Balchin, and Wayne buddy/hanger-on James Edward Grant didn’t help. The working title was The Townsend Harris Story, which sounds like a TV special about a banker, so assorted ideas were batted around. Wayne suggested the reasonable Pine and Bamboo. When Huston found out the studio decided on The Barbarian And The Geisha, he cabled Buddy Adler: “Are you serious? If so, I am changing my name, too.”
Star and director never connected, in temperament or style, and dislike turned to loathing, though contrary to the b.s. often repeated in sloppy reviews on the Internet, they didn’t actually come to blows. Nearly, though. Wayne: “I found it impossible to make any contact at all….The son of a bitch can’t make a good movie without his father or Bogart to carry him.” Huston spent a month in geisha houses, sampling, then picked 23-year-old Eiko Ando, whose show business resume was limited to strip shows: this was to be her only film. Leggy, at 5’7″ tall for a Japanese woman, she and the director commenced an indiscreet romp that interested him more than the complaints of his adrift leading man.
During filming of the plague sequence, the chain holding a fiery barge (bearing cholera victims) broke and the wind changed so that it drifted back toward shore, burning several fishing boats, then nearly caused an inferno among the rice-paper homes of the village onshore. The enraged locals rioted, attacking crew members, beating some unconscious with clubs.
Huston left for Africa to work on The Roots Of Heaven. Back at Fox, the brass yielded to the frustrated Wayne’s ideas on editing and re-shoots. Huston: “When I brought it back to Hollywood, the picture, including the music, was finished…It was a sensitive, balanced work…Wayne apparently took over after I left…and when I saw it, I was aghast.”
Apart from respect for the visual elements, critics were not impressed by the out-of-his-comfort-zone star, the talky, patchwork script or the half-hearted direction, and response from the 1958 public was tepid. It only tagged 33rd place for the year, a $7,100,000 gross not enough to offset the $3,495,000 expended, let alone soothe a couple of well-ruffled egos.
Filmed on location around Kyoto and Nara, it’s pictorially quite handsome but dramatically sluggish, an uneasy mix of fact & legend that seems unfocused, with scenes that too often begin and end abruptly, a romance that feels artificial, lots of waiting and little action (and what there is lacking excitement), with dry expository dialogue that would stymie Anthony Hopkins, let alone John Wayne. Poorly written narration (spoken by Endo) tells you what you can see for yourself. The anti-climactic finale just drifts off into a shrug. It isn’t terrible, just bland. Essentially, it’s a pretty film—and pretty dull. *
There’s an okay score from Hugo Friedhofer, the sets are attractive, the costumes are lovely. Thankfully, it doesn’t resort to offensive stereotypes, and Huston adroitly has the Japanese speak in their own language, without subtitles. Wayne has a cute scene with a little boy, pulling faces at each other during a ceremony, a nice bit of humanity that perks things up. He’s sincere but stiff with speeches, sincere and likable in the relaxed passages; the character as written is wafer thin. Whether Huston’s cut would have been any better than what was tooled up is just a guess, but it’s doubtful, given the weak script.
* History—–Henry Heusken, the interpreter played by Sam Jaffe, was sliced to death a few years later by disgruntled samurai (aren’t they always?), a foreshadow of the see-saw relations Japan would have with outsiders that would eventually lead to some rather noteworthy difficulties (like, uh..WW2). As for legendary Okichi, in the non-reel world the truth was she was simply one of five young servant girls assigned to Harris as housekeepers, and was never his concubine. The End for her in real-life was a tragic one. Tainted by contact with a “foreign devil”, shunning by the community led to depression. Alcoholism followed, then prostitution. Her sad life ended with suicide in 1892.