The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958)


The Barbarian and the Geisha Storyline

Townsend Harris is sent by President Pierce to Japan to serve as the first U.S. Consul-General to that country. Harris discovers enormous hostility to foreigners, as well as the love of a young geisha.—Jim Beaver

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The Barbarian and the Geisha Movie Reviews

A Dud for the Duke

If you were to make a real film about Townsend Harris, the first American diplomat in Japan, the guy you would have cast in the role was Clifton Webb. The real Harris was an aesthete like Webb’s persona on screen, never married, might have been gay as Webb was. Now that would have been an interesting film.

But done the way John Huston did it, with Harris as a romantic figure, Tyrone Power would have been perfect casting. I have a gut feeling that since 20th Century Fox produced this, the property might have been at one time meant for Power. Wayne looked so awkward and ridiculous mouthing those romantic lines that Ty Power could have done in his sleep.

John Huston said that in casting John Wayne he was trying to show a clash of cultures, Tokugawa Japan being opened to the west by the young vibrant, expanding America and Huston saw Wayne as the personification of 19th century America. Well it didn’t work. Supposedly both men developed a hearty dislike of the other.

I will say this though, it’s a spectacularly photographed film and it does show quite accurately the Japan that Townsend Harris was dealing with.

But it was still one of the big duds for the Duke’s career.

Atypical John Wayne

An interesting look at Japan prior to opening to the West. John Wayne as America’s first consul to Japan arrives in accordance with agreements resulting from Perry’s gunboat diplomacy. He is not welcome. Wayne eventually wins his meeting with the Shogun after bring a cholera epidemic, introduced by an American ship, under control. There follows a colorful procession to the capital bearing gifts for the Shogun, including a bottle of Old Tanglefoot. The meeting with the Shogun, the debates among the Japanese nobles and an assassination during an archery exhibit present an interesting look at the politics of the period. Altogether a rather enjoyable movie and besides how often do you get to see the Duke lose a fight to a guy half his size.

Totally bizarre casting, but it’s still very watchable

In THE BARBARIAN AND THE GEISHA, John Wayne plays Townsend Harris, a real envoy from the United States who was responsible for truly opening up Japan to International relations in the late 1850s. Before him, Commodore Perry basically pushed into Japan with gunboats and forced a treaty upon the Japanese in 1853. Harris, who arrived just a bit later, worked through the details and helped ensure compliance–as many of the Japanese felt no particular inclination to honor the first treaty. All this is true and shown in the film. According to some other sources I found, the romance between Harris and a Japanese Geisha is mostly fiction and this romance is much of the focus of this film (hence, the title).

My first reaction the first time I saw this movie was one of surprise. John Wayne as a diplomat?! When he’s being diplomatic in most films, he says please and thank you as he pummels people!!!! So seeing him playing a man who is NOT a man of action and is able to play the diplomatic game seemed very odd indeed. In fact, I can’t think of too many actors in 1958 who would have been more unusual for this role. By the way, I’ve seen photos of Harris and Wayne has practically no resemblance to him at all.

However, despite the story taking a lot of liberties with the truth and the strange casting, the film is still very watchable. The color cinematography is nice, the film shows some nice insights into Japanese customs and culture and the acting isn’t bad. All in all, a likable and watchable film despite it’s odd casting.

PS–Read through the trivia for this film. You find out a bit more about the real life characters as well as a supposed fight between Wayne and the director (John Huston) where Wayne apparently knocked him out!! Based on what I’ve read about Huston and the way he got along with actors, this is an incident I tend to believe. And, it’s also a nice example of John Wayne “diplomacy”.