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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Series: The Barbarian And The Geisha (1958)

•A-Ron’s Film Rewind Series takes you back in time to 1958, for director John Huston and “The Dukes” best film you’ve never seen, “The Barbarian and the Geisha”. 

Director John Huston who is best known as the filmmaker behind four of Humphrey Bogart’s best films: “The Maltese Falcon”, “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre”, “Key Largo” and “The African Queen”. The father of actress Anjelica Huston, had directed six films between 1956-1960. Entering into 1958, John Huston was fresh off “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” and “Moby Dick”, two films that were both shot and filmed in extreme and exotic locations. It would also be the year that his best friend and frequent collaborator Humphrey Bogart had passed away. His next two films to follow were, “The Barbarian and the Geisha” and “The Roots of Heaven”, those two films would also be filmed in two very far and very remote areas. “Barbarian and the Geisha” In Japan, and “Roots Of Heaven” in the jungles of Africa. While Africa was the most troubling, Japan proved to be more dangerous. At the time of production the Japanese society was still in the process of rebuilding itself after it’s massive defeat in World War II. 

1958’s “The Barbarian and the Geisha” (the original title “The Townsend Harris Story”), is the first and only collaboration between one of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers and reigning lead actor of the western genre. It’s an often very overlooked John Wayne movie simply because it is so different to what people expect from “The Duke”. Director Anthony Mann (“El Cid”) owned the rights to the story of “The Barbarian and the Geisha”, but sold it to Twentieth Century Fox after being unable to sign a big-enough star to play the lead.

Based on the true story of American diplomat Townsend Harris, and his time in Japan in the 1850s and 60s, his romance with 17 year old geisha named Kichi. Their story is one of the most well-known folk tales in Japan. Townsend Harris has gained notoriety as he founded the City College of New York, one of the most distinguished public colleges in the United States. The real Harris had died in New York in 1878, and the real Kichi committed suicide in Shimoda, Japan in 1892.

Huston’s film focuses on Townsend Harris, played by John Wayne (Marlon Brando was the original choice), is sent to Japan by U.S. President Franklin Pierce to become the country’s first Consul General to the previously closed country. While there he had an affair with a 17 year old Geisha girl named Okichi (her name was slightly changed for the film). The film opens with Harris’s arrival in Japan, accompanied by European interpreter Henry Heusken (Sam Jaffe). The Westerners are met with hostility from the locals, and shown only cursory courtesy from Governor Tamura (So Yamamura), and are housed in a rundown building by the ocean. Because Harris refuses to deliver his President’s letter to anyone but the Shogun, he and Heusken are pretty much left kicking their heels for months on end, receiving visits from the Governor or one of his men only when they do something to displease him, such as raising the American flag in their modest house. As a few months pass by with no progress being made, until an American ship is spotted off the coastline. After preventing the Japanese from firing on the ship by standing in front of their cannon, Harris sails out to greet the ship only to discover that many of its crew are stricken with the cholera disease. This leads to a number of the stricken sailors jumping overboard and making for the shore where they immediately infect those who help them from the water. Within days, the village including Okichi, is in the grip of an epidemic which the Japanese are unable to fight. While they plead with ancient deities, Harris takes matters in hand by forcibly torching the town, an act for which he is roundly condemned until it becomes apparent that his actions have succeeded in halting the progress of the disease.

Doesn’t that sound like an intriguing film? Let me tell you that it is, but surprisingly, “Barbarian” tanked at the box office and debuted to mostly dismissive reviews. Including The New York Times’ movie critic Bosley Crowther, who wrote that Mr. Wayne “appears a little bewildered and repressed, being much more accustomed to action”. What Crowther missed though is that Wayne’s restrained and uncomfortable “other-ness” as a gaijin in Japan is essential to the story. With his trademark cowboy swagger and deep commanding drawl, Wayne typifies every Japanese stereotype about brash, take-charge Americans, and Barbarian’s specific frisson comes from seeing his character stumped. 

Huston’s idea for the film was to shoot it like an authentic Japanese film, in the style of filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu. Films like “Rashomon” and “Seven Samurai” had introduced Japanese cinema to the West in the mid 50s, and Huston wanted “Barbarian” to have that similar style and feel. However, that never came to fruition after the film was taken out of his hands by the studio, while he was shooting “Roots Of Heaven” in Africa. 

Through many reports, the set of “The Barbarian and the Geisha” was not a happy one, where the film suffered many challenges. There is a true or untrue rumor (still unknown) that there were tensions between John Wayne and John Huston during the shoot. One report was that they didn’t see eye to eye and “The Duke” at one point yelled for all to hear, “Huston can’t direct a damn story without his father or Bogart in it!” But reports were that Huston was not around to hear that. It’s also very unlikely that Wayne would challenge Huston, who was an experienced boxer, and had a well-publicized brawl with fellow boxer and actor, Errol Flynn (“The Adventures Of Robin Hood”). Perhaps this was one of the reasons this was their only movie together. Problems didn’t end there while shooting a scene with fire, the flames spread and caused the town they were shooting in to almost evict them. 

One of the bigger problems was the trouble they had finding a Japanese actress who would appeal to American audiences. They eventually found the right actress in former burlesque dancer and singer, Eiko Ando who had no prior acting experience and would never appear in another film, even though she’s graceful and beautiful on screen, which is really all the role requires of her. And while it’s far from your typical John Wayne appearance he does seem slightly stodgy and uneasy as a romantic lead, but it’s interesting to see him playing an atypical part like this.

Once Huston had completed principal photography he had nothing more to do with its production, but was later enraged, and dismissed the film for the way the studio chose to edit the final cut. John Huston said the final version, that was re-cut by the studio, didn’t resemble his vision at all and he wanted to have his name removed from the credits (which never happened). According to him, only bits of his directorial attempt were still intact and visible in the theatrical version.

The film was shot entirely in Japan, utilizing outdoor locations in Kyoto and Nara, along with indoor sets at Toho Studios (the studio behind the “Godzilla” films), and it does capture some of the pageantry and color of Japanese festivals during the late Edo period. The small, cozy Japanese town is picturesque, and produces gorgeous vistas. 

One of the film’s undeniable strengths lies in it’s cinematography. It’s a great looking film. Despite the poor box office success, the troubled production, the unfair reviews and “The Dukes” restrained performance. Both the film itself and the tenderness in the scenes he shares with Eiko Ando are quite beautiful. “The Barbarian and the Geisha” is a great film and one of my five favorite films from “The Duke”. It’s one of the best films you’ve never seen from his extensive filmography. Seek this one out! 

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros lives on the beautiful island of Maui. He is a member of The Hawaii Film Critics Society, movie critic for Maui Watch, a commentator and cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, learning about movies from his Grandfather and being self taught.

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