The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958)
User ReviewsAdd a Review
While some may see John Wayne as the archetypical posterboy for American jingoism, in fact his character clearly tries to understand the country in which he is trying to establish the consulate, and shows genuine remorse, not arrogance, in noting that in early part of his assignment, all that the Americans had established was a cholera epidemic and the torching of the city to quell it.
While the interracial love story behind the title was somewhat superficial, I thought that the more important aspects of colliding cultures and political shadowboxing was quite interesting and well presented.
There are some odd directorial dead spots such as when Wayne as Townsend Harris is told he cannot fly the American flag. The Duke agrees to take it down but gives a speech stating that he will fly the flag at certain times. The scene trails off somewhat anti-climactically despite seemingly leading up to a dramatic confrontation.
On the whole I found the film entertaining and worth viewing.
For the open-minded, the patient and the thoughtful, this movie is a rich depiction of an intriguing part of history.
There are two intertwining stories. The big story is of internalised, isolationist Japan and externalised, expansionist America clashing when their interests conflict. The small, human, story is of an outsider barbarian (Wayne) and a civilised Geisha's initial hostility and dislike turning to mutual respect and love. The human story is a reflection of the greater story of the two nations.
The movie is very well done and all actors play their roles well. The two lead roles are performed to perfection. John Wayne is excellent as Townsend Harris, striking exactly the right blend of force and negotiation in his dealings with the Japanese. Eiko Ando is likewise excellent as the Geisha of the title, charming and delightful. The interaction between her character and John Wayne's is particularly well portrayed. This is exactly how these two individuals (as they are depicted in the film) would have behaved.
The script is very well written. It lacks all pomposity. and is a realistic depiction of the manner in which the depicted events may have occurred. The characters are real people, not self-consciously "great" figures from history. Furthermore, the clash of cultures and interests is portrayed with great skill and subtlety. Indeed, the clash of a traditionalist, and traditionally powerful, isolationist Japan and a rising, newly powerful nation from across the ocean is summarised very well in one exchange between John Wayne and the local Japanese baron. Wayne complains that shipwrecked sailors are beheaded if they land in Japan, and that passing ships cannot even put into port for water. The Baron responds that Japan just wants to be left alone. Wayne's character replies that Japan is at an increasingly important crossroads of international shipping, and that if things continue as before the nation will be regarded as nothing more than a band of brigands infesting an important roadway. A very real summary of the way in which the two countries each saw themselves as being in the right, and saw the other as being in the wrong. The resultant clash between two self-righteous peoples with conflicting interests has its reflections throughout history, a continuing theme that echoes into the present and on into the future.
Cinematography and the depiction of mid-nineteenth century Japan, before the accelerated growth towards industrialisation that was to follow later in the century, is excellent. A visual treat, and an enlightening insight into Japan's ancient civilisation.
I highly recommend anyone, whether a John Wayne fan or not, to watch this film if you get the chance. Just be aware that it isn't an action film. It is a representation of an interesting place and time in history, and a slow-boiling love story which (much to their surprise) comes to dominate the personal lives of the two main characters. Watch this film on its merits, without preconceptions, allow yourself to be immersed in its story, and you will thoroughly enjoy it.
All in all, an excellent film.
This costumer picture is based on historic events . Japan was dominated for a dynasty occupied by the Togugawa family from century XVI until 1868 and characterized by ruling ¨ Daimios ¨ , confronting occidental people and shunning the opening imposed by Admiral Perry in 1863 ; he was the first foreigner in Japan who undergoes a culture shock . Being dead emperor Komei , succeeded in 1867 , Mutsu Hito , one time crowned as emperor Meiji , he abolished the Shogun , ( happenings developed in various films as ¨ Shogun ¨ with Richard Chamberlain and ¨The last Samurai¨ with Tom Cruise ). Matsu Hito carried out various changes, as a liberal cabinet , creating a Duma or Parliament and following actual models and modern spirit . Anti-reforms riots to return old values , traditional way of life and code Bushido were realized by the Samurais a type of medieval knight for preventing of occidental life style .
John Wayne becomes the first Ambassador from the Western world is this oriental adventure . The film deals with conflicts between the radical conservatism and modernism ; upon relation of the West and East World . Besides , a sweeping, complex human drama with all the ingredients : betrayal , romance , inter-racial love story, , emotions and is pretty interesting . Stunning images illuminate the full-blown feats of Towsend Harris under impressive sets created by Lyle Wheeler and Walter Scott . Glimmer and colorfully filmed by cameraman Charles G Clarke shot in locations as 20th Century Fox Studios, Los Angeles, California,(studio) ,Eiga Film Studios,Tokyo, and Kawana ,and Kyoto , Japan .Evocative and appropriate score by Hugo Friedhofer . Panned by the critics , the movie was a flop at box office , receiving awful reviews , considering Wayne is horribly miscast and ¨Barbarian and Geisha¨ resulted to be one of the worst of his bad films . However , nowadays is best deemed . Motion picture produced and released by Twenty Century Fox- Darryl F Zanuck- is regularly directed by John Huston . The movie hasn't the thematic unity of 'African's Queen', ' Asphalt jungle' , ' Key Largo' , ' Maltese Falcon' or ' The treasure of Sierra Madre' the John Huston's best and shares his failures to 'Phobia' , ' the Bible' or 'Kremlin letter' . Rating : 5,5 , acceptable and passable .
Still, the film is interesting in its depiction of the clash of traditions – especially involving two countries which, a little over a decade earlier, had been deadly enemies – and, in any case, Japan was a popular venue with Hollywood during this time: witness the two back-to-back Marlon Brando vehicles THE TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON (1956) and SAYONARA (1957). The glossy production values (courtesy of Fox) make the most of the exotic locations, but the plot itself is rather melodramatic – Wayne’s initially hostile reception, an outbreak of cholera, the assassination of a supportive Japanese leader (which threatens to throw the country into Civil War), an attempt on Wayne’s own life and the failed aggressor’s subsequent seppuku (which also terminates Wayne’s subtle romance with the geisha of the title), etc.
Finally, though as I said this is one of Wayne’s most uncharacteristic films (which I had missed out on countless times in the past but was determined to catch now in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Huston’s passing), it’s certainly not worthy of the same level of disdain as his other Asian flick – Dick Powell’s camp classic THE CONQUEROR (1956).
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".
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.
As others have pointed out, this was (in some ways at least) an unusual role for John Wayne, although Harris does share some characteristics with the quintessential Wayne hero, such as courage, honour and patriotism. In other respects, however, as a diplomat and man of peace whose only weapon is the power of persuasion he is very different to the men of action- cowboys, gunfighters, soldiers, etc.- portrayed by Wayne in most of his other movies.
The film contains two main strands. One deals with the love-story of Harris and Okichi. The other deals with the conflict between the pro- Western Japanese modernisers, who welcome Harris's mission, and the conservative, traditionalist forces who resent it. Harris is at first based not in Edo (as Tokyo was then known) but in the small coastal town of Shimoda, some sixty miles away, and the local governor Lord Tamura (a conservative sympathiser) refuses to recognise his diplomatic status.
The plot of course has a number of similarities with that of "Madame Butterfly", which also concerns a young Japanese girl who falls in love with an older American man. "The Barbarian and the Geisha", however, explores the theme of cultural differences much more deeply than does Puccini's opera, which is essentially the story of a woman betrayed by a faithless lover. The forces which doom the relationship between Harris and Okichi are much more fundamental, and are rooted in irreconcilable differences between their two nations' concepts of morality and honour.
Some have expressed surprise that a film celebrating the establishment of peaceful American-Japanese relations was made only thirteen years after the end of World War II, but this becomes less surprising when one considers that by 1958 Japan was a key US ally in the Cold War. Moreover, the view of the Japanese in this film is not altogether positive. The events of 1853, when Japan was forced to open its doors to the West by Commodore Matthew Perry's fleet under threat of force, are justified by allegations that the Japanese had been guilty of beheading shipwrecked foreign sailors and refusing to allow American vessels to enter their ports, even to take on emergency supplies of food and water. Arguments that it was for Japan itself, as an independent sovereign state, to determine its own trade policy with the rest of the world are largely glossed over or presented as the doctrines of a self-interested reactionary faction. Harris and the Japanese progressives are the good guys and the Japanese conservatives the bad guys, something shown when they make a treacherous attempt to murder Harris.
This was John Wayne's only collaboration with director John Huston, and apparently they did not get on with one another. Yet Wayne does enough here, both as diplomat and as lover, to suggest that he had a greater range as an actor than he is normally given credit for. Eiko Ando as Okichi makes a luminously beautiful heroine. This is one film where all the Japanese characters are played by Japanese actors, something which was by no means always the rule in the fifties, "Love is a Many Splendid Thing" and "Inn of the Sixth Happiness" being two examples from the period where oriental characters were played by white actors.
Huston himself was dissatisfied with the film because it was heavily re- edited by the studio and he felt that it did not reflect his vision. As far as I am aware there is no "director's cut" so we do not know what Huston's vision would have looked like had it been realised. The film we actually have, however, is far from being a bad one. It has its weaknesses; the pace tends to sag at times, especially during the first half. Nevertheless, it is visually attractive, well acted and throws an interesting light on the history of American-Japanese relations. It is an unusual film to have come out of the Hollywood of the fifties, made all the more unexpected by Huston's use of a star normally associated with films of a very different sort. 7/10
Only those utterly enamoured of Huston's every work need to choose this ,among all his other great movies around.
NOTES: Fox's 114th CinemaScope movie, and the first American film to be photographed in its entirety (both indoors and outdoors) in Japan Only film appearance of Eiki Ando Although Fox reported a loss of only $2 million on a negative cost of $3.5 million, it's hard to believe that worldwide rentals returned as much as $2.5 million (allowing an extra million to cover print, advertising and distribution expenses). No doubt John Wayne's solid allure at the domestic box-office helped no end.
COMMENT: Understandably, "The Barbarian and the Geisha" was one of the least popular of the big-budget CinemaScope movies. A preachy, reach-me-down tone is set right from the beginning, where a patronizing, off-camera commentary explains both the action and Japanese dialogue for us. At least we are spared the verbal assault of Japanese peasants speaking pidgin English, but why are there no sub-titles?
As for Big John himself, he is not so much miscast as unbelievable. I feel he could have made a reasonably good fist of the role, despite the handicap of stilted and ridiculous dialogue, but he doesn't even try. What's worse, his fans are going to be mighty disappointed to find there's so little action in the picture. True, the script does occasionally ring in a bit of humor, but humor without action for the true Wayne devotee is like mustard without meat.
Although often visually attractive, "The Barbarian and the Geisha" misses the pictorial richness of contemporary Japanese period films like "Gate of Hell". In fact, by Huston's high standards, the direction and camera-work could be described as comparatively unimaginative, even stodgy. You can see that a lot of money was spent. It's right up there on the screen. But the result— ponderous, slow-moving, heavy-handed, patronizingly juvenile movie will please neither Wayne's fervent admirers nor the general, entertainment-seeking picturegoer.
The Barbarian and the Geisha does have its problems. The story is occasionally a little melodramatic, with the interracial love story not developed as well as it could have been, while the film could have done at a much tighter pace. The script also has its good points, but also some stilted and overly pompous moments too, while John Wayne is a little out-of-place and awkward in the lead. However, the film is spectacularly photographed, has a good score and has a very interesting subject matter that is presented well. The film is well-directed by Huston and Eiko Ando is beguiling and charming.
Overall, a decent film, could have been better but it wasn't as bad as I was led to believe. 6/10 Bethany Cox
In 1856, following the opening of Japan to an American naval force, newly-appointed consul general Townsend Harris (John Wayne) shows up at the fishing community of Shimoda to ratify an agreement. He is met with resistance, much of it from a regional governor, Tamura (So Yamamura), who reminds Harris it takes two to make a treaty. Harris insists, and Tamura responds with some hospitality, including a music-making geisha named Okichi (Eiko Ando) who is sent to Harris to make him more comfortable.
"The governor wants to know about us, and we want to know about Japan," Harris tells his aide Henry (Sam Jaffe) in accepting the young lovely into his home.
Shot on location in glorious CinemaScope, "The Barbarian And The Geisha" is the kind of movie I want to like. It takes an even-handed approach at celebrating a century of Japanese-American relations centering on the idea of being a "good neighbor." Another reviewer here criticizes Wayne for playing a "cowboy;" that's not the issue at all.
In fact, a big part of the problem is Wayne's gentleness. He gets into a couple of fan-service fistfights, but for the most part speaks softly and makes his point with wisdom, not force. His problem is he's not the actor for such a role, and struggles to define a character with a lot of earnest diplomat-speak that suits him as poorly as his period trousers.
Another reviewer suggests Clifton Webb would have been a better casting choice. How about Gregory Peck? He was so stiff and elegant, he would have been perfect in this. I can see him arching that eyebrow as he uttered such dry lines as: "No one stays as he was nor any country."
Director John Huston doesn't seem to know what kind of film he's making, a romance or a history, so he throws together a historical romance that sells both sides short. The Okichi relationship is set up as crucial; hers is the character we hear in the frequent narration. Alas, there is no chemistry between the leads, just nods and smiles. Ando was a newcomer in her only screen role, and she's charming enough, but what exactly is the point of Okichi in this story is as hard to tell by watching the film as it is from reading the history.
Not that I found myself caring too much. The film starts and ends with a scene of grand spectacle, and pretty much that's Huston's agenda, the kind of spectacle meant as show and divorced from story. There's some drama when an American ship's arrival leads to a cholera epidemic, but just as that seems to spell the end of Harris's mission, it is revealed the Japanese appreciated his efforts in stopping the epidemic. Thus is conflict resolved, with another long pageant to celebrate same.
The only thing I enjoyed about this movie was So Yamamura, who gets my 1958 Doe Avedon award for best performance in a bad film. Though his character makes no more sense than anyone else's, he plays his part with a humor and grace surprising for what amounts to the token heavy. "I have sympathy for a man alone in a strange country," he tells Harris in good English, showing he may be a stick but far from ignorant about it. Yamamura subtly signals his conflict between respecting Harris and fearing what he represents, and that tension charges every scene he's in.
That charge is sorely needed, for this film is otherwise as inert as sushi. Noble intentions and a good cause are just not enough to make this worth a view.
Despite his considerable presence both as an actor and in terms of screen time, he failed to dominate this movie. Many of his good intentions came a cropper. He had authority over nobody, and the intermittent narrative was provided by the titular geisha to whom he was the barbarian.
The story of American attempts to curry favour with an isolationist Japan was one of political intrigue rather than swashbuckling or hell-for-leather battles. I cannot comment on the accuracy of its research but the strangeness of the Oriental culture to western sensibilities was demonstrated well. There was a great deal of minutely-choreographed ceremony entailing what looked to this observer like authentic costume and props. The set pieces were complex and detailed. A lot of money and thought had been applied to it.
The fractured romance between Wayne and his geisha added a little extra element, and stopped the movie becoming just a political or flag-waving effort. Script was good without being too wordy. There was a great deal of Japanese dialogue, but the lengthy periods of translation didn't interfere with the narrative. It was nice to see plenty of genuine orientals on the set. Whether or not they were Japanese, I couldn't say. But anyway they looked the part. At least the leads were not played by cross-dressing Caucasians, unlike other efforts such as 'Blood Alley' (yes, I know they were Chinese) 'The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness' or even 'The King And I'.
Frankly, I enjoyed this more than any of those other movies. The script was better for a start. I never liked the songs in 'The King And I', and wasn't impressed by the heavy-laden anti-communist subtext of 'Blood Alley'. I confess to never having seen this work before and found it compared very favourably to many of The Duke's more popular outings.