Based on the true story of American diplomat Townsend Harris, his time in Japan in the 1850s and 60s, and his romance with a 17-year-old geisha named Kichi. Their story is one of the most well-known folk tales in Japan. The real Harris died in New York in 1878, and the real Kichi committed suicide in Shimoda in 1892.
While making The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958), John Wayne apparently became so enraged with director John Huston (who was something of a tough guy himself and was nearly as tall as Wayne, but not as massive) that he throttled and punched him out. It is unknown what Huston did to earn the beating, but the director was known to have a mean streak. Wayne later re-enacted the incident for Peter Bogdanovich, who was somewhat terrified to be used as a substitute for Huston.
John Huston later dismissed this film, claiming that the final version, re-cut by the studio, didn't resemble his vision at all and that he would've liked to have his name removed from the credits. Stylistically, Huston wanted to make it a particularly Japanese film in terms of photography, pacing, color and narration. According to him, only bits of this attempt were still intact and visible in the theatrical version.
Townsend Harris went on to found the City College of New York, one of the most distinguished public colleges in the United States. Sam Jaffe, who played Harris's right-hand man Henry Heusken in the film, was an alumnus of City College.
Untrue rumor that there were fisticuffs between John Wayne and John Huston during the shoot. True, they didn't see eye-to-eye on the production, and Wayne at one point yelled for all to hear, "Huston can't direct a damn story without his father or Bogart in it!" But the director 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. Like that incident, had Wayne and Huston gotten into a brawl, it would have been choice fodder for gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper.