John Wayne and Eiko Ando in The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958)


(director: John Huston; screenwriter: Charles Grayson/story by Ellis St. Joseph; cinematographer: Charles G. Clarke; editor: Stuart Gilmore; music: Hugo W. Friedhofer; cast: John Wayne (Townsend Harris), Eiko Ando (Okichi, geisha), Sam Jaffe (Henry Heusken, translator), So Yamamura (Governor Tamura), Hiroshi Yamato (Shogun), Norman Thomson (Ship Captain), James Robbins (Lieutenant Fisher), Morita (Prime Minister), Kodaya Ichikawa (Daimyo); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Eugene Frenke; Twentieth Century-Fox; 1958)

“Never seems fluid.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The odd casting of John Wayne as a diplomat falls flat, as does the film. John Huston’s first and only collaboration with Wayne never seems fluid. Though not a bomb, too well-crafted and costumed for that; nevertheless, its distorted take on history proves to be ineffectual.

The film is based on the story by Ellis St. Joseph. It tells the true story of Townsend Harris (John Wayne), who in 1856 was appointed the first American consul-general to enter the “forbidden empire” of Japan. Two years before a treaty was arranged by Commodore Perry and the shogun, as the hopes were to spur trade between the countries. With the blessings of President Pierce, Harris sails for Japan and arrives with his European interpreter Henry Heusken (Sam Jaffe) in the port city of Shimoda. He’s greeted with hostility by everyone in the village. The Japanese governor Tamura (So Yamamura) urges him to leave. Five months go by and his credentials are not recognized and he lives in isolation, facing much hostility. In a surprising gesture of good will, the governor sends the American barbarian (all foreigners are considered barbarians) a beautiful geisha Okichi (Eiko Ando) to reside in his house. She will be in awe of her man and pave the way for his stay in Japan to be more hospitable.

The film plods on with an uninteresting romance between the barbarian and the geisha, the diplomat helping the locals fight off a cholera epidemic contacted from mutineer western sailors and the diplomat eventually overcomes the local hostility and successfully meets with the shogun in Tokyo. By that time I lost interest in the overlong and poorly paced story, as the open-door agreement reached seemed as boring as it was when studying it in my high school social studies class. Throughout it all the seemingly out-of-place Wayne looked to be spoiling for a good ole John Ford staged barroom brawl.