Barbarian and the Geisha, The (1958): John Huston Directs Wayne’s Worst Picture?

John Huston’s The Barbarian and the Geisha is arguably one of John Wayne’s worst and most embarrassing films, in which he is vastly miscast as Townsend Harris, America’s first diplomatic representative to Japan.

The Barbarian and the Geisha
Barbarian Geisha 1958.jpg

Theatrical release poster

Early on, John Huston believed that “only one man is right for him and that’s John Wayne,” his idea being that “his massive frame, bluff innocence and rough edges would be an interesting contrast to the small, highly cultivated Japanese; that the physical comparison would help serve to emphasize their dissimilar viewpoints and cultures.” Wayne was the best choice, Huston felt “to symbolize the big, awkward United States” of the past.

In the opening reel, it’s established that for 200 years, Japan had been “the forbidden empire,” turning away all foreigners, and even abusing and killing shipwrecked mariners. The turning point occurs when in 1856, a U.S. Navy ship makes it way toward shore, with the first accredited American diplomat on board, Harris Townsend.

Townsend is accompanied only by his interpreter, Henry Heusken (Sam Jaffe) and three Chinese servants. Upon arrival, he is ordered off Japanese soil, but he defies orders and takes up residence in a ruined temple, infested with rats. Moreover, the Japanese refuse to sell him any food, keeping him under tight control.

Not much happens by way of exciting plot in the ensuing chapters, which describe the efforts of Townsend to fulfill President Pierce’s Commission and make his way to the capital, Tokyo (known as Yedo) to negotiate the first commercial treaty.

Energy and melodrama kick in in the last reel, depicting the spread of cholera, attempts by locals to help Townsend (one ending in suicide), before reaching the conclusion of Townsend riding into the imperial palace to complete the treaty.

Note:

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In one particularly unappealing scene, Wayne’s Townsend is thrown to the ground–with ease–by a tiny judo expert and was left sitting there with a bewildered look. The star reportedly feared that his fans would not take it: “Huston made me walking through a series of Japanese pastels. Hell, my fans expect me to be tall in the saddle!”

Wayne always held that, “the most successful films I have made have been about people, not backgrounds,” and that he was “surprised at Huston’s attack, that all-out go for sheer beauty like a Japanese print.” “I’ve endured a lot of bad scripts and bad directors, but the time comes when you gotta speak up.”

Most of Wayne’s fears were confirmed when the movie was released. Bosley Crowther represented many reviewers when he wrote in the New York Times: “John Wayne in the role of Harris appears a little bewildered and repressed, being much more accustomed to action.” Other critics were much harsher on the film and on Wayne’s performance.

Not surprisingly, “The Barbarian and the Geisha” was a failure at the box-office, grossing in rentals only $2.5 million against a negative budget of over $4 millions.

Next to the miscasting of Wayne, the other big problem was the bland scenario by Charles Grayson (with help from Huston), which was unfinished when shooting began. “I found myself shooting in the daytime and writing future scenes at night,” Huston writes in his memoirs.

Huston learned through a trade paper that Twentieth Century-Fox decided to change the film’s original title, “The Townsend Story,” to “The Barbarian and the Geisha,” a title he never liked.

Nor did Wayne, fearing it was not sufficiently explained to the audience that the Japanese call foreigners barbarians, not just the character played by him.

Credits:

Directed by John Huston
Produced by Eugene Frenke
Written by Ellis St. Joseph (story)

Screenplay by Charles Grayson, Nigel Balchin, James Edward Grant, Alfred Hayes
Narrated by Eiko Ando
Music by Hugo W. Friedhofer
Cinematography Charles G. Clarke
Edited by Stuart Gilmore
Distributed by 20th Century Fox

Release date: September 30, 1958 (U.S.)

Running time: 105 min.
Budget $3,495,000

Cast
John Wayne as Townsend Harris
Eiko Ando as Okichi
Sam Jaffe as Henry Heusken
Sō Yamamura as Governor Baron Tamura
Fuyukichi Maki as Peasant
Norman Thomson as Ship captain
James Robbins as Lt. Fisher
Morita as Prime Minister
Kodaya Ichikawa as Daimyō
Hiroshi Yamato as the Shōgun