The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958)
I knew The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958) wasn’t exactly John Wayne‘s personal best film, struggling to find the character, his motivations as the first General Consul aka American ambassador for Japan. Not really getting along with the director John Huston who knew what he wanted, seeming to get what he wanted out of the actor who to be honest looked like a fish out of water most of the time. In a country that just didn’t suit him visually, I think the open landscape of the west would never really let him go. From the first time we see Townsend Harris arrive in full Eastern American dress complete with top-hat, making the Duke reach nearly 7.ft. Already towering over most of the Japanese population as he tried to validate his claim to be the General Consul from America to Japan. It’s an uphill battle really against the native people who want to be left alone, having a isolationist position towards the rest of the world. We know that didn’t last long, looking at more recent history.
It’s true that the Duke does look out of place, even feel out of place, his popularity in a bit of a lull before heading back to what he knows best with director Howard Hawks in Rio Bravo (1959) which propelled and secured his future position in film history. I’m not writing off his performance here it just wasn’t his best. He was in a culture that most western audiences hand;t seen if we ignore Akira Kurosawa‘s films that were coming out of the country. Japan was depicted more as a stereotype, not a beautiful country steeped on tradition and honour. That’s something which Huston brings through in Technicolor splendour. Helped in a large part to Eiko Ando as the Geisha Okichi opposite the American barbarian and his translator whose mission was to engage and meeting the Shogun in hope his country would join the community of nation, a for-runner of the United Nations.
This is no means another take on an earlier film with the duke Blood Alley (1955) which fell into cliché and melodrama, putting to strong people opposite each other and having no chemistry. The lack of romance between Townsend and Okichi probably works in the films favour. Based on more a mutual respect for one another. Okichi having her own motives before falling for the barbarian who is more gentlemanly that usually. The dynamic is completely different, the aims of the film too. The love is nor really touched upon until the end really.
Told from the geisha’s point of view we also have a rare female perspective on these events (historically true or not) we are supposed to see the Duke from a female viewpoint which is hard to do being male, seeing him more as a role model of masculinity (not that I take all he does seriously). Ando’s narration is dropped in here and there to move the film along, even with her original intent made clear, this soon blurs after the cholera out-break which changes public opinion of the lone foreigners.
On the whole it’s a decent film, we see the Duke really out of his comfort zone, surrounded by people who are at least a foot smaller than him. Not that this was Huston’s intention it was one of a stranger in a foreign land which does work. We are made aware of that in some interesting visuals which allows the far older culture to come through. I just wish they had subtitles, however that would make the translators job pointless in some scenes. So I’m glad I have seen this gem of a film that is am interesting side step away from the usual fare which Wayne is most at home in and has cemented his position in culture and film. He did make a few duds in his time, but what actor doesn’t it?
- The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958) (everyjohnhustonmovie.blogspot.co.uk)
- Films Set in Japan – “The Barbarian and the Geisha” (1958) (tokyofox.wordpress.com)