John Huston’s The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958) comes at a particularly perilous juncture in the history of 20th Century-Fox; two years after the departure of studio president Darryl F. Zanuck (or two years into the reign of his successor Spyros P. Skouras). Either way, the creative genius that Zanuck brought to the forefront during his tenure as head is wholly lacking from this lugubrious outing. The Barbarian and the Geisha remains a blemish on the careers of both its director, and its star John Wayne. To Skouras, casting Wayne in anything must have seemed like box office pay dirt. He was, after all, the biggest name in showbiz then and his films always made money. But Skouras was an exhibitor, not a film maker, and merely looking at ways to fill theater seats and studio coffers. Therefore, John Wayne seemed as smart a bet as any.
Regrettably, Ellis St. Joseph and Charles Grayson’s screenplay gave even Huston and Wayne a run for their money. The narrative is lumbering at best, rarely extending beyond the episodic and without any dramatic arch to secure the audience’s attentions for more than few brief moments at a time. Clearly, Huston thought the exotic Far East locations would supply their own intoxicating sense of the miraculous. However, as photographed by Charles G. Clarke they are plain rather than paradise. Despite advertised as being shot entirely in Japan, the use of sets for most of the interiors is rather painfully obvious in Jack Martin Smith and Lyle Wheeler’s Production Design.
The story is set in 1856 in the isolationist town of Shimoda, Japan. U.S. Consul-General Townsend Harris (John Wayne) and his translator-secretary, Henry Huesken (Sam Jaffe) have just arrived via a tall ship to establish an American consulate as per an international treaty agreement between former Consul-Gen. Perry and the Emperor. However, Shimoda’s governor Tamura’s (So Tamamura) interpretation of this treaty varies from Townsend’s. Unable to reach a polite agreement as to whose is correct Tamura denies Townsend any official status and orders him to go home. Townsend refuses. Tamura’s next attempt to rid his village of this ‘barbarian’ - or foreign devil – is to makes Townsend’s stay in Shimoda as unpleasant as possible. To this end, he orders a dilapidated farmhouse isolated from the rest of the community and near the cemetery as the Consul-General’s new home. However, even there Townsend is not permitted to fly the American flag.
Japan is a country riddled in ancient – and mostly unfounded – superstitions. The populace believes that foreigners are responsible for natural disasters. Tamura uses this overwhelming distrust to his advantage, encouraging his people not to sell Townsend and Henry anything in their market square, including food. He also forbids Townsend to travel to their capital, Edo. Townsend does his absolute best to comply with the governor’s rules. But his compliance is even more unsettling to Tamura who had hoped to chase Townsend back to America within a few weeks.
Several months pass. Tamura invites Townsend to a lavish banquet at his home where he gets both the Consul-General and Henry drunk on sakki. The tone of the evening suggests that perhaps Tamura’s opinion of Townsend has somewhat softened, but afterward the governor plants a geisha named Okichi (Eiko Ando) in Townsend’s home to serve as his spy. Townsend accepts his ‘gift’ of Okichi, affording her every courtesy and treating her with the utmost respect, something the girl had not expected. As such, Okichi’s suspicions of this foreigner are replaced with a growing admiration for the man. Their friendship suggests an intimacy never explored in a sexual way, though it is clear that Okichi has fallen in love with Townsend.
After a cholera epidemic forces Townsend to torch Shimoda in order to kill the plague and save many lives, Tamura orders him to sail back to the U.S. immediately. However, the grateful survivors rally to Townsend’s aid, declaring him their saviour and forcing Tamura to reconsider his decision. To fulfill his indebtedness to Townsend, Tamura agrees to escort him and Henry to Edo where he will have the opportunity to convince the Shogun (Hiroshi Yamato) to open up Japan to more international trading opportunities. Okichi accompanies this lavish processional to the Shogun’s palace but for a most diabolical purpose. Tamura has decided to assassinate Townsend before a decision on the treaty can be made. After everyone has gone to bed, Okichi ties a red silk scarf to the door of the bedchamber where Townsend has presumably retired. Tamura creeps into the room in full Samurai regalia to kill Townsend but discovers that Okichi has hidden herself beneath the blankets in his stead; her love for Townsend stronger than her devotion to the governor.
Humiliated by her betrayal, Tamura takes his own life. For her complicity in his death, Okichi is forced into exile. The next day the Shogun passes Townsend’s treaty. As Townsend and Henry head back to Shimoda in triumph, Okichi observes with tear-stained regret for their love that can never be, concealing her shame beneath a black shroud.
From start to finish, The Barbarian and the Geisha is a really dower experience. Even before the film had its debut it was denounced by John Huston after the studio chose to heavily re-edit his 142 minute rough cut down to just barely 105 minutes without his input or approval. In pacing and narration Huston had aimed to make a distinctly Japanese movie. But 20th Century-Fox elected for a more straight forward ‘Americanized’ approach to the material: the result – a terrible mishmash of both aspirations with Eiko Ando’s fractured voice over narration barely linking the passages together where a great deal of film footage is obviously missing.
The other problem with the film is that it is based on a rumour about an alleged affair Townsend had with a 17 year old geisha who eventually committed suicide. In Japan, this folktale is widely known, though equally speculated. In America, however, it remains virtually unknown, leaving audiences both past and present perhaps wondering what all the fuss is about. What we are left with then is a tale of political intrigues set at the crux of the Meiji Restoration. Yet, the screenplay cannot decide which path it ought to pursue; the political or the tragically flawed romance between Townsend and Okichi. As such, we get a little of both – a dabbling in too many narrative pies without any of them emerging from the creative oven fully baked to our satisfaction.
Huston’s desire for authenticity is commendable. But many, if not all, of his Japanese actors can barely speak English, adding even more strain to the casual viewer’s engagement with the story. We have to concentrate on deciphering dialogue first. The edits made after Huston’s removal from the project create a lopsided structure with clumsy dissolves and fades to black, sometimes in what appears to be the middle of a much longer scene. John Wayne and Sam Jaffe do their best in the buddy/buddy moments of the story – but don’t really generate any on screen chemistry that might have at least made their male bonding and friendship a diverting subplot.
The biggest oversight, however, is the romance. It’s just not there. Okichi’s motivations, her transition of loyalties from Tamura to Townsend is never fleshed out. Eiko Ando may be a fine actress, but one simply cannot tell behind the Kabuki makeup with its frozen porcelain façade denying us access to Okichi’s true emotions. Is she genuinely in love with Townsend, or concealing her duty to Tamura from him? Even the final shot, an extreme close up of Okichi’s supposedly panged expression is cryptic at best. John Wayne’s Townsend represents the actor at his most understated and disengaged. He seems to be sleepwalking through his performance, and looks utterly silly in the traditional and period dress he’s given for his audience with the Shogun. Bottom line: there are infinitely better John Wayne movies (Red River, The Quiet Man, Hatari!, McLintock) out there that have yet to see their hi-def debut. The Barbarian and the Geisha is a particularly poor choice.
I am not entirely certain that the predominantly bluish tint in this Blu-ray transfer is as originally intended by Charles G. Clarke’s cinematography. There’s something off about the colour in general, a lack of vibrancy to any other color except that all pervasive robin egg blue. Flesh tones are pasty orange and reds register as more orange than red. Contrast levels are very weak. Blacks appear as dull gray rather than velvety deep and enveloping. Quite often the overall image quality exhibits a very muddy characteristic with slightly faded colours.
I’m fairly certain Fox hasn’t done a rescan in 1080p for this release. Despite the image appearing smooth and tight, with some examples of fine detail solidly represented, when I directly compared the image of the Blu-ray to the DVD copy Fox has also included in this set, I found little to no discernable differences on my 65inch viewing monitor. Really, color fidelity and fine details looked about the same. Only grain structure marginally improved on the Blu-ray as it should from Blu-ray’s higher bit rate, but not enough to suggest a true hi-def master was involved in the minting of this disc. Frankly, I’m not impressed!
The audio is 4.0 DTS stereo, recapturing the vintage audio of Cinemascope with impressive clarity heard in Hugo W. Friedhofer’s lush – though hardly authentic – score. Fox has slapped together a few vintage excerpts from its Movietone Newsreels and the original theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)