It couldn’t sound much worse, an 1856 period piece starring John Wayne titled The Barbarian and the Geisha. Add to this the fact that the film was critically dismissed and a rare box-office loser for Wayne. There was also the hardly unexpected clash, both personally and professionally, between Wayne and director John Huston. Then, after the studio (Fox) re-edited Huston’s final cut, the director just about disowned the released version. It sounds like the experience was a monumental bummer for everyone involved. So, here I am recommending this movie, one of Huston’s more underrated efforts, a film that, despite the studio tampering, still seems unusually risky and uncompromising. It also just happens to be one of the more gorgeous color films of its decade.
Yes, it has its problems, and they are not insignificant. Though the film is based on a real incident, with Wayne playing a real-life character, there apparently wasn’t all that much known regarding specifics, resulting in a plot that is largely fictional. Wayne is Townsend Harris, the American Consul General to Japan, who was sent there to open diplomatic relations and bring isolationist Japan onto the world scene. While Wayne hopes to get a treaty signed, the Japanese struggle with the clash between progress and tradition. All of this sounds more than dandy as movie fare to me. However, the screenplay is dramatically unexciting and less than compelling. The biggest problem is the lack of truly interesting characters and relationships. But even these disappointments are part of the overall picture’s allure. After all, the film is seductively unhurried, always serious-minded, and never tries to compromise in order to reach as big an audience as possible.
The Barbarian and the Geisha is a ravishingly beautiful visual feast made by Huston with obviously painstaking care. Filmed entirely in Japan, the film is authentically atmospheric, impressively (rather than grandiosely) ambitious, and has the capacity to overwhelm the senses quite pleasurably. As he did so memorably with Africa in The African Queen (1951), Huston immersed himself in the location, making Japan a palpable experience for the viewer.
If Huston’s dedication to the film’s visual content is to be lauded, then he must also be blamed for the film’s lack of dramatic urgency. As with his much more well-liked and popular Toulouse-Lautrec biopic Moulin Rouge (1952), Huston became entirely consumed with the pictures and the color at the expense of the plot, allowing the storytelling to fall by the wayside and become quickly inferior to the glorious images. In both movies, Huston cannot arouse the same passion for the scripts that is so apparent in his visual artistry. He may be trying to tell these stories in pictures, but there’s rarely the necessary fusion of both elements, with the rapturous images clobbering the increasingly unconvincing storylines. It’s hard to be too critical of Huston’s flawed work on Barbarian, though, because this is clearly a labor of love. Savor its highlights: its rituals, processions, assemblies; its sumptuous recreation of a world gone by.
As for Wayne, this was certainly a daring move. He’s serviceable, if uninspired, but also never embarrassing. Eiko Ando is the geisha assigned to him. Though they fall in love, there are no kisses between them, no attempt to make a romance the prime focus (another reason the film gets bonus points). The sets, the costumes, and the photography are the stars, but all in the name of providing an ecstatic sensory experience, duplicating the way the Wayne character discovers Japan for himself. There are attempts to bring “action” into this mood piece (a cholera epidemic, a murder plot), plus a Wayne-like comic brawl, but most of that fades from memory. What remains is the vitality of its breathtaking color compositions. This may not be enough to elevate the film into a vigorous, potent historical drama, but The Barbarian and the Geisha is a singular, unconventional work made by an obviously great filmmaker. It’s nowhere close to being one of Huston’s finest films, but it must stop being classified as a failure, an embarrassment, a miscalculation, and any other terms used to keep people from seeing it.