John Wayne and Eiko Ando in a scene from The Barbarian and the Geisha.
In 1856, at a time when Japan has closed its doors to foreigners, diplomat Townsend Harris (John Wayne) is sent to serve as America’s consul general and help open trade between East and West. Arriving in the port city of Shimoda, Harris and his interpreter (Sam Jaffe) are shunned by the populace and the local leaders. Soon Harris begins to make some small progress. But when passing American sailors jump off a cholera ship and bring devastation to Shimoda, Harris’s task begins to look hopeless.
The slow pace of the film is unexpected from someone like director John Huston (who later disavowed the final cut). And Wayne seems uncomfortable with the forced nature of the script’s formal 19th-century manner of speech. The reviews were less than stellar. Variety called the film visually pleasing, but opined "it seldom touches the heart." The New York Times said Wayne "appears a little bewildered and repressed, being much more accustomed to action." And The Saturday Review was ruthless in its estimation: "Pointless falsification of history... John Wayne and Sam Jaffe embarrassing..." The fear of an epidemic arriving on the shores of a civilization, and the reaction of the people, are, however, very germane to the time at which we write this (July 2020), which at least gives the film some currency it might not otherwise have. The filmed-in-Japan locations make this watchable.
Featured actors: John Wayne, Eiko Ando, Sam Jaffe, and Sô Yamamura
Screenplay by Charles Grayson
Based on a story by Ellis St. Joseph
Directed by John Huston
Produced and distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox
Release date: September 30, 1958