The Duke does Diplomacy
As John Wayne movies go "The Barbarian and the Geisha" is a bit of a misfit because to put it simply it's not what you expect from a John Wayne movie. Oh there is a scene where he gets into a bit of a fist fight which leads to a bit of slapstick but beyond that this isn't a big domineering John Wayne performance yet it still works. And aside from it being a John Wayne movie well it is a historical movie based upon Townsend Harris the first US Diplomat in Japan but it's not a big epic historical drama, in fact it is quite low key and I would hazard a guess not 100% factual but again it still works. There is just something about this tale of Harris and the objections he battled coupled with a relationship he forms with a Geisha girl which is simply entertaining.
Having arrived in Japan under the orders of President Pierce to serve as U.S. Consul-General ,Townsend Harris (John Wayne - The Searchers) and his assistant Henry Heusken (Sam Jaffe - The Day the Earth Stood Still) is immediately met with opposition from Governor Tamura (SÃ´ Yamamura) who refuses to acknowledge his political presence but allows him to stay as a guest. But alongside the Governor's refusal to acknowledge his position Harris also finds plenty of other issues as he is not allowed to buy food and suffers from mockery. Yet it is through Geisha Okichi (Eiko Ando) he begins to make headway as they become close friends.
So to those who have arrived here having read other of my movie reviews will know I am no historian but knowing this is a Hollywood take on a historical event I feel pretty sure in saying it is not authentic. As such it is best to approach "The Barbarian and the Geisha" as an interpretation of what happened in 1856 when Townsend Harris arrived in Japan and faced plenty of opposition to him being there. And as such it works because you do see that the locals were frightened of him and the American items he brought with him and you also see that life was difficult when the Governor ordered locals to avoid him. As such whether the incident with a ship suffering from Cholera happened, as is depicted in the movie, it does show how he then manages to win over the locals in the village he stayed.
Now this is definitely not your typical John Wayne sort of movie and it is one of the most restrained performances I have watched from the Duke as the majority of the movie he spends being diplomatic. As such it is sort of strange when he is ordered to take down the American flag and does so with the minimum of objection yet at the same time it feels right for a man out numbered in a foreign country. There are still those typical John Wayne moments which sneak in and a fist fight which ends with a comedy outcome is totally typical of a John Wayne movie but they are kept to a minimum.
Now some may say that John Wayne was wrongly cast in the role and in a sense of authenticity that may be the case but he brings something to the role which to me feels just right. That something comes in the second storyline surrounding the relationship which forms between Harris and Okichi which first up I have to say that Eiko Ando who plays Okichi does a wonderful job of making her feel real. The thing which Wayne brings is a sense of fatherly affection, you get a real sense that Harris's feelings towards Okichi stem from more than just physical and the tenderness in the way Wayne interacts with Ando is lovely even sweet.
It is very much the chemistry between Wayne and Ando which makes "The Barbarian and the Geisha" quite beautiful but there is also fun to be hand thanks to Sam Jaffe as Harris's assistant Henry Heusken. There is something amusing about the way Jaffe plays Heusken, a bit of a cheeky chappy who always has a smile on his face which means whilst their is no great interaction between Wayne and Jaffe his demeanour makes up for it.
What this all boils down to is that for me "The Barbarian and the Geisha" is an often overlooked John Wayne movie because it is so different to what people expect. Yet his restrained performance and the tenderness in the scenes he shares with Eiko Ando are simply quite beautiful.