Fox // 1958 // 158 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Mark Van Hook (Retired) // May 19th, 2004
This story is based upon the life of Gladys Aylward, a woman of our time, who was, and is dedicated to the simple, joyful, and rare belief that we are all responsible for each other.
Fox once again dips into its archives and delivers one of its Studio Classics, this time a richly woven and often quite beautiful Ingrid Bergman star vehicle from 1958, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. Though not without its flaws (British thespian Robert Donat as a feudal Chinese warlord?), the Mark Robson-directed picture glides along on the strength of its handsomely mounted production design and the perfect marriage between its star and subject.
Bergman stars as Gladys Aylward, a real-life British missionary who, in the early 1930s, traveled to Northern China to evangelize the region. As the film begins, Aylward is in London, trying desperately to scrape together the funds for her passage to China, where she believes God has called her. Turned down by the China Missionary Society because of her lack of qualification (she has received only an ordinary education), she takes a job as a maid, and after weeks of work, is able to save up enough money for the passage, an arduous journey through Communist Russia.
Upon her arrival in Northern China, Aylward is, like most foreigners, labeled a "foreign devil," allowed to exist there only because of her gender and her lack of affiliation with a missionary organization. She comes into the service of Jeannie Lawson (Athene Seyler, Private Life of Don Juan), another unaffiliated missionary, and aids her in the startup of The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, a new venture in which travelers coming through their village will be given food and shelter accompanied by Bible stories, in hopes that they will go out and repeat the stories on their travels. Although the two are initially met with apathy, they are soon able to draw boarders to their tiny establishment, and the Inn becomes a success.
Tragedy strikes when Jeannie is killed in a fall from a second-story window, leaving Gladys to run the Inn with only the help of the cook, Yang (Peter Chong). Soon she is in dire financial trouble, almost to the point where she may be forced to close the Inn. Fortune smiles upon her in the form of the local warlord governing the village, the Mandarin (Robert Donat, Goodbye, Mr. Chips), who enlists Aylward as his "foot inspector" after he is forced by the Nationalist government to outlaw the ancient Chinese tradition of foot binding (a practice which consisted of young girls' feet being bound in order to stunt their growth).
Because of her gender (the men given the position were beaten by those men they tried to sway), Gladys is able to convince them to finally part ways with the tradition. Soon her stature throughout the region grows, and she becomes known as "the one who loves people." Just as Gladys is able to start making a difference, the Japanese invasion of Northern China threatens to tear down everything she has accomplished, and she is forced summon all of her faith to confront the horrors of China's changing political landscape.
The story of Gladys Aylward is ripe for cinematic treatment, and never more so than in the morally virtuous climate of 1950s Hollywood. With the encroaching threat of television, movies were becoming bigger, more lavish, and more expensive in an attempt to win back the TV audience. With the advent of Cinemascope (and widescreen cinema in general) in 1953's The Robe, religious epics were especially in vogue. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness isn't a religious epic per se -- it takes place in a contemporary setting -- but it does have much in common with those types of films: it's big, relatively expensive (for its time), and features a fiercely religious (Christian) woman as its central character. Though riddled with just the right amount of flaws to keep it from achieving true greatness, its virtues are enough to qualify it as inspiring entertainment all the same.
First and foremost among these virtues is Ingrid Bergman's performance -- for let's not forget, this was a star vehicle, as much as it was a biographical account. The film was made when Bergman was entering the later phase of her career, after garnering fame in a number of Italian and Hollywood productions in the 1930s and '40s. Though no longer the ingénue, this was a more mature but still luminous Bergman who by 1958 was still able to carry a lavish studio epic as well as anyone in the business. Her unique ability to display resounding courage in the face of adversity made her perfect for the part of Aylward (whose real life appearance, small and fiery, bore little resemblance to the tall, voluptuous Bergman), and this strength, combined with her radiant beauty, lifts the film through its more tedious patches. It shows that, even in 1958, long after Casablanca and Notorious, Bergman remained at the top of her game.
As previously mentioned, Inn's production design also warrants mention as one of the film's greatest successes. The film was beautifully shot in Wales (which makes a suitable stand-in for the rolling green hills of 1930s Northern China), where entire Chinese villages were constructed in only a few weeks time (after a bid to shoot on location in China was denied), and lends the setting a genuine feeling of authenticity, as do the interior design of both the Mandarin's palace (replete with Chinese tapestries) and the comparatively drab Inn. The authenticity of these surroundings gives us a great feeling for where and when Aylward lived, even when the script takes liberties with the specifics of her story.
Herein lies what could have been the film's greatest failure -- condensing roughly 18 years of Aylward's life into a span of six months. Fortunately, the script by Isobel Lennart, taken from Alan Burgess's Aylward biography "The Small Woman," is remarkably economical and, though it glosses over some aspects of her life and Hollywood-izes certain portions of the story, ends up being true to the spirit of this woman's life. For instance, the film's climactic event -- Aylward leading 100 children from their village through the war-torn countryside -- was only a footnote in the larger picture of her work in China, yet Lennart saw in it great potential for cinematic adaptability, and it ends up being a rather effective symbol of the overall achievement of her life. Though Lennart makes other concessions, such as the choice to eliminate Aylward's parents (a major force in her life), it's all in the interest of moving the story along as quickly as possible, which is absolutely essential for a 2-hour and 40-minute film.
Despite the overall success that Lennart achieves in making Aylward's story more palatable to movie audiences, she fails in one key instance, and that's in the romance that develops between Aylward and Col. Lin Nan (Curt Jurgens, The Spy Who Loved Me). Linn Nan, who in the film is portrayed as Eurasian (Chinese mother, Dutch father) when his real-life counterpart was fully Chinese, is a member of the Chinese Nationalist government who develops a fondness for Aylward that blossoms into a full-blown romance. In real life, no such romance took place, but it was perhaps inevitable that a screenwriter in the 1950s would see fit to include such an element. This would be acceptable, if the characters had any chemistry, but they don't, and though Bergman is certainly game, Jurgens is stiff as a board. We never fully believe in his love for Gladys, and when it comes time for them to fall into each other's arms, it feels like an afterthought, included for no other reason than that every film from the period had to include a romance. It's lazy filmmaking, and the story would have worked just as well, if not better, without it.
Another major problem in the film is in the casting of Robert Donat as the feudal Chinese warlord, the Mandarin. This would be Donat's final screen appearance (he died shortly after filming), and though he gives a genuinely heartfelt performance, there's just no getting past the fact that this is an English actor cast as Chinese. There's a laughable scene where the character is actually required to speak Chinese, and the dubbing is so obvious that it takes the viewer right out of the film (the rest of the film has all of the actors speaking in English, with the understanding in the audience that they're all supposed to be speaking Chinese). Donat wrings as much emotion as he can out of the performance, and his efforts are admirable, but it's as if they'd cast Tom Cruise in the Ken Watanabe role in The Last Samurai. It's a product of the era, and for me, it just doesn't work.
This ties directly into the film's final failing; some unfortunate racial stereotyping that no doubt arises from the era in which it was produced. The most egregious example is in the character of Yang, perhaps the most prominent Chinese character (other than the Mandarin) in the film. In life, Yang played an essential part in teaching Aylward Chinese, as well as in spreading her ministry. In the film, he's simply comic relief, the silly little Chinese man who makes us laugh and occasionally throws out words of wisdom. Those just discovering the film may cringe at such an obvious and offensive portrayal of a Chinese character, but hey, at least they didn't get Charlton Heston to play him.
In the end, nobody's going to mistake The Inn of the Sixth Happiness for a masterpiece, but it does enough right to make it one of the better large-scale entertainments of its era. Despite some major problems here and there, it looks great, and it's a terrific vehicle for the talents of Ingrid Bergman, who once again proves her ability to carry a film on her own shoulders was, and still is, second to none.
Fox's DVD of The Inn of The Sixth Happiness is number 10 in their Studio Classics line, and keeps up the standard of quality of earlier releases. The 2.35:1 Anamorphic transfer is bright and vibrant, taken from an attractive source print that starts off shakily, with some slight discoloration running throughout the first half hour or so, but which quickly rights itself and takes full advantage of the film's gorgeous visuals.
As is par for the course for Studio Classics, Fox has seen fit to include audio in both Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo as well as mono. Both tracks are crisp and clear, and serve to highlight Malcolm Arnold's lovely, albeit slightly repetitive, musical score. Tracks are also included in Spanish and French mono, and the disc features subtitles in English and Spanish.
The extras tend to adhere to a quality over quantity mentality, with the main draw being a commentary track featuring Bergman biographer Donald Spoto, Documentary Filmmaker Nick Redman, and Fox aficionado Aubrey Solomon. Truth be told, I wasn't exactly looking forward to hearing a commentary for a 2-hour, 40-minute historical drama about a British missionary, so imagine my surprise when I discovered that this is a rich, balanced, and wholly listenable track. Redman delivers details of the real-life Aylward, and is complemented by Spoto discussing Bergman's career and involvement, along with Solomon's details of the film's production. The weak link here is Spoto, who tends to be rather long-winded, and spends most of the time telling us how great Bergman was (he has a pretentious way of pronouncing her name "Behrg-Mahn," which, correct or not, gets annoying as hell). All in all, it's a great, informative listen, and the three contributors complement each other beautifully.
The only other extras of note here are a pair of Movietone Newsreels, which show clips from the film's New York and World Premieres. A restoration comparison is also included, and the original and Spanish theatrical trailers round out the supplements.
As a member of Fox's budget-priced Studio Classics line, there's very little here not worth recommending. Some bungled story elements aside, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is an inspirational and comprehensive account of the life of missionary Gladys Aylward, played with enormous zeal by the great Ingrid Bergman. Fans of the film should take heart in knowing that it has been given loving treatment on DVD, and everyone else is urged to consider at least a rental.
Not guilty on all counts. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2004 Mark Van Hook; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 158 Minutes
Release Year: 1958
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary by Nick Redman (Documentary Filmmaker), Aubrey Solomon (Co-Author of "The Films of 20th Century Fox") and Donald Spoto (Biographer of Ingrid Bergman)
* Restoration Comparison
* Movietone Newsreels
* Theatrical Trailer
* Spanish Trailer