Judge Clark Douglas yearns to preach the gospel of good cinema.
Our review of The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness, published May 19th, 2004, is also available.
Love had suddenly come to her under the China sky…love for this Eurasian soldier who now pressed his earthy, Oriental skin against her own…
Note: Yes, believe it or not, that was the film's actual tagline.
"You have to interfere with what you feel is wrong, if you hope to make it right."
Facts of the Case
For many years, Gladys Aylward (Ingrid Bergman, Casablanca) has been convinced that God has called her to serve as a missionary in China. Alas, her most recent attempt to secure such a position was rejected due to her lack of education. Determined to fulfill her calling by any means necessary, Aylward accepts a job as a missionary's assistant. When her employer passes away, Aylward picks up the torch and begins to make a huge impact on the lives of those around her. The local Mandarin (Robert Donat, The 39 Steps) appoints her as a "foot inspector," making her responsible for ensuring that the ban on the barbaric practice of binding young girls' feet is being enforced. Before long, Aylward has become a much-loved and respected figure. Her biggest challenge arrives when Japan invades China, and she is tasked with transporting 50 orphans to a neighboring province. Will her dangerous and challenging mission succeed?
All throughout its history, Hollywood has taken a fair amount of flack for the liberties it takes with perfectly compelling real-life stories. Filmmakers just can't resist the temptation to make a dramatic story just a little bit tidier, a little more formulaic, a little more easily digestible. Sure, P.L. Travers may have hated Mary Poppins, but that fact doesn't fit with the feel-good vibe of Saving Mr. Banks. Sure, William Wallace probably didn't impregnate a princess, but that didn't matter to the makers of Braveheart. Sure, George Armstrong Custer may not have been a selfless hero, but don't try telling that to the makers of They Died with Their Boots On. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness has a couple of things in common with all of the aforementioned flicks: it takes quite a few liberties with the life of its central character, and it manages to be a modestly engaging film regardless.
Aylward was reportedly horrified at the manner in which the film shoehorned a typical Hollywood romance into the mix, as she had led a particularly chaste life. She was also bothered by the fact that the tall, striking Bergman looked absolutely nothing like her. While the movie may get the broader details completely wrong, it does a fine job of capturing Aylward's resilient spirit and selfless attitude toward life. Bergman's sensitive, nuanced performance is just lovely—the film has a bit of fun at the expense of her stubbornness, but it's obvious that everyone involved (especially Bergman) has a great deal of admiration for Aylward. This is the sort of film that faith-based directors ought to study more often—it offers an affectionate tribute to a Christian character without ever turning too preachy or heavy-handed.
Alas, the movie falters a bit in its handling of the male leads. Curd Jurgens (Bitter Victory) plays General Lin Nan, Aylward's love interest. The film presents him as a half-European, half-Chinese character, but in real life he was entirely Chinese (yet another element of the film that Aylward was distressed by). At least Jurgens seems half-convincing (no pun intended) as a Eurasian, but the choice of Robert Donat to play the Mandarin is just ridiculous. Despite the fact that Donat's performance is warm and good-hearted, it's a pretty stereotypical "yellowface" performance that feels awfully close to Mickey Rooney's work in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Sadly, such things were par for the course in 1958. Never mind whether it's offensive, the performance just isn't believable. The Mandarin is a cartoonish comic relief character in an otherwise serious drama.
Director Mark Robson (who made this film directly between the melodramatic romance of Peyton Place and From the Terrace) keeps things moving at an appealing pace—the film goes by rather quickly despite its 158-minute running time. Malcolm Arnold's score sounds suspiciously similar to the work he did for Bridge on the River Kwai—like the casting, it's a bit too British—but it proves rather effective, anyway. The film employs some gorgeous locations and is never less than a pleasure on a visual level. Much of the dialogue is fairly engaging, and the ideas the film throws out are fairly progressive for a film of this age (it has no qualms with the idea of interracial romance, for instance).
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (Blu-ray) has received a solid 1080p/2.35:1 transfer. Most Cinemascope features have fared pretty well in hi-def, and this one is so exception. The gentle color palette has been well-captured, detail is excellent and depth is solid. There's impressively few scratches or flecks present given the film's age. The DTS HD 4.0 Master Audio mix is perfectly decent, preserving the lush score and dialogue quite nicely. Sound design is rarely immersive, but it's effective. Supplements are recycled from the previous DVD release: a commentary with Nick Redman, Aubrey Solomon and Donald Spoto, a newsreel clip and a trailer.
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is the sort of gentle epic that probably wouldn't get made today. A quiet (yet entertaining) character study presented on a large scale, it plays like one of David Lean's minor efforts. For Bergman's fine performance alone, it's worth a look.
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