The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is one of those older, well-regarded films I’d put on my list to see “sometime.” Sometime turned out to be last night, and since I didn’t really know much about the film, many of the surprises of the true story were part of the enjoyment.
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is the “based on true events” story (I can’t in good conscience call it a “true story”) about Gladys Aylward, a British maid who felt called by God to be a missionary to China. Obstacles ensue, of course, but she manages with great difficulty (that the film papers over) to get to China in time to learn the language, become a Chinese citizen, meet a man that may or may not have been more than a friend, and to help a huge group of children get to safety in the middle of the Japanese war with China (1937 to 1945).
The film was nominated for Best Director Mark Robson, who, ironically, had been nominated the year before for the quite opposite Peyton Place (he’d also directed Champion, Bright Victory, and The Harder They Fall.) It’s an epic that falls easily in look and production among the large-scale productions of the period, such as The Robe, The Ten Commandments, and Ben-Hur, though the central story is much smaller and focused, and the background is a foreign field and a foreign war rather than the Exodus or the beginning of Christianity. It’s in CinemaScope, which adds to the visual scope, but the non-Technicolor color hasn’t survived well over the years.
What it gets wrong: The production is simply too big and grand for the story. The story is grittier, smaller, and stronger than what the film portrays. The film is far too long at 2 hours and 38 minutes—and this in 1958. The film broadens at the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war, and rather quickly becomes something of a war epic followed by a combination Great Escape/Journey film. It works, but just barely.
The real Gladys was a short, dark-haired, Cockney-accented woman, and the book the film was based on was entitled The Small Woman. None of these make anyone automatically think of the tall, Swedish Ingrid Bergman, but Bergman was a star and could hold a film like this as few could. The central personage of a film narrative like this needs to be strong and demanding of attention. My guess is that Aylward was the former and nothing of the latter; Bergman was both. Bergman continues the good news/bad news of her casting with her performance. No one suffers on film or swoons as beautifully and romantically as Bergman, and she shares with fellow Swede Garbo that slightly removed, “floating above it all” flavor that gives her an otherworldly air. Fortunately, we’re not in Gaslight or Notorious territory here, and that performance is set against a set of difficult circumstances that ground her work here.
The film, like all others, is also a reflection of its time, and not only in its slightly bloated production. The key male in the story was Chinese, and here is portrayed by Curt Jurgens, who is German and has been changed into a supposed half-Chinese, half-Dutch officer. He looks as Chinese as Bergman, and it’s distracting, to say the least. The other male lead is supposed to be completely Chinese, and is played by the ailing English actor Robert Donat (The 39 Steps, Goodbye, Mr. Chips), who died during production. He is made to look as Asian as possible, but since Donat is 1) not Asian, and 2) a major star of the time, it’s also distracting now, though less so than Jurgen’s character. Since casting Asians as Asians is still an issue, we can just look upon the casting here as typical of its time. What’s also intriguing is the love interest in the film, which falls somewhere between romantically almost believable and shoehorned into an otherwise romance-less story (Aylward insisted that she had never kissed a man.) Apparently, it was OK to place a romance into a story where there wasn’t one, but heaven forbid it be between a Swedish-looking supposed Englishwoman and a genuinely full-blooded Chinese.
What the film gets right: What the film gets right makes up for all the things it gets wrong. It’s a Hollywood version of a missionary, but while presenting Aylward as strong and capable, it also shows her as stubborn and occasionally difficult, leading to a more well-rounded characterization. Even better is that unlike most mainstream films of today, there is a great deal of accuracy and respect shown to her faith. Opposition abounds of course, as it would for any missionary, be it on a personal or societal level. But there are people whose faith takes hits and never waivers, and there are people led by a genuine call of God. In the world of this film, Christianity is real, and powerful, and occasionally quite effective in accomplishing deeds great and small.
The film also succeeds in not doing the typical Hollywood dance around the key issues of a missionary. The goal is to bring people to faith, and the film doesn’t back away from that. One might call the climax of the film the (spoiler alert) successful rescue of scores of children over difficult terrain, but in some ways the climax comes somewhat earlier when (another spoiler alert) the Mandarin (Donat’s character) becomes a Christian, and Aylward bursts into tears of joy that don’t subside quickly. For a true Christian, the genuine conversion of a soul is on a par with the rescue that follows, and the case can easily be made that they are two fruits of the same heart and work. I can’t recall seeing a mainstream Hollywood film of that era, except perhaps for a few moments at the end of Ben-Hur, that not only respects faith, but gets it so right in its presentation.
The film is slow, and could easily have been 45 minutes shorter. The traveling at the end gets a bit long and dragged out, as so a few of the other sequences. And oh, the music: overdone, overloud, and though typical of its time for big-budget productions, a distraction. Yet in the middle of the noise and the scope is a story that gets more right than wrong at its essence, and is, in spite of itself at times, genuinely inspiring.