The 1950s saw an uptick in movies located in China; I’m unsure as to the historical context behind this trend, so feel free to elucidate in the comments. With truncated historical background and outdated, borderline racist stereotypes, I always get nervous before popping in a classic film dealing with the Orient. After my issues with Love is a Many-Splendored Thing I expected The Inn of the Sixth Happiness to feature a backwards nation and the white savior who brings them from darkness into light. The movie touches on elements of that, but is a better experience due to a wonderful performance by Ingrid Bergman. The movie, at a prodigious 158-minutes, has its faults but at least tiptoes away from the more damning problems present in other movies of the era.
Englishwoman Gladys Aylward (Bergman) believes it’s her destiny to go to China. Once there she quickly takes to missionary work and works at the Inn of the Sixth Happiness. When Japan invades China, sparking war, Gladys becomes responsible for taking the city’s orphans over the mountains to safety.
Director Mark Robson and screenwriter Isobel Lennart have worked on some fantastic features, and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is a well-made film with superb art direction and an expansive focus. However, the runtime is overbearing, especially when it often feels like plots start and stop indiscriminately. The movie starts with Gladys being told she isn’t cut out for missionary work and struggling to earn her wages as a domestic. Just as you settle into that plot she gets the money, making on wonder how cheap it is to travel to China. All of that is unimportant once Gladys gets to China and starts going through the motions of what happens when white characters enter a foreign land.
Surprisingly, the movie eschews many of issues in typical white savior films by explaining them logically. The one character hip to the goings-on in China is Jeannie Lawson (Athene Seyler), the owner of the Inn. When Gladys returns after a day’s walk and unintentionally stumbles on a man being beheaded she declares the Chinese bloodthirsty. Jeannie asks her, pointedly, if hanging looks any better. Gladys can’t be surprised by the laws of the Chinese because she isn’t in England, people are different. It would have been easy to chalk the experience up to the “backward” Chinese, but the script is interested in humanizing both the Chinese and English characters.
However, there are as many 1950s Hollywood techniques to render the praise obsolete, unless you’re willing to chalk it up to “that’s how it was then.” British Robert Donat, in his final film role, plays the Mandarin elder, Yang Cheng, while Austrian actor Curd Jurgens plays Eurasian colonel, Lin Nan. The romance between Jurgens and Bergman is reminiscent of Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, if only because both feature Eurasian/English couples. Thankfully, neither actor puts on a Charlie Chan accent, and aside from a dark tan and Donat’s Fu Manchu beard, the stereotypes are limited to “Asian face.” There is, also, the subplot of Gladys’ Christianity and her desire to spread the word to the Asians. She starts by asking the women to stop binding their feet and eventually converts Yang Cheng. It is the one blatant instance of preaching to the converted in spite of the knowledge that Ayleward is a hero to the people of China.
Neither actor would sparkle on-screen if Bergman’s presence didn’t permeate every frame. In spite of the movie’s content, Bergman is eager to transform the character throughout the runtime. She isn’t the naive missionary who seeks out the Chinese to fulfill her own life, but because she feels compelled by God. She quickly acclimates to the Chinese way of life and remains firmly convinced she belongs and is, by proxy, a Chinese citizen. Her romance with Jurgens is a bit stiff, if only because Jurgens lacks the necessary bravado for the role. Once the plot turns into a struggle for Gladys to save the orphans, Bergman pulls herself up and her conviction and love for the children never ebbs. This is her movie for a reason.
20th Century Fox’s Blu-ray looks and sounds wonderful, although the bonus content is lacking compared to other Blu’s they’ve released. The highlight is an audio commentary with Nick Redman, Aubrey Soloman, and biographer Donald Spoto. All three sound like they’re in separate rooms and never interact, a common problem with these Blu-rays but understandable if they want to quickly get something on tape. Regardless, it’s an informative commentary touching on biographical issues and technical achievements. There’s also a brief Fox Movietone News feature and the movie’s trailer.
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is long and incredibly dated, but the dazzling performance by Bergman is a reason to check it out. It’s superior to Love is a Many-Splendored Thing due to a script willing to uncover the reasons for our differences. The movie’s twists and turns never feel properly explained, but this is Bergman’s picture and she turns the tide how she wants.