When Henry King’s Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing (1955) had its world premiere the Los Angeles Herald Examiner justly proclaimed “rarely has the screen given us a sensitive love story told with such delicate grace.” Indeed – producer Buddy Adler’s quintessential romance is also an ode to his own deeply felt probing and profoundly explorative themes of culture clash and forbidden love. In the intervening decades this movie has remained much beloved by audiences, the sincerity in its storytelling rivaled by its tone poem quality. This draws a parallel between the lives we are forced to live and those we sincerely long for in our fiction, too far removed from reality to ever truly be ours – at least, for very long. The film’s protagonist, Eurasian doctor, Han Suyin (Jennifer Jones) instinctively knows that fate and love are a thorny twine that clings, yet tears at the heart; her more pragmatic lover, U.S. war correspondent Mark Elliot (William Holden) unaccustomed to the prophetic superstitions of the Far East and thus weary to believe in the repercussions that have been set against their own chances for everlasting happiness.
Superficially, Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing is a love story, ravishingly bedecked in its Asian silks and some truly stunning location cinematography in Hong Kong – circa 1949 (actually 1954). Immediately following the pomp and circumstance of the studio’s trademark fanfare (orchestrated in improved 4 track stereo no less) the camera opens on a breathtaking aerial panorama of Repulse Harbor and cluttered ramshackle of Hong Kong’s British colony, wedged up against steep escarpments and bathed in a majestic blue haze. This resplendent introduction is caught expansive within Fox’s patented Cinemascope widescreen frame and luridly brought to life in color by DeLuxe. The slow descend into the crowded city streets, following an ambulance frantically racing up the tight and winding road to its hilltop hospital, siren momentarily drowning out Alfred Newman’s iconic score, sets up a conflict from within. John Patrick’s screenplay does not shy away from the story’s subtext; the segregated attitudes toward the locals – and even more directly – against Eurasians whose half-caste is barely tolerated by colonialist snobberies.
No, Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing offers the viewer an extraordinary diverse palette from the get-go, but particularly within the conventions of its ‘traditional’ love story. The real Han Suyin (born of Flemish/Chinese background as Rosalie Matilda Kuanghu Chow, who wrote her semi-biographical novel under the pen name, Elizabeth Comber) tells her tale simply, yet thought-provokingly. Suyin has based the novel on her own real-life experiences with foreign journalist Ian Morrison. Yet, Suyin, like King, Patrick and Adler, spares us the triteness of what might so easily have devolved into a maudlin and prosaic affair. Her love is not boastful or even richly orchestrated, but told from the vantage of a genuine heartache and loss. We feel the story in our bones perhaps even before it begins, caught deep and full-bodied in the strains of Alfred Newman’s exuberant, yet bittersweet underscoring. This never fails to enthrall and, in fact, is instantly recognizable even after only hearing a few bars for the very first time; becoming a part of our own DNA as well as the film’s tapestry of life.
Han Suyin is a widowed doctor come from China to intern at the hospital in Hong Kong; determined to keep her heart locked away, while staunchly unashamed of her Eurasian parentage. She meets a man who will change her mind but also unintentionally break her heart, Mark Elliot – the foreign correspondent come to the house party given by Adeline Palmer-Jones (Isobel Elsom) whose own husband is, in fact, indulging in an affair with Suzanne (Jorja Curtright); a former schoolgirl acquaintance of our good doctor. Unlike Han, Suzanne has made every attempt to mask her mixed breeding from the world, proudly telling Han that she can ‘pass for white’ – a masquerade sure to come in handy when the Chinese come to invade Hong Kong and reclaim its British territories. In the backdrop there is also the Korean conflict – more like a premonition than a blimp on the radar of world events just yet – but destined to play a pivotal role in Han and Mark’s love affair.
Despite her medical training and pragmatic approach to love, Han Suyin is also driven by ancient Chinese superstitions that seem to dictate her joy and foreboding; a butterfly landing on the shoulder of her beloved, as example, signifies ‘a good omen’ for their future, as do two beetles following one another into a tiny box at a Chinese fortune tellers. Suyin tells Mark that she wants to hear prophetically beautiful lies; and indeed, she is told exactly what she want to hear by the mystic; all about a long life together in a large house with fifteen children (pared down to four when Mark sympathetically inquires, “How many?!?”). Suyin is wise, but also smart enough to know exactly how far she can trust herself. After a noonday swim to the house of friends segues into a moonlit pas deux along the beachhead (the lighting of two cigarettes with one flame herein an ever so slight variation on the iconic and fondly recalled moment pilfered from 1942’s Now Voyager) Han tells Mark, “I have decided one thing. You will have to decide for what is right for us.” When he suggests that she is the stronger one she astutely points out that he is kind, and there is no greater strength of character on this earth than compassion.
The film might have luxuriated in such memorable platitudes to the point of absurdity as, in point of fact, there are many memorable lines to crib from. We are spared the indignation of this treacle by William Holden and Jennifer Jones’ supremely understated performances; her remoteness an illusion put up to guard against a wounded heart and the impeccable compliment to Holden’s unimpeded ‘congenial’ desire that lulls yet lures at the same time. Early on in this magnetic and most unusual affair Mark asks if he can see Suyin again to which she, having mistakenly assessed his motives as purely sexual, politely replies “I think not.” It takes Mark only a moment to respond, “I think so,” before bidding Suyin goodnight, his air of confidence itself a mask to conceal how wounded he has been in his first marriage to a woman who we never see but whom we are led to believe has been shrewish, controlling and manipulative in her own contrivances to bar Mark from discovering true happiness with anyone else.
The romance that is at the crux of Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing is buffeted by a sort of stately exoticism; perhaps Adler and Partick’s way of skirting around the production code’s cautioning Fox over Han and Mark’s extra-marital affair. He is married, remember? And then, of course, there is the troublesome veil of miscegenation to blunt – nervously acknowledged within the code but barely tolerated by everyone in the film except our protagonists. Suyin’s colleague, Dr. Sen (Kam Tong) is vehemently opposed to her remaining in Hong Kong simply to be near Mark. China is on the move and presumably on the march toward what he misperceives to be a brighter future. Yet Sen exhibits an almost counter-colonialist attitude toward the British. As already stated, Mrs. Palmer-Jones makes no bones about where she stands, suggesting to Suyin that her husband – the managing director of the hospital - might find it ‘difficult’ to renew Suyin’s passport, and therefore her stay in Hong Kong, should her rumored affair with Mark continue.
Even Suyin’s third uncle (Philip Ahn) is modestly opposed to their relationship – particularly when Mark arrives unexpectedly in the dead of night to propose marriage to Suyin. Third Uncle and the rest of Suyin’s family proceed to give her trinkets of jade – the belief that the stone carries with it the essence of the person who has worn it. This is a symbolic gesture. But it also illustrates for Suyin and the audience that in choosing Mark she must give up something of herself. Henceforth, her Chinese half will have to be contented with mere reminders from without of the past – the jade she is now meant to carry with her from now on.
If anything, the Chinese sentiment sprinkled throughout the movie remains a mirror image of the imperialist snobbery toward the indigenous culture over which they preside yet curiously consider from a rather emotionless vantage as ‘foreign’ or ‘the other’. In many ways this thematic subtext foreshadows the big screen version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific (1958); or perhaps simply augments the already ingrained popular consciousness put forth in the Broadway original, wowing audiences since 1949.
Of all the studios that might have considered making Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing, perhaps no other was as well-suited to the task as 20th Century-Fox; a studio whose track record for acquiring novels of hard-hitting and progressive substance and realism had dealt a moral compass and social conscience onto the palette of popular entertainment almost from the start and that, by 1955, was legendary. Adler’s commitment to seeing as much of Han Suyin’s prose bravely interpreted for the Cinemascope screen yields a commendable entertainment as varied and magnificent as the performances wrought by Jennifer Jones and William Holden.
Together they remain the epitome of chaste, unaffected love – at least on the screen. But watch carefully. When Jones’ Han emotes Holden’s Mark is still and vice versa, their never-entirely aligned joys and sorrows exaggerated by the discourse of what’s not being said between them. The conflict of the caste system is slowly tearing Mark and Suyin apart even as they are hypnotically drawn into each other’s arms. This balancing act is really quite remarkable; extraordinary even, because it provides the ultimate glimpse into a pair of lovers never more allied than when they are forced apart. Holden’s voice-over narration after Mark’s death, and presumably derived from his letters to Suyin, who keeps hearing them over and over again in her head, creates an emotional bridge to a lost horizon bound to no earthly destination of time or space.
Behind the scenes it was an entirely different story. Perhaps frustrated by her own stagnated career and two lost opportunities helmed by her impresario husband, David O. Selznick, Jennifer Jones was often caustic and hostile on the set and infrequently more than displeased with her costar’s penchant for using charm to have his way with his leading ladies. Miraculously none of this backstage vinegar seeps into her performance; but instead creates a rarified ‘chemistry’ that has forever since translated into an intangible substance and blueprint of what real romance is all about – or at least, thought to be.
The tragedy for Mark and Han is, of course, that their love of many-splendored things will not endure; its brief flourish almost immediately stifled by Mark’s wife who, off camera emphatically refuses to grant him a divorce, and later by the penultimate blow; Mark’s premature death while covering the Korean conflict near the front lines. In an age where special effects and graphic make-up applications have all but brutalized moviegoers with images of varying grotesqueness that leave absolutely nothing to the imagination (we who have come to expect nothing better from our movie art than the big reveal), Mark’s death is handled with remarkable restraint, and yet simultaneously a supreme ornamentation of cinematic storytelling; the swell of Alfred Newman’s score suddenly slipped into a profound silence, and then the deafening noise of a bomber descending and very brief glimpse of its torpedoes falling from the sky. These snapshots are juxtaposed with an image of a small bowl of bright red paint being knocked off Han’s worktable by her young charge Oh-No (Candace Lee) onto a rather drab tan rug; its garish splatter succinctly telling us what it will take Suyin a few more scenes to know – that her dream of their life together is at an end.
In all Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing remains a grand and glorious excursion into the nucleus of an impossible romance without even a hint of sexual explicitness, apart from a few chaste kisses and one semi-erotic clinch in the tall grasses overlooking the harbor. But these are not meant to titillate or even reinforce the obvious, rather to simultaneously satisfy the ticket buyers and code of screen censorship. The satisfaction is extremely well-placed and…well…satisfying. Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing deploys its potency not with a passionate tearing of the flesh, but a sincere embracement of the viewer’s heart and mind; its understated grace made ripe with the tang of a bitter, though always candid sweetness that undoubtedly and forever more was meant to remain a very splendored thing indeed.
The same is true of Twilight Time’s Limited Edition Blu-ray; a positively gorgeous affair from first to last and a vast improvement on the way this film has looked on home video. Gone is the chronic anemic palette of washed out colors. What we get is a vibrant restored hi-def presentation that is probably very close in keeping with the original look of Leon Shamroy’s sumptuous hues. Flesh tones are greatly improved, though on occasion can still look a tad too orange. The refinement in fine details is a minor revelation. Everything pops as it should; the shimmering coral green and pumpkin seed orange silks Han Suyin wears, the dashing tweeds and browns of Mark’s attire, the vibrant greens in vegetation. All of it comes to life in new and unexpected ways to heighten the mood of an already thrilling masterwork. A few shots belie the rear projection inserts and some exhibit a slightly heavier grain structure than the rest of the movie. But on the whole everything looks as it should.
The DTS 5.1 audio will really give your speakers a workout. Alfred Newman’s robust underscoring is a feast, richly explored within the movie’s soundtrack, but even more meaningfully represented as an isolated score, along with the original audio commentary recorded for the DVD by noted historians Jon Burlingame, Sylvia Stoddard and Michael Lonzo. Regrettably, Twilight Time’s Blu-ray leaves the memorable A&E Biography on William Holden on the cutting room floor: a pity because we aren’t likely to get this released anywhere else. I am not entirely certain why Twilight Time’s discs continue to omit extras included on Fox’s DVD’s – but I will presume it has something to do with third party licensing. Bottom line: This Blu-ray easily bests Fox’s old DVD. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)