One need only look to any American movie made within the last decade or two to realize the focus and purpose of cinematic storytelling has experienced a seismic shift away from its more classical roots, and arguably, not for the better. Movies, particularly those made between the 1930’s and late 1960’s were centralized within a singular belief; to draw the audience into their fantastical worlds of escapism. Some more contemporary critics have since labeled these byproducts from golden age Hollywood as both myopic and ethnocentric. Like all liberalized criticism ascribed to the more stringently conservative arts, primarily conceived from a white middle-European viewpoint, this postscript is neither made from an astutely educated, fitting nor even accurate perspective; merely, one intended to skew and misconstrue the purpose of the art itself to bolster an aged crust of prejudice against it. Movies then catered, not only to our collective dreams, but also served as templates, as well as reflections on our own aspirations and intrinsic desire to make sense of both the past and, then, present. As an audience, we partook in the fantasy with a suspension of disbelief.
Movies from the 1950’s onward became increasingly lush and exotic globe-trotting adventures, partly to satisfy the influx of returning G.I.’s after WWII who knew something of the world away from home, but also, to offset the threat of television by proving to their audience the movies were bigger and better than ever. Yet, here was a world not to be found in nature; chocked full of high-minded principles, made not only digestible, but queerly and palpably entertaining: rich in their emotional content, social significance and undeniably - and more readily – unrequited romantic view of life, both at home and abroad. Then as now, movies remain portholes of promise into 'another' world beyond our own picket fences. However, unlike today’s movie land milieu, ominously devoted to people behaving badly, the landscape then was populated with examples of humanity striving to better itself. It seems simplistic in retrospect to suggest all movies made back then were invested in the joie de vivre so utterly absent from our present-day movie culture. Yet, there is little to deny their enveloping presence when projected onto expansive curved screens. Movies used to stir our emotions in unexpected ways. They took hold of our hearts, as well as our imaginations and were a comfort, as much dedicated to cultural enrichment as designed to seemingly and effortlessly entertain.
What we experience at the cinema today is increasingly an abomination of this past: movies meant to expel the audience from their apocalyptic and malfunctioning dystopias. We can no longer relate to the characters on the screen. They speak in a sort of clumsy pontification of self-serving truths, where actions – frequently at the point of some loaded weapon, speak infinitely louder than words; our ‘protagonists’ rarely interacting with other characters in meaningful ways. And their reactions to even the most benign situations are generally foreign to the audience too. The hand-held image appearing on the screen indoctrinates with a bombastic cacophony accompanied by ear-shattering chaos. We are overwhelmed and anesthetized by this artistic vacuum into a sort of disturbingly complete detachment. Where once the movies could be counted upon to satisfy most any void in our lives we now find these windows onto other worlds not so much an impression meant to fire the imagination but rather playing as reconstituted facsimiles of an alternative-reality in which none of us would care to reside. What is left to digest is bloodless and disturbing; a series of arguably impressive visuals (most rendered in a computer), startlingly remote and antiseptic and generally unrepresentative of life as we know it or would wish it to be.
This gestalt in movie-making has been the greatest tragedy to befall the American movie-going experience for almost twenty years now; a complete implosion of the medium’s ability to provide tangible interaction between the character on the screen with the people sitting in the dark – now, arguably, ‘left’ in the dark. As it stands, movies have been distilled into nothing greater than ‘dumb show’. They neither effectively manipulate nor communicate an emotional response neither do modern filmmakers show a sincere interest to inspire such a reaction. Part of the problem herein lies with characterization and the absence of real stars to feed the machinery of movie art; writers’ and actors’ unable to achieve what is laughingly disdained and abhorred today as ‘artistry’. The movies have forsaken glamor – alright. Must they equally take umbrage to, and starve us of the need to believe in any shred of presentation value viewed for its cultural merit, flooding and consuming us in their pantheons of chaos? Today’s movies have forgotten, or rather, misplaced a fundamental truth in the film-maker’s canon: that frequently the most extraordinary among us is not someone who possesses incredible affluence or freakish physical strength; not even, a sage lauding vast storehouses of sacred knowledge over the rest; but rather someone who has an intuitive will to succeed, whatever the odds. Unquestioning devotion to a dream – and the positive impact it might have upon the rest of the world – these were essential ingredients that went into the making of the great American movies from the past – particularly, those conceived throughout the 1950’s. More directly, they are the threads woven into the tapestry of Mark Robson’s The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958).
Gladys Aylward was an extraordinary woman; a youngish spinster of no remarkable upbringing, whose fervent desire to become a missionary and do God’s work became so resolute within every fiber of her being, she managed to defy not only the classicism in Britain’s caste system, but also challenge the formal institutions that ought to have embraced her sacrifice as a true believer of the faith; and this at a time when women were readily discouraged to partake in the advantages afforded their male counterparts. Isobel Lennart’s screenplay miraculously condenses Aylward’s equally remarkable journey into a manageable entertainment; a rare gift for narrative concision that most screenwriter’s utterly lack today. Her efforts are based on Alan Burges’ biography, ‘The Small Woman’; a rather idyllic account of Aylward’s harrowing trek from Britain, through Russian into war-ravaged China.
That The Inn of the Sixth Happiness’ 158 minute run time sanitizes many of the extreme hardships Aylward endured during her eighteen years as a Chinese missionary (initially spurned by the locals, who spit on her as a ‘foreign devil’; severely beaten, tortured and starved by the advancing Red Army, grown ill and ravaged by various viral infections contracted in these extremely impoverished and unsanitary conditions, and ultimately suffering from the onset of dementia that conquered her predecessor, Jeannie Lawson) is thoroughly in keeping with Hollywood’s then high-minded approach to telling biographical tales, very loosely based on actual events. In point of fact, Lennart’s screenplay gets so much of the details about Gladys Aylward’s life right, capturing the essence of her unique and unconquerable spirit we can almost forgive the artistic licenses taken along the way.
Lest we forget this is Hollywood’s version of the truth; made glossy and fragrant with sumptuous production design by John Box and Geoffrey Drake, exquisitely lensed by veteran cinematographer, Freddie Young who transforms the rolling green hills of England and Wales into a sublime backdrop, effectively mimicking Manchuria and rural China. Originally, the plan had been to shoot The Inn of the Sixth Happiness partially in China. However, when negotiations between 2oth Century-Fox’s producer, Buddy Adler and the Chinese government repeatedly stalled an executive decision was made to lens the entire film on the British Isles. To a large extent, this movie magic trickery achieves its verisimilitude, despite the obvious differences in vegetation and climate. In fact, I defy the layman to pick out a moment where The Inn of the Sixth Happiness lacks in authenticity. Difficulties with Cinemascope lenses and film stocks aside, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness had a relatively smooth incubation, immeasurably aided by the participation of one of the screen’s most unassuming treasures: Ingrid Bergman. Bergman, whose career in America had stalled after a much publicized – and rather notorious – affair with Italian director, Roberto Rossellini, was persona non grata in America until her triumphant return in Fox’s Anastasia (1956). Besieged by reporters to explain herself Bergman instead made no apology for her indiscretions abroad, choosing to acknowledge her failed marriage to Rossellini as ‘just one of those things’. Anastasia’s smashing success gave Fox the courage to offer its star an exceptional opportunity; a five picture contract at roughly a million dollars per movie. Despite her own financial difficulties (she was practically penniless), Bergman declined this sizable generosity, encouraging Buddy Adler to come to her with one picture at a time; properties she could choose for herself without the indentured servitude of an ironclad contract hanging over her head. Adler chose very wisely in offering Bergman The Inn of the Sixth Happiness; providing his star with the sort of headstrong, but benevolent and wise, if self-sacrificing, heroine she had made her own throughout the 1940’s.
The real Gladys Alyward was hardly pleased. In fact, owing to her own misunderstandings of Bergman – as both an artist and a woman – Alyward took it upon herself to write a rather scathing letter to the actress, denouncing her on both fronts with bitter vitriol. It must have stung. But Bergman was resolved to play Alyward. And so Isobel Lennart’s screenplay took great pains to present Bergman as an outwardly demure but inwardly steadfast woman with a spark of fire kindling inside her heart. The liberties taken along the way are few and largely forgivable; factual excisions in service of telling a good story. First, the film effectively condenses almost eight years of Alyward’s life, a period in which she worked ‘in service’ for, among others, Sir Francis Jamison (Ronald Squires), into three or four introductory scenes of spurious background.
In the film, after some initial apprehensions, Sir Francis becomes something of a benevolent catalyst, setting Gladys upon her destiny with all the pride, if nervous reservations, of a beloved patriarch. In reality, Jamison had little contact or interest in Gladys outside the formalities of their employer/employee associations. The film does, however, get the moment right when Gladys is caught sneaking historical volumes on China out of Sir Francis’ library up to her room to learn all she can about her place of destiny. In the process of developing these sequences, Lennart’s screenplay also ignores Gladys’ parents who were the real emotional support in this young girl’s life. Lennart’s screenplay also plumps up the relationship between Gladys and Capt. Lin Nan (Curt Jurgens); a Eurasian in the movie but of genuine Chinese heritage in real life. In life, Gladys harbored some feelings for Lin Nan and vice versa. But in the movie these are transformed into an ongoing, passionate and affecting romance, prompting the real Gladys Alyward to comment, that in her own life she had never ‘played a love scene’.
To some extent, Alyward’s opinion of Bergman and the movie were colored by her years of suffrage; a greatly weakened body effectively making her a prisoner of her own mind. Alyward’s journey from Britain through Russia, Manchuria and finally China is glossed over to get to the meatier part of our story. In fact, Alyward was arrested in Russia by the Soviet’s high command, then determined to detain any foreigner whom they believed possessed a skillset that could be exploited by the newly instituted communist regime to rebuild their nation. What was Gladys’ skill? Well, the Soviets misread her passport and thought she was a machinist – not a missionary. Indeed, Gladys’ trek across the wilderness to get to Tientsin might have served as compelling fodder for an entirely different movie, or even a prequel yet to be told.
So too, does The Inn of the Sixth Happiness tend to present Gladys’ assimilation at the mission run by Jeannie Lawson (Athene Seyler) as something of a communal love-in between employer and protégé. In reality, Lawson was curmudgeonly, stubborn and suffering from the first signs of dementia; prone to cantankerous outbursts and occasional violence. At one point, Lawson actually fired, then exiled Gladys from the mission. Lawson then went to do work in remote towns, before dying of injuries sustained in a perilous fall from a balcony. Isobel Lennart retains the pretext of this latter accident, but sets it inside the mission with Gladys attending her predecessor as a comfort moments before her untimely death. These alterations are, for all intent and purpose, meant to impact our mounting appreciation for Bergman’s character. For in reshaping the grittier truths, Lennart has made both the story and Gladys more appealing to the audience; celebrating admirable objectives of self-sacrifice.
The middle act to The Inn of the Sixth Happiness marginally falters as Gladys becomes the spokeswoman for the Mandarin of Yang Cheng (Robert Donat). He first commands that she be his emissary against the barbaric custom of foot-binding. Later, the Mandarin sends Gladys in the midst of a dangerous prison riot. She manages to successfully quell the uprising with words of devoted kindness. For her efforts Gladys is bestowed the moniker, Geni – the one who empathizes – and is given unfettered access to the Mandarin’s inner council; an authority the real Gladys never received. The real Gladys and the Mandarin did, in fact, attain a level of mutual respect. But the movie plays up their friendship considerably and, in one of the movie’s best recalled moments, Gladys bids the Mandarin a teary farewell. The moment, while fictionalized, is fraught with more immediate sadness. For co-star, Robert Donat was quietly ailing from cancer and soon to die; Bergman’s gentle words of departure taking on double meaning; her expressed sorrow heartfelt for the actor she greatly admired as both a talent and a very good friend.
Our story begins in London, England; Gladys(Ingrid Bergman) getting off a train to pursue her dreams of becoming a missionary in China. She is rather coolly rejected from pursuing this vocation by the China Mission’s spokesman, Dr. Robinson (Moultrie Kelsall) due to her lack of formal education. Robinson does, however, take pity on her and thereafter secures Gladys a maid’s position within Sir Francis’ (Ronald Squires) home. Francis, who has been to China and is considered something of an authority, discourages Gladys from her dream, but later resolves to write to his old missionary friend, Jeannie Lawson (Athene Seyler) when he sees the girl’s will cannot be broken. Over the next few months, Aylward is depicted saving her pennies and frequenting a local travel agency, all the while adding to her passage on the Trans-Siberian railway, undeniably the most perilous overland route to the East because of Russia’s then civil unrest. Understandably, the journey is also less expensive.
We all but bypass the trek through Russia with a rather comic scene involving the Red Army and a commissar who cannot understand Gladys’ purpose on the train. Once in China, Gladys quickly locates both the town of Yang Cheng and her contact, veteran missionary; the benevolent, Jeannie Lawson. In reality, Gladys became lost and searched for Lawson for days. Lawson has already established an inn of the sixth happiness (in reality, the ‘eighth’ happiness) for weary travelers and merchants. For a modest stipend, the muleteers get a hot meal and recitations of stories from the Christian Bible. The first third of The Inn of the Sixth Happiness charts Gladys’ acculturation to the Chinese and vice versa; her initial exposure to a public execution; being chased through the streets as a ‘foreign devil’, and learning the language with the aid of the inn’s converted Christian-Chinese cook, Yang (Peter Chong). It is at the inn where Gladys first meets Capt. Lin Nan (Curt Jurgen); a Eurasian solider who is on good terms with the local Mandarin (Robert Donat) and in the service of Chiang Kai-shek.
When Jeannie suffers a fatal fall from the inn’s balcony, Gladys is summoned to the Mandarin’s house. She misinterprets his command as a favor, to act as his Foot Inspector, thus ensuring the tortuous tradition of binding women’s feet comes to an end. Foot-binding served a rather barbaric patriarchal purpose in ancient China in that it effectively hobbled the woman, thus preventing her from being able to run away from her husband. Although the film shies away from showing us the sight of these gruesomely contorted feet, a scene where Gladys unwraps a woman’s foot to ‘suggest’ severe disfigurement to a group of mothers gathered around – who currently practice the tradition on their young daughters - serves to illustrate the point rather effectively; the reaction communicating volumes of shock value, best left to the imagination. Gladys’ success at helping abolish this practice earns her the respect of the Mandarin who tests the potency of her Christian faith yet again by sending her into the midst of a prison revolt. She restores order with kindness and is given the exalted title of Geni. The Mandarin makes Gladys a present of a handsome red silken robe, inviting her to his home to dine with his executive committee of elders and Lin Nan. The colonel is captivated by Gladys and the two begin an unrequited romance, frequently interrupted by Gladys undying devotion to her missionary work.
Gladys saves a baby whose mother has decided to abandon or sell it by the side of the road, restoring the girl to health and raising the child as her own. But now a darker history begins to intrude upon the serenity of Gladys’ small world. China is invaded by the Japanese. Lin implores Gladys to leave Yang Cheng. But she refuses, telling him she cannot leave the place that has become her adopted home. Tragically, the city is bombed. Many are killed and/or wounded. Yang dies in Gladys’ arms and she narrowly escapes an attack by the militia, electing to take the fifty orphans she has saved from certain death across the wilderness. In Gladys’ honor, the Mandarin – who is dying – informs her he has decided to convert to Christianity. Gladys is greatly moved, though she would have preferred the Mandarin convert for his own religious convictions instead.
As Lin is forced to return as a soldier in service to his dying country, Gladys and the orphans are left in the care of Li (Burt Kwouk), the former leader of the prison revolt. Lin informs Gladys that they must make their migration to the next province where trucks are waiting to evacuate the fleeing inhabitants to a safe area. The journey, committed on foot, proves arduous to say the least, with constant threats of being bombed from the air or attacked at ground level by the advancing Red Army. Just as Li and Gladys are preparing to depart, another fifty orphans arrive from a neighboring town; Gladys deciding to take them all. Several days out, the group is ambushed by Japanese and Li sacrifices his life so Gladys and the children can escape. Arriving safely after much hardship and near starvation, Gladys startles Dr. Robinson, who is part of the evacuation committee, by kindly reminding him how he once rejected her as a missionary many years before; the movie ending on a note of hope as Gladys’ refugees march through town singing ‘This Old Man’ – the song she has taught them to keep their spirits alive when all else – even hope – seems to have failed them.
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is an extraordinary entertainment. Despite the discrepancies in height and temperament between the real Gladys Alyward and Ingrid Bergman, the actress infuses her characterization of this committed woman with a stalwart and rather courageous compassion – a quality Bergman trademarked in the movies, but also lived by in her own life. The old adage about ‘faking sincerity’ belies what Bergman is doing in this movie; remaining faithful to Alyward’s spirit, but also – and chiefly – to her own sense of self. Perhaps Bergman and Alyward were more alike than Alyward considered; at least in their compassion for others. It is this genuineness that radiates from Bergman’s performance. In retrospect, Curt Jurgens was a rather odd choice for Bergman’s leading man. Personally, I have always preferred him as Carl Stromberg, the nemesis to Roger Moore’s Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).
Ironically, it was the original Bond – Sean Connery – who initially tested for the part of Lin Nan in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. But Connery had yet to break through in the movies, while Jurgens was already well-established in his career abroad. And Jurgens, despite being rather un-handsome by conventional Hollywood standards, does in fact give more than a credible performance herein; stoic and full of yearning to remain at Gladys side, but ultimately sacrificing his feelings to do the honorable thing for his country. Finally, there is Robert Donat to reconsider. Today’s multiculturalism would never think to cast anyone of non-Asian heritage in the part of the Mandarin. But in movies of a certain ilk and era, to play outside of one’s own race was considered one of the truly great acting challenges. And Donat is quite good in the part besides; if still obviously Robert Donat, his make-up less of a concealment of his non-Chinese heritage and something more than a Kabuki mime. Again, Freddie Young’s cinematography is exquisite. This isn’t China, but a verdant impressionist view of what most anyone would want it to be; bustling with exoticism and a vibrant culture, unknowing and about to founder under the pressures of war. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness provides us with what movie-makers then believed was their sworn commitment to the audience: to provide a veneer of ageless and largely beautiful imagery. The story is solid, ably abetted by Mark Robson’s lithe direction. As art imitating life, it deserves to be seen and admired: a fabulous film with a human interest story at its core.
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness would look fairly impressive on Blu-ray if not for the chronic blue tint affecting a good deal of Fox's more recent hi-def product. Whites have adopted a pallid bluish tint, as do shadows and spectral highlights. Color timing appears to be a real issue over at Fox, as its previous ‘restored’ DVD release did not contain these anomalies. The color palette on the Blu-ray favors reds and blues. Alas, greens aren’t nearly as vibrant. Flesh tones improve considerably as does contrast. But the image is decidedly darker and, on occasion, suffers from a muddy and unnatural blue tint. Film grain is noticeably thicker, as it should be on a vintage Cinemascope title. There is, however, a slight horizontal stretch in the image, affectionately known as ‘the Cinemascope mumps’. This was less noticeable on the DVD. Comparing the old DVD transfer to this new Blu-ray we can see Fox has meticulously eliminated virtually all evidence of dirt and scratches and also applied image stabilization to greatly enhance the overall consistency of this presentation. But the blue tint is a deal breaker in my opinion. I’m not a fan of it, primarily because vintage DeLuxe color does not support this look at all.
The 4.0 DTS audio is, in a word, impressive, showcasing Malcolm Arnold’s phenomenal contributions on the score. Dialogue is directionalized but slightly thin. Fox continues to lag in extras. They’ve ported over the fascinating audio commentary from their DVD, featuring Twilight Time’s Nick Redman, historian, Aubrey Solomon and author/historian, Donald Spoto, who intermittently cover the movie’s creation and details about the real Gladys Alyward’s life in great detail. This is one of the best audio commentaries to accompany a vintage Fox release, providing thorough and comprehensive coverage. But it is a genuine pity Fox stopped including A&E Biography Specials. It would have been nice to have one on Ingrid Bergman. We could have also done with an isolated score as well. Bottom line: The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is a superb ‘experience’ at a time when movies have devolved into merely reaping the whirlwind of their fifteen seconds of public fascination – most of it brought on by the fervor of ‘clever marketing’ and a bombardment of heavy-handed publicity. But here is a great movie with a wonderful cast and a powerful, life-affirming story to tell. It belongs on everyone’s top shelf of must haves. Highly recommended for content. The transfer is a bit of a disappointment.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)