THE INN OF THE SIXTH HAPPINESS
MOVIE: *** (out of 5)
BLU-RAY EXPERIENCE: *** (out of 5)
Ingrid Bergman as GLADYS AYLWARD
Curt Jurgens as CAPTAIN LIN NAN
Robert Donat as THE MANDARIN OF YANG CHENG
Michael David as HOK-A
Athene Seyler as JEANNIE LAWSON
Ronald Squire as SIR FRANCIS JAMISON
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Directed by: Mark Robson
BY KEVIN CARR
Though it’s well remembered by fans of classic films, “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness” is likely unknown to most modern film audiences. It’s not just basic cable channels like TCM and AMC that can bring some of these old classics to light. It’s also the technology of Blu-ray and the (thankfully) continued release of hard media on disc.
“The Inn of the Sixth Happiness” tells the real-life story of Gladys Aylward (Ingrid Bergman), a woman who desperately wants to be a missionary in China. Feeling the calling of the country, she goes out of her way to find a roundabout and sometimes dangerous journey deep into the rural area of the land. Upon arriving, she is shocked by the cultural difference and initially rejected by the locals who do not trust foreigners. However, over the years, she develops a trust among the people and becomes a great leader. His greatest challenge is when war breaks out with Japan, she has to find a way to bring dozens of orphans to safety.
It’s a bit of a slow burn, story-wise, but that’s to be expected for a film made in the late 50s. It’s not meant to be a lickety-split action piece, though there are some powerful moments of danger and peril throughout the movie. Instead, this is meant to be a character study of one woman who put herself out of her comfort zone to help a region of people.
Like many films from this era, the subject matter is far more religious than you’d see today. There’s a strong message behind the story, which isn’t terrible subtle. This puts the movie a bit at odds with modern thought and practice.
The missionary message seems counter-intuitive to a more culturally sensitive mainstream world we live in. It might seem a bit offensive to downplay Chinese culture and religion in lieu of what could be seen as invading ideologies. The movie manages to protect itself a bit from this bear trap by focusing on the barbaric practice of foot-binding, which is now seen as terribly oppressive and dangerous to women.
Additionally, from a modern perspective, “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness” features some culturally offensive elements, mostly manifesting in the yellowface portrayal of Chinese people. Carl Jurgens plays the half-Chinese captain Lin Nan, who looks like he has about zero percent Chinese blood. More over, Robert Donat plays the Mandarin of the village, decked out in what would be horribly offensive make-up so the English actor can appear Asian.
Of course, such practice was not just commonplace but good for business in mid-20th century Hollywood. Most American audiences would reject Chinese actors in lead roles even when the characters were meant to be Chinese. (The failure of early Charlie Chan movies starring Japanese and Korean actors and the sudden success of these films with white actors in the lead role is depressing proof of this.) Sadly, yellowface is an unfortunate reality in historical cinema and must be reluctantly accepted to feel the original impact of these movies.
Overall, “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness” is an inspiring story and a well made movie. It has the historical epic feel you’d expect from a film with such scope. However, it also focuses on the strength of its character – a strong female character, no less – which is a rare thing to find in Hollywood, even today.
The Blu-ray includes an audio commentary with Nick Redman, Aubrey Solomon and Donald Spoto. It also includes two Fox Movietone newsreels: the review-based “Inn of the Sixth Happiness Rapturous” and the more newsworthy “World Premiere.”