Some may wish five happinesses
On both traveler and friend:
The hope for wealth from their successes,
And a long life ere the end.
Third, may good health cause increase,
And virtue fortify your soul,
And lastly, may you die in peace,
Having met your every goal.
Though five would fill most purposes,
A sixth and final happiness
I wish to all, but what it is
Is up to each of us to guess.
MPAA rating: PG
Ingrid Bergman is one movie star who hasn’t been much on my classic film radar, aside from Casablanca and Gaslight (which are great). To remedy that, I decided to check out one of her later roles in the semi-epic The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, in which she plays Gladys Aylward, a real-life missionary to China who rose to fame with her humanitarian efforts during the Sino-Japanese War of the 1930s.
I call it a semi-epic because, though it doesn’t quite boast the sweeping storytelling of Ben-Hur or Doctor Zhivago, there’s enough of it in Aylward’s decades-long mission that the magnitude of her story rises above others of its day. At the beginning, Aylward displays an indomitable passion for China, feeling it is where God has called her for His purposes, and at her own expense and peril, she journeys there to join an already established missionary (Athene Seyler). There in Yang Cheng, they open an inn for travelers, whose hunger for stories they plan to meet with the Bible, but many difficulties stand in the way, from uncooperative leaders to the obvious language barrier. And even when she earns the trust and love of the people, Aylward’s commitment to China also puts her in harm’s way when the Japanese invade in the years leading up to World War II, and she takes it upon herself to lead a hundred orphans to safety.
While The Inn of the Sixth Happiness doesn’t quite make my List, it’s the kind of film that might have if I’d seen it long ago and built it up in my head as a classic. (That is how it works sometimes.) There’s much to love about it, not least of all is Bergman’s performance as Aylward. Even if she looks and sounds nothing like the woman she’s playing (just one of the film’s many historical liberties), she certainly captures her commitment and love for the Chinese people. Like Mother Teresa, she goes to serve as both servant and example rather than force conversion on the people. She doesn’t merely go to China for a couple years to fulfill a duty; instead, she immerses herself in the land and culture, even becoming a Chinese citizen, and dedicates her entire life to her mission of love and social reform. It is this kind of Christian commitment that is most persuasive, and when she does find success and respect in the eyes of both the Chinese and her fellow missionaries, it’s immensely satisfying and touching. I’ve even heard reports that playing such a godly woman led Ingrid Bergman to become a Christian.
Strong supporting roles are filled by Curt Jurgens as a half-Chinese colonel and love interest and Robert Donat (his last film role before his death) as the local mandarin of Yang Cheng. Of course, neither actor is Chinese, leading to retroactive criticisms of the film for whitewashing, but they both are excellent still, especially Donat, and they’re not at all insulting like Mickey Rooney’s caricature in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Plus, the vast majority of the cast are still played by Chinese actors, including many children from a Chinese community in Liverpool. Especially affecting is the commitment of Aylward’s two Chinese helpers who assist her along the way, as well as an emotional scene between Aylward and one of her adopted Chinese daughters.
It’s not without its flaws, from an overlong runtime to some loose ends that are left unresolved by the end. Plus, it’s up to each viewer how much the historical changes bother you; Aylward herself wasn’t a fan of the film’s depiction of her or Curt Jurgens’ character. Yet the mountainous setting adds a good deal of authenticity to Aylward’s travails, aided by terrific cinematography, and even if director Mark Robson was the only member of the production to earn an Oscar nomination, the quality of the performances and overall film seem deserving of far more. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness isn’t strongly evangelical, still being a Hollywood production, but the faith of its subject is unmistakable and inspiring.
Best line: (Aylward) “You have to interfere with what you feel is wrong, if you hope to make it right.”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2017 S.G. Liput
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