The Chinese wish each other five happinesses: wealth, longevity, good health, virtue, and a peaceful death in old age. The sixth happiness one must decide for oneself.
Richard’s recent post on Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani reminded me of this film, because the two films share a lot in common. Like Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is based on a real life story—in this case, that of the Englishwoman Gladys Aylward (1902-70), who in 1930 went off to China to ‘serve’ the people there. Like Dr Kotnis, she too fell in love with a Chinese national, and is even today, 40 years after her death, regarded as something of a national heroine.
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, while not completely true to the story of Gladys Aylward (artistic license makes films sell!), is accurate enough in the basics. It tells, with sensitivity and feeling, the story of a brave woman’s determination to go halfway across the world—to a land of which she didn’t even know the language—simply in order to follow her dream.
The film begins in London, where ex-domestic servant Gladys Aylward (Ingrid Bergman) has just arrived. She’s obviously new in the big city: the admiration in her eyes as she stares at the lions in Trafalgar Square suggests the provincial. But she finally washes up at the China Mission House, where she asks to meet Dr Robinson (Moultrie Kelsall), with whom she’s been corresponding for a while. Dr Robinson had indicated in the past that missionaries are sorely needed in China.
Only, as Gladys now realises in her conversation with him, Dr Robinson hadn’t meant her. He’s regretful, but they just can’t send Gladys to China: she doesn’t have the necessary qualifications. Gladys tries to convince Dr Robinson of her determination and her will to serve, but it doesn’t work. He, however, feels sorry for her, and seeing that she has no money, gets her a job as a second housemaid in the household of Sir Francis, an old China hand and explorer who’s spent years in the country.
On the way to Sir Francis’s house, Gladys passes a travel agent’s office, and sees posters advertising the sale of tickets to China. On a whim, she goes in and enquires about prices. It turns out that the cheapest way to get to China is by train, through Siberia. The cost is £41. Gladys decides to book a ticket; she’ll give a down payment now, and pay the rest over the following weeks or months, whatever it takes. The only down payment she can give right now (it leaves her with 4 pence) is a little over £1. The travel agent, a kind man, tries to dissuade Gladys—this sounds suicidal to him—but Gladys is determined.
Gladys does all she can, over the next few weeks, to further her dream. On her off days, she takes up other menial jobs to earn a little extra. And she surreptitiously borrows books on China from Sir Francis’s library, which she reads up in order to understand the country better.
But one day, her ‘borrowing’ comes to light, and Sir Francis (Ronald Squire) summons her, sure that she’s a thief. His conversation with Gladys comes as a revelation to him, and he’s so impressed, he offers to give her a letter of introduction to an old friend of his, Jeannie Lawson, who lives in the northern town of Yang Cheng.
So the day finally arrives when Gladys’s ticket is all paid up, and she has an extra £5 to tide her over. Her friends—Sir Francis and his housekeeper, and the travel agent—see her off at the train station, and Gladys is on her way.
Many days later, she arrives in Tientsin, where the people at the local mission house get her a guide and a mule on which to get to Yang Cheng and Jeannie Lawson. Jeannie Lawson (Athene Seyler) is a white-haired, spry old lady who’s acquired a dilapidated old inn that she intends to renovate and use for missionary purposes. Her idea is interesting—along with food and lodging, they’ll offer stories to the muleteers who stop by. All Chinese love stories, says Mrs Lawson; and if she can tell a few good Bible stories, someone will finally believe.
So, along with Mrs Lawson’s cook Yang (Peter Chong), the two women get down to work cleaning up the inn, setting it to rights, and naming it (the Inn of the Sixth Happiness). The only thing missing now are the patrons. Mrs Lawson tells Gladys that Yang Cheng is on the route of the mule trains; Gladys must stand on the road outside, and when a mule train passes by, she must lure the leading mule in with a handful of hay. The rest of the mules—and the men, perforce—will follow.
Yang teaches Gladys the spiel—“we have no bugs, we have no fleas; we do have stories”—that she’ll need to give the muleteers.
Gladys manages to pull in the mules, but the men, scared of this strange foreign woman who’s hijacked their mules, run off. Gladys calls to them, but the only person who turns up is a very unexpected figure.
This turns out to be an intelligence officer named Captain Lin Nan (Curt Jurgens), a half-Dutch, half-Chinese man who’s come to Yang Cheng to meet the local mandarin (Robert Donat). The very fact that Captain Lin speaks English makes Gladys kindly disposed towards him.
Shortly after, a dreadful accident occurs: Jeannie Lawson, climbing a ladder in her headstrong way (she refuses to accept that she’s a frail old lady), falls and dies in Gladys’s arms.
Captain Lin tries to persuade Gladys to go back home to England—Yang Cheng is no place for a lone young Englishwoman on her own—but Gladys is obstinate: she won’t go. She and Yang have to fulfil Mrs Lawson’s dream for the Inn of the Sixth Happiness.
Captain Lin finally decides that the way to get Gladys out of Yang Cheng is to talk to his good friend, the imperious old mandarin. So, before leaving Yang Cheng, Lin requests the mandarin to order Gladys back home.
One of Lin’s objectives in coming to Yang Cheng was to ensure that the mandarin enforced the new laws on taxation, the registration of births and deaths, and laws against foot binding—in his province. For this, the mandarin has had to appoint a foot inspector, going from village to village, untying the bound feet of little girls before they’re permanently deformed. Unfortunately, the country people are so very opposed to this that all three of the foot inspectors the mandarin’s appointed till now have been beaten to within an inch of their lives.
With Captain Lin gone, the mandarin summons Gladys (with Yang in tow, as interpreter) in order to tell her to go home to England. Gladys, to his surprise, puts her foot down. No. She didn’t come to China in order to go back. She feels this is where God wants her to be, and she’ll stay, no matter what.
The mandarin is impressed. So impressed that he appoints Gladys a foot inspector. At the very least, the experience will frighten her into going home; at best, the extra money she’ll earn will help keep the tottering inn on its feet a little longer.
Surprise, surprise. Gladys, even though her Chinese is very limited and she has to use Yang as interpreter, succeeds. As she travels the villages, trying to persuade young mothers to unbind the feet of their baby daughters, she manages to appeal to their emotions and soon wins support.
A few years pass. Gladys, now adept at Chinese, is popular and well-loved by the people of Yang Cheng and of the villages in the province. The mandarin treats her with an avuncular affection tempered by a considerable respect for her ability, her determination and her wisdom. By virtue of being a sort of mother figure for the people, Gladys even ends up managing to solve problems that really are no concern of hers—for instance, stopping a riot at the prison…
… an incident which brings her to the mandarin’s palace to report to him. And there she meets an old acquaintance: Captain (now Colonel) Lin, back in Yang Cheng because there’s trouble brewing. World War II is imminent, and the Chinese authorities fear that the Japanese will attack. Yang Cheng, poor and remote though it is, is in serious danger, since the Japanese could use its poverty to suppress the local populace and get a toehold in China.
So begins a period of turmoil, both real and emotional, for Gladys Aylward. On the one hand, she gets to know the reticent Colonel Lin a little better, and discovers that he isn’t quite as unemotional as he would like to think himself…
On the other hand, with Japanese bombers coming over Yang Cheng trailing destruction, Gladys finds herself suddenly compelled to be not just foot inspector and negotiator and a shoulder to cry on, but also mother to the growing number of children orphaned by the war… a total of 100 children whom she will end up taking to safety, travelling on foot across miles of mountain country, all along pursued by the Japanese.
The real Gladys Aylward, when interviewed by a journalist who knew very little about Ms Aylward’s past, underplayed her role so much that it took some probing for the journalist to discover that the lady had braved Japanese forces (they even ended up putting out a ‘wanted dead or alive’ notice for her!) to lead 94 orphaned children, including toddlers, on foot across miles of mountainous countryside to safety, walking for 2 weeks.
Ingrid Bergman manages to be a convincing Gladys Aylward: a woman of considerable emotional maturity and strength, who doesn’t let adversity grind her into the ground—yet always lets her innate goodness and her love for the people she’s adopted as her own, govern her actions. A fine portrayal, and a lovely, heart-warming tale of humanity in the midst of war.
What I liked about this film:
Ingrid Bergman. One my favourite actresses, in a role that’s not glamorous but must have been pretty taxing, both emotionally and physically. She’s superb, and her portrayal of Gladys Aylward—the missionary who refuses to “collect converts the way a child collects pretty stones”—is a memorable one.
What I didn’t like:
Robert Donat as a mandarin? He’s a great actor, even in this, his last role. But really, an Englishman acting as Chinese: it’s not convincing at all. Curt Jurgens is marginally more convincing, since Colonel Lin is supposed to be Eurasian, not pure Chinese.
The apparent ease with which Gladys succeeds in winning her battles. The scene where she first visits a village as a foot inspector, and the scene where she goes to the prison to quell the riot, are both a little too pat. It might have been more real if Gladys didn’t succeed so easily each time.
That notwithstanding, this is a great film. Not quite a romance, not quite a war film, not quite a drama, but a very watchable combination of all of those—and more. Highly recommended.