Monday, May 4, 2009

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958)

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman and Curt Jergens, is a fictionalized account of the life of Gladys Aylward (1902-1970), an English parlor maid who became an evangelist in China.

The film is set in the early 1930's. Aylward is rejected by a missionary organization and decides to go to China on her own. She makes the trip to China via the Trans-Siberian Railway and then goes by mule to the city of Yangcheng, south of Beijing. There she helps an aging missionary, Jennie Lawson, open an inn that caters to mule team drivers. Lawson evangelizes the muleteers by telling them Bible stories as they eat meals prepared by Lawson's Chinese cook, Mr. Yang.

After Lawson dies as a result of a fall, Aylward continues alone, with the help of Yang. The local mandarin drafts Aylward as a foot-inspector to enforce the laws against foot-binding, which gives Aylward the income she needs to keep the inn open and the opportunity to evangelize in the countryside.

After establishing herself as a foot inspector and winning the trust of the mandarin, Aylward is called to the local prison during a bloody riot and -- in a breathtaking sequence -- resolves the conflict peacefully. She takes several rejected Chinese children into her home and becomes a Chinese citizen. Ultimately the mandarin converts to Christianity. After the town is attacked by the Japanese in the late 1930s during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Aylward leads a contingent of a hundred children over the mountains and across the Yellow River to safety -- a treacherous effort that takes twelve days.

This film is very enjoyable. It celebrates courage and determination. Not-so-good men are converted. The triumph of a rag-tag band of orphans over tremendous odds is appealing. And, there is a tender love story.

One might think that the film was more fiction than fact. It is true the story has been fictionalized, but apparently the essential facts are true, and in some respects the real story was even more dramatic than the film. In real life, Aylward did travel across Siberia by train, run the inn, become a foot inspector, adopt several children, befriend the mandarin, become a Chinese citizen, and lead 100 children in a 12-day trek over the mountains. The mandarin really did convert, and Aylward did have a romantic involvement with a Chinese Colonel, Lin Nan.

It is said that Aylward, a chaste and modest woman, was very unhappy when she heard that the film had love scenes. One can only suppose she never saw the movie, because the encounters between Aylward and Col. Lin are among the most chaste that Hollywood has ever produced.

When Aylward and Col. Lin stop by a river while traveling on horseback from one town to another, Lin tests Aylward by inviting her to go for a swim. Her reaction is a model of genuine purity, and Bergman portrays it with complete authenticity. When Lin then tells Aylward she is not at all like a man, this is not an effort to follow up his initial overture, but rather an admiring affirmation of her profound chastity.

There is a beautiful scene in a country inn where the guests sleep communally on the kang. Col. Lin settles himself on the other side of a little girl Aylward has just purchased for sixpence from a woman who was exploiting the girl (not her own child) as a tool for begging. From Lin's amazed and vigilant gaze at Aylward, one can see that Lin, embittered by painful experiences in his early life, is awakening to the realization that he has at last found a woman he can truly love.

Some time later, after the two have acknowledged their love in the garden of the mandarin, Col. Lin kisses Aylward's hands with a restrained ardor -- that of a manly man completely smitten with a brave, bright, and virtuous woman. Despite their mutual love, however, they agree that duty comes first: he must lead the local resistance against the Japanese invaders and she must lead the children to safety -- and that is what they proceed to do.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable film that does not wear out with repeated viewings.  There is no impurity or vulgarity.  Despite the violence of the prison scene (which should not be viewed by children), I give the film five roses.

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