The Inn of the Sixth Happiness

4 Dec

When David Cairns asked if I would write about The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958, Mark Robson, 20th Century-Fox) as part of his Shadowplay blog’s Late Films Blogathon, I mentally braced myself. It’s fair to say I’ve been avoiding this film, but yesterday I made myself  sit down and watch. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since.

I need to tell you I can make no claims for objectivity in this piece: it’s impossible to be a fan of Robert Donat’s work without developing a deep affection for the man. He was that kind of actor (and, no doubt, that kind of man). And this, after all, is his website. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness was Robert’s final film, made when he was gravely ill. Just a few short weeks after completing his work on it, he died. Robert’s remaining strength, I think it’s true to say, he gave to this film.

Gladys Aylward

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is based on the story of real-life missionary Gladys Aylward (from Alan Burgess’ biography The Small Woman). It’s a huge CinemaScope epic of a film in three acts and like its distant musical cousin The Sound of Music, it feels rather too long. Or perhaps I lack stamina? Put it down to exhaustion from weeping …

Gladys Aylward believed God had called her to be a missionary in China, but her background as a domestic servant meant she was unqualified to go through the official channels. So, she saved her wages and went at her own expense, arriving at Yang Cheng to work with experienced elderly missionary Jeannie Lawson (Athene Seyler) and her servant Yang (Peter Chong) at the Inn of the Sixth Happiness. The Inn takes in passing travellers, feeds them, gives them a bed for the night, and tells them Bible stories in Chinese. After Mrs Lawson’s death, and lacking money to continue her work, Gladys accepts the position of ‘foot inspector’ for the local Mandarin (Robert Donat) so she can keep the Inn open. She travels the local villages persuading the people not to bind the feet of their women and girls and becomes an advocate for the Chinese people involving herself in other disputes on their behalf. Through her work she wins their respect and affection, and that of the Mandarin and Captain Lin (Curd Jürgens). She becomes a Chinese citizen and is given the name Jen-ai, ‘the one who loves people’. When the Japanese attack Yang Cheng, Jen-ai takes 100 orphan children, (accompanied by a very young Bert Kwouk, in his first film) over the mountains to safety.

Robert Donat, Curd Jürgens and Ingrid Bergman

The real Gladys Aylward was furious, I believe, with some of the liberties taken with her life story and her association with ‘that wicked woman’ Ingrid Bergman. We are asked to accept Bergman as an English woman, Robert Donat as a Chinese man, Curd Jürgens as a Eurasian who supposedly looks more Chinese than white, and Snowdonia as China. I lived in North Wales for a time and it was rather distracting trying to location-spot, though in the end I had to concede that, probably, one mountain looks pretty much like another, and the Chinese-style sets create the atmosphere appropriately. Ingrid Bergman doesn’t even attempt to sound English, but she manages to make a character who could appear insufferably saintly very likeable and human, and her scenes with Robert, in particular, are extremely touching. Curd Jürgens is a rather uncharismatic love interest, he and Bergman are necessarily chaste, and there is little chemistry between them, but blazing passion would have been all wrong.

Seen through unforgiving modern eyes, maybe there are things one would change about The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, but I like to be a time traveller. There are many who think Ingrid Bergman should have had an Oscar for her performance, and it’s certainly true that she makes a far more appealing saintly heroine than Julie Andrews. The final act, the journey across the mountains, is perhaps less successful than the rest of the film, but there is a satisfying prickle of tears to be had when the children arrive at their destination singing ‘This Old Man’. There is another scene in the film where you will cry much more …

Robert Donat, Curd Jürgens and Ingrid Bergman

And so to Robert as the Mandarin. He doesn’t look Chinese, despite the costumes and make-up, but it doesn’t matter and nor, really, do all the other inaccuracies (though there are endless reviews online where people grind on and on about them). He is the Mandarin, remote and forbidding at the beginning (dubbed into Chinese in some early scenes) who grows to love Jen-ai, whereon he’s actually a little mischievous and exudes the Donat warmth and charm in abundance.

Throughout the 1950’s, Robert’s health had been in steep decline. He made The Magic Box in 1951 and then was unable to work again until 1954 (Lease of Life, and on stage as Becket, giving perhaps his finest performance at The Old Vic in Murder in the Cathedral). By 1958, Robert’s breathing difficulties and asthma attacks were extremely debilitating. However, that was not the only battle he was fighting. It was found, when he died, that he had a large brain tumour.

‘Although we knew he was not in the best of health, none of us on the unit suspected that he was desperately ill. He didn’t allow us to know … There was one day when I really thought he had hit rock bottom – but the next day he turned up at the studio and went on by sheer will-power.’

Mark Robson, interviewed in 1958 (from Kenneth Barrow’s biography of Robert Donat*).

Robert Donat as the Mandarin of Yang Cheng

My late father was of that generation. He fought in the Second World War, then quietly filed it away and never spoke of it again (until his later years and even then, only snippets). Of course there are courageous people today, but there was a remarkable fortitude, an almost unimaginable bravery and dedication embedded in the people of that time that we can find difficult to understand today. Gladys Aylward seems to have had it, and so did Robert Donat. You see that immense bravery and Robert’s absolute dedication to his craft so clearly in this film. He is obviously not well. In some scenes, his speech is thick, and his once magnificent voice can no longer perform with its old power. He walks hesitantly. Robert was only 53 (not much older than I am), and to see this fine, fine man brought so low is devastating. And yet, his performance as the Mandarin is never pitiful: the truth of the character and the truth of the story are there in his portrayal, his presence fills his scenes as it always did but now with added poignancy, and his final scene with Ingrid Bergman, where the Mandarin tells Jen-ai he has become a Christian and bids her farewell, is perhaps the most genuinely moving you will see on screen. Because it is the most real. It’s all perfectly in character, but we are watching a great actor saying his final goodbye to his audience. He knew it and so did Bergman.

‘It is time to go, old friends. Stay here … for a little. It will comfort me as I leave to know it. We shall not see each other again, I think. Farewell Jen-ai.’

Robert Donat's final scene

Ingrid Bergman's genuine anguish

The great actor leaves the stage

‘I think that not having worked for five years and having been an actor all his life, he was very happy that he had this film and that he was with people he knew loved him and with his own crowd again, that his last days were working days.’

Ingrid Bergman, interviewed in 1958 (from Kenneth Barrow’s biography of Robert Donat*).

© Gill Fraser Lee, all rights reserved.

______________________________________________________________________________

*Mr Chips, The Life of Robert Donat, Kenneth Barrow

23 Responses to “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness”

  1. dcairns December 4, 2011 at 2:46 pm #

    I’m crying too!

    Admittedly I’m a pushover for tears these days, but even a few years ago when I was a hard bastard, this would have got me. (gulps)

    • Gill Fraser Lee December 4, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

      Impossible not to be moved by the dignity and bravery of the man. I am in awe of him, really I am.

  2. ShipRat December 4, 2011 at 9:55 pm #

    A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
    Its loveliness increases; it will never
    Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
    A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
    Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

  3. Robyn Wildman December 5, 2011 at 2:32 am #

    Lovely blog, Gill! I’d seen the film a couple of times, but I didn’t know much about Robert Donat at the time. This adds a certain poignancy to the film and reading this brought tear to my eyes!

  4. LauraP December 5, 2011 at 3:57 am #

    Well done, Gill! I know that took a lot out of you. Beautifully written and very moving.

    (And poor Ingrid Bergman–“wicked woman” indeed! Gladys Alward should have been honored to have such a talented actor portray her.)

    • Gill Fraser Lee December 5, 2011 at 9:28 am #

      Thanks Laura, I hope I got it ‘right’. Yes, poor Ingrid was very harshly judged for her private life. She was a wonderful actress, so luminous on screen and always human.

  5. Gareth December 5, 2011 at 2:13 pm #

    That’s a terrific piece. I wrote about Bourvil, who died at almost exactly the same age – 53 and a couple of months – but I focused on his penultimate film. Although he was certainly already affected by his terminal illness, sitting down between takes for instance, it doesn’t really show onscreen. I’ve read, though, that he’s visibly ill in parts of the final film he shot, just a few weeks later, and part of me just doesn’t want to see him in that state. Your piece is making me re-think that: no doubt Bourvil, too, saw it as a farewell to the career and audience that had served him so well.

    • Gill Fraser Lee December 5, 2011 at 3:07 pm #

      Thank you Gareth, that means a lot, coming from you: you have an excellent blog. It IS hard to see these icons of the screen looking fallible and mortal, but it was their choice to carry on working and choose this way of bowing out, I think. I felt that if Robert had put so much into this film, it was my duty to watch. It was a humbling experience. I haven’t caught up with your post yet, but I will do very soon.

  6. Judy Dean December 5, 2011 at 9:41 pm #

    Thanks so much for this lovely tribute to a great actor.

    • Gill Fraser Lee December 5, 2011 at 9:52 pm #

      You’re very welcome, I’m glad you liked it and thanks so much for your comment.

  7. Jillian December 5, 2011 at 11:19 pm #

    Your post gave me chills. What a strong man he was to do this final film.

  8. Theolinda Foster February 8, 2012 at 3:54 am #

    It is sad that a man with the talent Robert Donat had did not live long enough to reap the rewards of his acting career. His faithful fans were left with an empty place in their hearts at his passing. One movie stands out to me and can tug at every emotion I have. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is # 1 in my book and I believe always will be.I have watched the movie so many times I can lip sync many parts.I have yet to get past the goodbyes and Robert Donats eyes expressed the words he was speaking. I now wonder if he knew he was not just speaking a part but that it would be his last role in life.

    • Gill Fraser Lee February 8, 2012 at 3:21 pm #

      Thank you very much for your comment. It’s lovely that Robert’s work is still giving so much enjoyment to people. Yes, it is terribly sad that he was taken so, so young, but look at what he achieved in the years he was given. A wonderful legacy.

  9. nativesacrosstheworld May 9, 2012 at 10:03 am #

    The government of Yangcheng has noticed the old movie “The Inn of Sixth Happiness”, they became very interested in the story and came to the plan that they would like to have
    the movie redone in the city of Yangcheng, where the real story has happened. To achieve this goal they need to find an interested producer in the U.S., they were also thinking about connecting with the fox studio and the former crew who have made the movie

    If you have interested to know more, please contact : nzhang18@asu.edu

  10. Richard Bernard August 23, 2012 at 8:27 am #

    I was an extra in the film. My parents were the managers of the Royal Goat Hotel in Beddgelert, where most of the crew stayed. i remember them well. Also, Alan Burgess stayed with us. I can give you more details if you want. I can also take you to the location places

    • Gill Fraser Lee August 23, 2012 at 8:57 am #

      Hi Richard, how wonderful to hear from you. Coincidentally, I was in Snowdonia only recently. I most certainly would like to hear more. You can find my email address on the ‘Us’ page. Thanks for getting in touch, Gill

  11. Steve Foster February 6, 2014 at 11:32 pm #

    My aunt tells me that her father (my grandfather)had watched parts of the film I of T 6 H being filmed at the Balloon Site at Pallet Somerset.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Late Show 2 « shadowplay - December 4, 2011

    [...] at the excellent Robert Donat site, Gill Fraser Lee assesses THE INN OF THE SIXTH HAPPINESS, mid-period Mark Robson, but Donat’s last film, made when he was extremely ill. This is a [...]

  2. The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for week of December 9 | Parallax View - December 9, 2011

    [...] Highlights include Cairns himself salvaging some good from the tragic Return of the Musketeers; Gil Fraser Lee on how Robert Donat’s sincerity is enough to overcome any flaws in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness; and Diarmid Mogg’s [...]

  3. El albergue de la sexta felicidad. Alan Burgess | Un libro cada día - February 23, 2013

    [...] albergue de la sexta felicidad fue también la última película que interpretó mi adorado Robert Donat, nada más y nada menos que haciendo de mandarín. Ah, la magia del cine. Aquí os dejo el Nick [...]

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