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.
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.
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 …
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*).
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.’
‘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