Blu-ray Review: The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958)

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They may have been reciting “This Old Man” to keep their spirits up but the over one hundred Chinese children that are led on a grueling mountainous trek to safety after their country was attacked by Japan relied not on an old man but a middle-aged woman named Gladys Aylward to lead them to safety.

Based on a moving true story, Inn centers on the brave Aylward who, despite being denied and dismissed formal missionary work due to her alleged lack of qualifications takes multiple domestic jobs in her native England – saving up day by day and pence by pence for the forty-one pound one-way passage fare to China.

Buying her ticket on an unorthodox layaway plan out of fear that she’d back out if she didn’t have any money to lose, Aylward goes against the advice of all she encounters to answer her own God given call to go to China where she believes she’s destined to help.

Provided with the contact information of a hearty missionary woman who’s getting on in years and could use all the assistance she can get, Aylward’s position from apprentice inn runner to “foot inspector” is accelerated by the untimely death of her missionary mentor.

After being threatened with the prospect of returning home due to her negligible qualifications once again, Robert Donat’s Mandarin steps in to make her a permanent part of their community. Deciding that she’s the next person he’ll hire in a long line of women’s foot-inspectors who don’t last terribly long in a job that’s meant to emancipate young girls and women from their subservient roles as second class citizens with bound feet, Aylward becomes even more assured that she’s taken the right path in life.


Finally doing more than just sharing bible stories through a fellow inn worker and native who has a habit of elevating the tales with all kinds of exciting new embellishments, Aylward realizes that actions speak louder than words.

Dedicated to the children she encounters on a daily basis, Aylward begins to adopt multiple unwanted orphans and abandoned outsiders, earning the nickname of Jen-ai which means “the one who loves people” along the way.

Although this gorgeously filmed Twentieth Century Fox 1958 Cinemascope epic embellishes the truth almost as much as the local who teaches Aylward English does when he translates bible passages, perhaps the film’s greatest factual error lies in the casting of the otherwise ultra-talented, world-class actress Ingrid Bergman for the lead role.

Not bothering to try and hide or trade her noticeable Swedish accent for the factually accurate Cockney one possessed by the native Englishwoman she’s portraying, Bergman’s striking tall figure also conflicts with that of the “small woman” Aylward was thusly described as in the title of the book that Fox adapted for the screen.

While word is that the real Aylward was upset with the film’s inaccuracies as well as the choice of Bergman for the lead role, Bergman makes the screen version of the character her own and is absolutely stellar from start to finish, breaking down the sometimes cool exterior she had in other studio fare to really let us in on a personal level.

You can tell that this is a performance she must’ve been proud of at the time as there are countless photos of Bergman on set, in character, sharing the experience with her own children – no doubt thrilled to play a woman passionate about children's and women’s rights in stark contrast to the romantic roles she was usually given in Hollywood.


And the uplifting depiction of heroism through the tale of a female underdog clicked with audiences upon Inn’s release as director Mark Robson’s sensitive period drama would go onto become the second biggest box office smash in Aylward’s native England the following year.

Filled with intelligent, humanistic dialogue by Isobel Laurent working from Alan Burgess’s book, this moving epic which has been lovingly transferred to a picturesque 1080p Blu-ray release makes for a thrilling night at the movies from the comfort and convenience of your own living room.

From the richly nuanced multi-channel audio soundtrack that transports you right into Aylward’s surroundings and the fine supporting work by its talented if ethnically inaccurate ensemble cast, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness also features the final screen turn by Robert Donat, whose last lines of dialogue warning that us that we won’t see him again have become particularly eerie yet oddly fitting given that fact. 

And additionally, all cinematic flourishes aside – by offering us another point-of-view of the conflict in Asia during the time period, the fascinating if flawed Inn of the Sixth Happiness becomes a must-see for both film lovers and history buffs alike as a work that's both global and personal in its cinematic approach to storytelling.

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