The major Hollywood studios used every trick in the book to lure audiences away from their freshly minted televisions during the 1950s, developing such technical processes as Cinerama, CinemaScope, and 3D; constructing massive spectacles around historical, religious, and inspirational themes; and taking viewers to faraway exotic locales that looked sublime when presented in brilliant color and splashed across a wide theatrical screen. 'The Inn of the Sixth Happiness' employs all these components as it chronicles the true-life adventures, hardships, and personal development of Gladys Aylward (Ingrid Bergman), a passionate Englishwoman who feels duty-bound to perform missionary work in the wilds of underdeveloped China. Mark Robson, who directed the sultry soap opera 'Peyton Place' the preceding year, takes the high road here, aggrandizing the tale to epic proportions and canonizing his heroine. While Aylward is unquestionably an admirable figure worthy of a biopic, this mammoth, somewhat fictionalized treatment would most likely make its humble, diminutive subject blush with embarrassment.
It also tests the endurance of the viewer. Clocking in at 158 minutes, 'The Inn of the Sixth Happiness' takes a leisurely approach, but lacks the kind of vital narrative drive and visual panache necessary to rivet audience attention. The film is never dull per se, but it plods and creaks along, only becoming truly exciting during its third hour. Is Aylward's life really fascinating enough to merit such a lavish treatment? I'd say no, but in the 1950s, this was the sort of fare moviegoers ravenously gobbled up, and their voracious appetite kept the studio coffers well fed.
Hard work, plenty of sacrifice, and an arduous journey on the Trans-Siberian railway brings Aylward to China, where she is mentored by the established yet eccentric missionary Jeannie Lawson (Athene Seyler), who reveals to Gladys the five types of happiness - wealth, longevity, good health, virtue, and a peaceful death in old age. The sixth happiness, she says, is determined by one's own heart. After her apprenticeship and Lawson's death, Gladys takes over the inn, a sanctuary for travelers who are lured by good food and comfortable lodgings, then subjected to a series of Bible stories in the hope of fostering some religious fervor. Though Captain Lin Nan (Curt Jurgens), an intelligence officer seeking to speed China's unification, classifies missionaries as "the most frightening kind of foreign devil," Gladys gains the respect of the local people, who rename her Jen-Ai - the one who cares for others. And that respect brings her to the attention of the region's governor, The Mandarin of Yang Cheng (Robert Donat), who enlists her services to help enforce social improvements (including the banning of the ancient tradition of female foot binding) throughout the province, and even quell a violent prison riot.
As Gladys settles into her satisfying life, an attraction develops between her and Lin Nan, who is tormented by his mixed Eurasian blood. "In your world, I can only be a second class citizen," he tells Gladys. "I chose China, because here I am allowed to be of value." Their blossoming relationship, however, is short circuited by a Japanese attack, which destroys their village and sends Gladys on a treacherous journey to safety across a remote mountain range with 100 orphan children in tow.
As with most biopics, the script condenses, consolidates, embellishes, and fictionalizes events for dramatic effect, but 'The Inn of the Sixth Happiness' keeps itself largely grounded in fact. It's impossible not to be impressed by Gladys' gumption, determination, refusal to accept failure, compassion, strength, and selflessness. Though she's really too good to be true, Bergman makes her accessible and relatable, portraying her not as a saint, but as a sincere woman with an unwavering purpose. Reportedly, Aylward was adamantly against Bergman's casting, citing the actress' immorality a decade before when she left her husband and daughter in Hollywood to embark on a passionate, illicit affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini, which resulted in a pregnancy out of wedlock, Bergman's denouncement by Congress (!), and a European exile. Aylward couldn't condone or forgive such behavior, and didn't approve of Bergman's heartfelt portrayal or even the film itself. Few performers, however, look as comfortable and unaffected in front of the camera as Bergman, and she certainly does the role proud.
Unfortunately, the 1950s also was an age when Hollywood refused to cast ethnic actors in substantial ethnic parts. As a result, the Englishman Donat and German Jurgens play Chinese men, and their Asian makeup and dialect is jarring, to say the least. Neither actor disrespects the race (remember Mickey Rooney's cringe-inducing caricature in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'?), but they still make it difficult to fully suspend our disbelief. Much to the movie's detriment, Jurgens and Bergman generate no sparks whatsoever, and though Jurgens' work is quite genuine, an uncomfortable stiffness permeates it. Donat crafts a more finely etched portrayal made all the more poignant by the fact that 'The Inn of the Sixth Happiness' marked his final performance. The man who made his name in Alfred Hitchcock's 'The 39 Steps' (1935) and won an Oscar for 'Goodbye Mr. Chips' (1939) (besting Clark Gable's Rhett Butler in 'Gone With the Wind') died from complications from severe asthma at the tender age of 53 while the film was still in production.
It's tough to believe 'The Inn of the Sixth Happiness' ranks as one of 1958's top grossing motion pictures (and garnered a Best Director Academy Award nomination for Robson). Its lead character may be an extraordinary woman in many respects, but too often the movie tells her story in a mundane manner that lacks pizzazz. Considering the film profiles an intensely spiritual woman, it's ironic its major missing element is spirit. Bergman tries her best, but even her considerable talents and inner radiance can't always carry this huge production.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Inn of the Sixth Happiness' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
With its rugged locations (who cares if it's really England rather than China?) and exotic feel, 'The Inn of the Sixth Happiness' deserves a top-notch transfer to capture the story's foreign atmosphere. Fox's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 rendering does a decent job, but such elements as single-strip color and inconsistent grain keep it from achieving the hoped-for heights. Clarity and contrast are quite good; the image sports a fair amount of depth and background details are crisp and distinct. Director Mark Robson fills the CinemaScope frame well, making the extreme wide angle seem natural, but a nagging drabness afflicts the picture and keeps it from achieving the vibrancy we crave.
Hues are a bit wan (a symptom of single-strip color), but some of the reds in the Chinese gowns are lush and bold. Orange flames also achieve a good degree of saturation, while sky and foliage colors vary ever so slightly throughout the lengthy running time. Black levels are solid and deep, shadow delineation is fine, and fleshtones, for the most part, are stable and true. Close-ups lack the razor sharpness that distinguishes the best transfers, but they still highlight facial features well.
The early London scenes and the travel montage possess a higher grain quotient than the film's China portion, but the entire movie exudes a lovely celluloid feel. No digital doctoring seems to have been applied, and no defects detract from our overall enjoyment of this sweeping motion picture.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 track supplies wonderfully nuanced sound with an abundance of surround activity. Atmospherics bleed nicely into the rears, and mild stereo separation up front creates a wide aural expanse that complements the film's epic nature well. The beautiful, lyrical theme music by Malcolm Arnold, who also scored 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' the previous year, contains subtle bits of surround shading, and is distinguished by excellent fidelity and fine tonal depth. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows with ease, although the lack of a .1 LFE channel minimizes the impact of bass frequencies, especially during the Japanese aerial attacks. Exploding bombs and plane engines sound rather anemic, robbing the film's spectacle scenes of critical oomph.
Dialogue, however, is always well prioritized and easy to comprehend, and no pops, crackles, hiss, or other age-related defects disrupt the track's purity. For a 55-year-old film, 'The Inn of the Sixth Happiness' sounds quite good, and fans of the movie will be pleased with this lossless audio rendering.
Just a couple of extras adorn this catalogue release.
The always luminous Ingrid Bergman lifts 'The Inn of the Sixth Happiness' above other 1950s historical epics, but even her fine work can't totally salvage this bloated inspirational tale about a brave and stubborn missionary who helps bring China into the modern age. Too much Hollywood and not enough authenticity lend the film a dated feel, and the leisurely pacing often tries viewer patience. Still, the unselfish heroics of the main character earn our admiration and make the experience worthwhile. Fox's Blu-ray presentation skimps a bit on supplements, but features solid video and audio transfers that bring this large-scale drama to life. Bergman fans will certainly want to add this disc to their collection, but others should check it out first before making a purchase, due to the picture's limited appeal. 'The Inn of the Sixth Happiness' might not warrant an extended stay, but it's worth a look, especially for classic film aficionados.