Nu kör vi… (That’s “Here we go…” in Swedish–thank you, Google Translate. 🙂 )
Gladys Aylward was born in London in 1902. She felt strongly called by God to be a missionary in China, but unlike most women who went to China at that time, she wasn’t highly educated or trained in a useful vocation such as nursing. China was also very dangerous, as they were suspicious of foreigners. Still, she managed to get there, and after the Second World War she told her story all over England. In 1957 Alan Burgess wrote a book about Gladys called The Small Woman, which in turn inspired the 1958 film, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.
Starring Ingrid Bergman as Gladys, the film begins with her working her way to China. Everyone scoffs at the idea of her going, and since she can’t get a missionary board to support her, Gladys decides to pay for her own passage. The only problem is, it costs forty-one pounds to go, and Gladys only has a pound plus change in her purse. She gets the travel agent, Mr. Murfin on her side, however, and makes plans to pay for her ticket on layaway, working tirelessly as a maid and serving at other houses during her time off to make more money. The other waitstaff and Mr. Murfin are concerned about her because Gladys never seems to rest, but Gladys cheerfully keeps on.
Amazingly enough, she finds time to read all she can about China, by sneaking books out of the library when she goes to clean the grate. Her employer, Sir Francis Jamison, finally notices that books are mysteriously disappearing and reappearing, and when he confronts her, Gladys tells him everything. To her surprise, she finds that she has gained another ally–Sir Francis makes arrangements for her to help Mrs. Jennie Lawson, a veteran missionary who is opening an inn. Before she knows it, she’s off to China with the blessings and support of her new friends.
After a long rail journey across Eastern Europe and Russia, Gladys arrives in the mountain province of Yangcheng and when she makes it into the courtyard of the Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Mrs. Lawson greets her with a hearty “Good for you! Get down, girl. You’re home.” Gladys hops off the mule she rode into town on and surveys her new surroundings. She also hears Mrs. Lawson’s idea: The two of them, along with the cook, Yang (Peter Chong), plan to restore the sizable and dilapidated building for their inn. While they will offer all the amenities of other inns, they will have something extra as well: Bible stories, free of charge, during dinner. Their target demographic will be the mule teams that come into town, because the merchants in these teams will likely tell the stories they hear to others. The Inn has one other hook: Since the Chinese wish everyone the five happinesses (wealth, longevity, good health, virtue, and a peaceful death in old age) and the Inn wishes people six, everyone will be wondering what the sixth happiness is. Gladys’s job will be to get the mule teams in the door, even though she knows almost no Chinese.
The plan goes swimmingly, but unfortunately, Mrs. Lawson soon dies after a fall from the balcony. That leaves Gladys in an unfamiliar country with barely any knowledge of the language, very little food for the inn guests, and plenty of naysayers telling her to go back to England. Like a severe but intriguing Eurasian captain named Lin Nan (Curt Jürgens), for instance, who offers to help Gladys to transportation out of China, which she refuses.
Soon after, the Mandarin (Robert Donat) sends for her, because he needs a Foot Inspector. During the nineteen-thirties, China was beginning to crack down on the ancient practice of footbinding. The Chinese bound up womens’ feet to keep them small, with grotesque, painful, crippling results. Even so, the villagers were very set in their ways, and mandarins had to send out people to enforce the law. In the case of Yangcheng, the Foot Inspectors were getting beaten up right and left, and the Mandarin figures if he appoints the strange foreign woman and something happens to her, then it’s no harm, no foul.
However, Gladys is a smart cookie. She agrees to take the position only if certain conditions are met: She wants credit with the food merchants, and makes the Mandarin aware that as she goes to the different villages in the province, she will be telling the people of her beliefs. The Mandarin huffs and puffs a bit, but finally agrees.
After this, Gladys really comes into her own. Over the next several years, she not only makes sure the women and girls’ feet are unbound, but becomes fluent in the Chinese language, which helps her talk to the people herself. The Inn does a thriving business. Gladys becomes a Chinese citizen and is given a new name, Je Nai, or “The One Who Loves People.” She’s so trusted that she is able to settle a prison riot when no one else can. Gladys is even on bargaining terms with the local band of thieves.
No one is more surprised at how much Gladys’s mission work has prospered than Captain Lin Nan. He comes back to warn the people about the approaching Japanese forces, and accompanies Gladys on one of her foot inspection tours. There, he is delighted to see unbound toes wiggle, people learning to read, and Gladys’s willingness to deal with any problem she comes up against. He’s also shocked when Gladys adopts a baby girl she finds abandoned by the road, thinking a single woman doesn’t know anything about children. Nothing could have prepared him for when the two of them get back to the Inn and he sees the four other children Gladys has already taken in. Nothing could have prepared Gladys for falling in love with Lin Nan, either.
War soon comes to Yangcheng, with the Japanese strafing the village. Dozens of children are orphaned as a result, and the situation is so dire that Gladys resolves to take the whole lot of them to Sian so they can be safe and go to school. The Japanese have blocked the major roads, leaving them to travel through forests and across rivers. The outcome of their trip is pretty amazing, and even more so because it really happened.
There were a few (read: many) adjustments made for the film, though. In real life, Gladys had been accepted as a missionary-in-training by the China Inland Mission, but she was let go when she didn’t make progress in learning the Chinese language. She did pay for her own passage to China, and had the support of various friends who had already been there.
The Chinese portion of the film had a ton of differences as well. For one thing, the real Inn wished people eight happinesses instead of six, and for another, it was not as centrally located as the one in the film. The real Inn is down an alleyway instead of on a main thoroughfare as in the movie, and Gladys would have brought the mules in through a narrow passage up a few stairs instead of a wide doorway. Just as in the film, the Inn apparently had a capacity of fifty guests, and as of 2006, it still exists. It’s a private residence, known to the people of Yangcheng as “the old Jesus hall,” and the owners at least at one time had plans to restore it. The only part of the Inn that’s gone are the mule sheds out back.
Gladys’s story was changed and condensed as well. Her actual Chinese name was Ài Wěidé (艾伟德), which means “Virtuous One.” Gladys didn’t like The Inn of the Sixth Happiness because so many details of her experiences had been altered. She was put off that her small, brunette, English self had been played by tall, blonde, Swedish Ingrid Bergman, and that Lin Nan had been made Eurasian (he was full-blooded Chinese), which she saw as insulting. Gladys was also uncomfortable that the filmmakers fabricated the romance between them. In real life, their relationship was platonic, and Gladys never married. Additionally, Lin Nan disappeared during the war, and no one knew what happened to him. To set the record straight, Gladys wrote her autobiography, Gladys Aylward: The Little Woman, which was published in the year of her death, 1970.
Gladys also spoke in public on many occasions, such as this talk she gave in the nineteen-fifties, probably at a church in England:
While Gladys may not have preferred the way her story was told, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is still a great testimony of her life and work, with excellent performances by everyone involved. If it inspires people to investigate Gladys’s real story, then that’s even better. Ingrid Bergman was honored to play Gladys, and despite not looking the part, she caught the spirit of what Gladys did during her many years of ministry in Yangcheng.
That concludes my contribution to the Third Wonderful Ingrid Bergman Blogathon. Virginie has more for you at The Wonderful World of Cinema. Thanks for hosting, Virginie–it’s been fun!
Next week, we’ll have a new installment in the “Stage To Screen” series, plus this:
Here’s where to go if anyone wants to participate:
Thanks for reading, friends, and see you on September sixth!