Director: Mark Robson
Writer: Isobel Lennart; based onThe Small Woman by Alan Burgess
Cinematographer: Freddie Young
Producer: Buddy Adler
by Jon Cvack
This is one of the earlier versions of the white-person-goes-to-war-torn- foreign-country-and-saves-the-people-of-color I’ve ever seen (i.e., Dangerous Minds, Seven Years in Tibet, The Last Samurai, etc), featuring Ingrid Bergman as Aylward, a impecunious and real life Swedish missionary who’s determined to get to China in order to help the poor and spread the Christian word. She boards the Train-Siberian railway and heads to Yang Cheng, where she meets fellow missionary Jeannie Lawson (Athene Seyler) who begins working at an old Inn - newly named The Sixth Inn of Happiness - where in exchange for a meal, patrons will get Biblical stories and a free copy of the book. Soon Jeannie dies, leaving Aylward in charge of the place.
The town is controlled by a type of mayor (I’d like to know the proper noun for this position), who provides us with our second white person, Lin (Curt Jürgens) - white in the sense that it’s a very white British actor playing a half white/half Chinese man in a way that leaves me wondering just how many other white men dressed up like Chinese people, as Mickey Rooney would go on to do the same thing just a few years later in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Alec Guinness would do in A Passage to India (1984). Jürgens’ comes to complete with a grating high pitched squeaky voice that makes his character almost as annoying as it offensive.
And still there’s a third half white/half Mandarin man called "The Mandarin", also played by a white actor (Robert Donat). Not to go too far into the politics, but it really leaves you wondering whether it was that no one thought to cast an actual Chinese person, or that the studios forbid the possibility due to some racist policy, as regardless of which, it’s so glaringly offensive, that each scene was smothered by this fact, preventing me from being fully drawn in.
Nevertheless, Gladys Ayward goes onto to complete some incredible work, reforming much of the town and gaining the people’s affection - much to the chagrin of Lin. She gets the town to ban foot binding, cares and educates the town’s children, and ushes in better prison conditions, dedicating her entire life toward helping out others. I recommend checking out Ayward’s wikipedia page, as her story is a pretty cool read.
The Japanese soon invade China, during the Second-Sino Japanese War, heading straight for Yang Cheng, forcing the Mandarin to go join the military. During a bombing run, the town is nearly destroyed and Japanese forces just days away. With many of the townspeople gone, Ayward is left in charge of the dozens and dozens of children, leading them through the mountains and back to safety.
While Ayward’s life and what she accomplishes is great, the white actors playing Chinamen is distracting. It’s a long film, clocking in a two and a half hours, and while I’m sure at the time it could have been a great movie, I’ve just felt like I’ve seen it so many times before. It’s worth checking out, as Ingrid Bergman’s performance is worth the viewing alone.
BELOW: Pretty good final scene (also not finding anything else on the YT)
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