Welcome to 'The Inn of the Sixth Happiness': A Film Analysis

Updated on April 1, 2019
Dusty Grady profile image

Dusty is an avid classic movie fan who wants to share movie stories and evoke conversation about them.

Movies which warm the heart are more precious to us then we realize. They usher in thoughts, feelings, and attitudes which clear our lives and point us straight. It is this way with The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. It is a biography of sorts which depicts the life of Gladys Aylward, who in 1938 followed a strong inner calling to become a missionary in China. The story begins with Gladys, played by Ingrid Berman, coming to London from her home in Liverpool. She has severed her ties and has come to join up with the China Missionary Society. A Dr. Robinson there had responded to her letter in a way that she had considered favorable. But she had misunderstood his letter’s intent. Dr. Robinson was very regretful to inform her that she was not qualified to go to China. Not qualified—that is a theme oft repeated throughout the movie. Gladys was not qualified for anything she was doing throughout the movie. However, she was called. In the contest between the called and the qualified, which wins? It has been said that “God does not call the qualified; He qualifies the called.”

Spoiler Alert - plot revealed.

An Advertising Photo of Gladys and Lin Nan

The Movie's Advertising Poster
The Movie's Advertising Poster | Source

The Cast

2 hrs 38 mins Biography/Drama/War 1958 7.3 stars

Director: Mark Robson

Cast: Ingrid Bergman - Gladys Aylward

Curt Jürgens - Captain Lin Nan

Robert Donat - Mandarin

Peter Chong - Yang

Moultrie Kelsall - Dr. Robinson

Athene Seyler - Jennie Lawson

Burt Kwouk - Li

The Plot Part I

Throughout the first part of the movie Gladys meets with instance after instance of discouragement from the travel company to her employer, Sir Francis Jamison. He finally acquiesces and writes on her behalf to a contact he has in China named Jeannie Lawson.

After an arduous journey via the Trans-Siberian Railway Gladys ends up in China and eventually in the remote town of Wang Cheng. Here she assists the older widow Jeannie Lawson and she begins an entirely new phase of her life and an entirely new phase of the movie. She begins to learn Chinese with the help of Yang, Lawson’s cook. Gladys’ first foray into the town is an eye opening experience to say the least. She goes to assist a fallen child and is chased by its mother – they see her as a “foreign devil”, but we see our first glimpse of her love of children, a characteristic of significance later in the movie. Afterwards she witnesses a beheading – an execution of a murderer and this disturbs her tremendously. It is a difficult start for her, but she remains determined to stick it out come what may.

We now learn the meaning of the movie’s name. In Chinese legend there are five ‘happinesses’ that are defined but the 6th happiness is left up to the individual. In our culture we speak of four dimensions and then in the 1960s a music group took the name “The 5th Dimension”. It’s that sort of idea, one beyond something that’s already been defined. Mrs. Lawson’s plan is to run an inn where the mule trains which pass through can stay, get fed and get a story, a Bible story. It becomes very successful after a bit of a slow start.

Two other characters are introduced to us at about this time, Captain Lin Nan, played by Curt Jürgens and the Mandarin (ruler of Wang Cheng), played by Robert Donat. Captain Lin Nan speaks English and this is a comfort to Gladys. He is half Chinese; half Dutch. He represents the national government and has come to town to make sure that the Mandarin is enforcing all the new rules that have been mandated from Peking. Of particular concern is the abolishing of the traditional practice of foot binding. As old traditions go, the edict to abolish the practice is being met with great resistance. The office of “foot inspector” is a particularly difficult one to keep filled as each man the Mandarin sends out comes back injured.

At about this time Mrs. Lawson has a fall and is killed, support for her project is ended because Gladys Aylward is deemed as not qualified to continue. There is no money and she does not know enough Chinese to function in that town to even buy food! It is at this time that the Mandarin gets the idea to solve his foot inspector staffing problem by giving the position to Gladys. She accepts on the condition that the inn will continue to operate. It is a difficult task to decry centuries of tradition especially for one who is foreign and doesn’t speak the language. Yang accompanies her to interpret. After some resistance she wins over the people.

Time passes and the years go by. We next see a Gladys Aylward who is fluent in Chinese and has become a citizen of China. She has been given the name Jennai meaning, the one who loves people. She is greatly loved in that part of China and she has become friends with the Mandarin. Captain Lin Nan returns to the town of Wang Cheng to warn of impending war with the Japanese. Our hero is at that time settling a prison riot. She volunteered to go and see what she could do. In a very dramatic scene she confronts an axe-wielding convict who is about ready to strike her when a fellow prisoner shouts, “Stop, that is Jennai, the one who tries to help the people”. The axe-wielding man relents. Jennai asks for the axe and then instructs the men to rest because they are tired. With that scene we see her bring peace to a violent situation. She hears the grievances of the rioting prisoners and promises to make changes. She goes to the Mandarin with suggestions and they are met with approval. She also meets up with Captain Lin who is now a colonel. He is shocked to see her and is taken aback.

The Mandarin

Robert Donat as The Mandarin
Robert Donat as The Mandarin | Source

The Plot Part II

The Mandarin sends Colonel Lin out with Jennai to speak to the people in the surrounding villages and tell them that war with the Japanese is coming to them very soon and they are to get ready. The reason he was accompanied by Jennai is because she was so, so highly respected everywhere. They would be sure to listen if she were there. Soon Jennai meets up with highway bandits who also respect her. She attends to one wounded man in exchange for a guarantee that they will cease their thieving ways for a period of time. It is also during this trip that Jennai adopts an orphaned baby to add to several others she has back home. Colonel Lin is impressed with her and … attracted to her as well.

Eventually Jennai amasses many children. The area is attacked by the Japanese and the town of Wang Chen is severely hit. Hastily the Mandarin calls a meeting of the town counsel and it is determined that they must all depart for another area. In a very dramatic scene he declares to Jennai that he is becoming a Christian. This brings Jennai to tears, tears of joy. Then they part company never to see each other again. As the fighting rages in town Yang is killed and Jennai is on the run. When she returns later she sees that her inn has become a refuge for orphaned children. She begins the final part of the movie – the epic migration scene. Li, from the prison has come to help her as she has over 100 children which she needs to bring to the mission in Sian many days away. Because of the presence of Japanese soldiers they need to re-route themselves many times. In addition to the soldiers they battle rocks, mountains, a raging river and hunger.

At one point they are so close to a squad of Japanese soldiers that Li goes on ahead and acts as a decoy. He saves the children but it costs him his life.

In the city of Sian the children are supposed to board trucks to be taken to a children’s camp far from the fighting. The commander of the truck fleet argues with the head of the mission there, Dr. Robinson, that they can wait no longer. Dr. Robinson says everyone has been praying and he was certain that they would come. Unable to wait any longer the commander insists that they leave right away. Just then they hear the sound of the children singing “This Old Man”. Jennai and the hundreds of children march into the city to the enthusiastic cheers of the citizens. As they approach Dr. Robinson, Jennai says, “Do you remember me? My name used to be Gladys Aylward.” He remembers her much to his astonishment and regret. He offers her a position with their children’s mission. But she turns the offer down to return to her love, Colonel Lin. The End.

Lin Nan

Curt Jurgens as Lin Nan
Curt Jurgens as Lin Nan | Source


This ranks as one of the most dramatic endings that I’ve ever seen. Not only is there the suspense of a time factor – the children had to be there at that moment or they would miss the busses to take them to safety, but they come marching in to great fanfare within the city – a city which has been praying for the miraculous arrival of the children. Imagine, there was probably years of missionary work for Dr. Robinson on the line here. They come marching in to a stirring rendition of “This Old Man”. And when they arrive Dr. Robinson finds out that the heroine is none other than a woman whom he had dismissed years earlier as “not qualified” to go to China.

This movie is epic, dramatic, and heartwarming. It is the biography of a real person, Gladys Aylward who was still very much alive when the move came out. What did the real Gladys think of the movie? Generally she didn’t like it. She said it wasn’t accurate (Hollywood never gets these movies right). Gladys also said that she never had a romance with Colonel Lin, that in reality they were friends, but nothing more. She didn’t like the fact that they did not emphasize enough about the difficulties she had in getting to China. In reality it was much more problem filled than was depicted. There were certain theological statements made which she would not probably agree with.

She would not have turned down Dr. Robinson’s offer to have her at their children’s school. In fact the real Gladys Aylward spent the last years of her life building and running a Christian orphanage in Taiwan.

Finally, she objected to her character being played by Ingrid Bergman, not because she didn’t like Ingrid Bergman, but because Ingrid Bergman was too pretty. Gladys did not consider herself to be physically beautiful. She was rather short and said that Ingrid was much taller.

Ingrid Bergman never met Gladys Aylward, but days after the real Gladys died Ingrid did travel to Taiwan to visit the orphanage. She was permitted to see Gladys’ room. The Gladys Aylward biography on a website called Grand Mentor.net states that Ingrid “fell down by ‘the Small Women’s’ bed and wept, saying she was unworthy to play the life of such a woman of God.” In the room she discovered a large scrapbook dedicated to the movie. Gladys may have had her criticisms, but apparently there were many things that she did like about the movie as well and she collected the various mementos for the scrapbook as an indication of what she did like about the movie. I don’t know what things she liked but I can guess that she was probably happy that her story was told to such a wide audience imperfect as it may have been.

The movie was filmed entirely in Wales not in China. The scenery is dramatic however and feeds well into the image many of us have about what China must look like.

Robert Donat who played the part of the Mandarin was very sick when he worked on this movie. He died shortly after filming. Indeed when he walked out of the scene and departed from Jennai having just become a Christian he, in real life, was walking off the stage forever.

A place where I believe the real Gladys Aylward would object is found in the scene where Jennai and Lin are leaving the prison. She has just announced new prison reforms to the cheering inmates and is leaving to escort Lin to deliver his war message to the villagers. As Jennai is leaving the prison Lin says to her, “Surely this was a great opportunity for making converts. Aren’t you neglecting your missionary work?”

Jennai answers, “Is that what you think it is? Collecting converts the way a child collects pretty stones.”

Lin: “Is it anything else?”

Jennai: “To me it’s making each man know that he counts whether he believes in Christ or Buddha or nothing, Colonel, like you.”

Lin: “I believe in China as it can be.”

The missionary message would always be a pro Christ message not a message of humanism. Yes, the missionary wants each person to know that be counts, but specifically that he counts “in Christ”. I don’t think any missionary worth his or her commission would ever feel that they had completed their task if the person they worked with became a happy self-fulfilled Buddhist or Atheist. I have seen many times where Hollywood just can’t get Christianity right and the most frequent mistake they make is to substitute Humanism and Humanitarianism for Christianity. It was very subtle here, but nevertheless evident. It’s also self-contradictory within the movie itself. When the Mandarin converts to Christianity Jennai is so visibly moved and overwhelmed that it reveals that indeed she does value so much his choice of Christ over every other so called option. If she were of the mindset spoken of in the earlier scene she would not have reacted so strongly in the latter scene.

It is also worth mentioning that at the stirring final scene when the offer is made to her at working with the children she would never have turned it down. For one thing her love for Lin would likely have been tempered by Lin’s unbelief. Indeed the missionary will not marry outside the faith, except in rare instances. This is born out in the true story: Gladys Aylward did not marry Lin.

Secondarily many of the children on that final march were her own adopted children. The movie suggests that she completely leaves them to go back into a war zone with Colonel Lin, who by the way is currently engaged in fighting. How romantic, how unrealistic. In fact the real Gladys Aylward continued to work with children, founding an orphanage in Taiwan and finishing out her days in that pursuit. So there are places where Hollywood really botches things up.

However, the scene of the death of Li is very well portrayed from a theological point of view. Li sacrificed his life for all the others. And Jennai couldn’t have chosen a better Bible passage with which to eulogize him. She read from John 15:10-13 ending in “greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friend”. Li was a vivid example of this principle. He laid down his life for each one of the children and Jennai. It makes the ending all the more dramatic.

Mrs. Lawson describes Gladys’ new vocation with great and accurate words of wisdom well worth pondering, “It’s a hard life for a young woman, but it won’t seem hard, I promise you, when you’re my age and look back. It will only seem beautiful.”

Gladys Aylward leading hundreds of children on a pilgrimage to safety

Ingrid Bergman as Gladys Aylward
Ingrid Bergman as Gladys Aylward | Source

Video Trailer for the Inn of the Sixth Happiness

Questions & Answers


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    • Gina42 profile image

      Gina R 

      16 months ago from Philadelphia PA

      Very well written, this movie is so dramatic that you have to watch it to get the full effect, even if you know the storyline. I love this movie!

    • Dusty Grady profile imageAUTHOR


      18 months ago from Downingtown, PA

      This is a good point.

    • profile image

      Pat Mills 

      18 months ago from East Chicago, Indiana

      Perhaps you should advise readers of a spoiler alert if you're going to tell them the whole movie instead of letting them experience this one for themselves. I, like you, would recommend this film.


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