Based on a true story, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness tells the tale of Gladys Aylward (Ingrid Bergman), an Englishwoman who has known all her life that she belongs in China. Rejected as a missionary, she makes the arduous journey herself and finds herself in a foreign land trying to build an inn with Jeannie Lawson (Athene Seyler). However, when Jeannie dies she finds herself alone with her faithful cook Yang (Peter Chong) and penniless. She is given the job of foot inspector by the Mandarin (Robert Donat) and, against the odds, makes friends in the villages. By the time Captain Lin Nan (Curd Jurgens), one of the people who believes she should go home, returns to the province a few years later, she is well-established and beloved in the area. But then the Japanese declare war and Gladys vows to rescue the children of the province by leading them over the mountains to safety.
This is a very powerful film which relies on an excellent central performance from Bergman with Donat brilliantly underplaying the Mandarin. If you can suspend your disbelief to accept Bergman as an Englishwoman then you can ignore the fact that the main Chinese characters are played by foreigners also. It's unfortunate, perhaps, but typical of the period. Bergman's casting, despite her accent, is perfect. She captures the heart of Gladys Aylward and brings her story to life. The developing romance between Gladys and Captain Lin Nan is perhaps the weakest element of the plot but it's also, I believe, one of the more fabricated elements. The real romance at the centre of this film is the relationship Gladys has with China and China's children.
The hardships Gladys goes through to get to China are truncated, justifiably so given the length of the film, but give a reasonable flavour of her determination to make her journey. The London montage at the beginning contrasts well with the openness of the Chinese landscape depicted later on and there are some humorous moments to offset what becomes a very dark film. The planes shooting at the fields where women and children are farming signals a fresh direction and the bombing of the town is portrayed very sympathetically, though it would have been more engaging had we encountered some more of the characters who were mercilessly killed earlier on. However, there are several characters introduced early in the film who come back to play their parts later on - I found this surprisingly coherent. I know there are some inconsistencies, particularly in regard to Chinese names and meanings but these changes are small to the average viewer.
Overall, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness deserves its good reputation. It doesn't sensationalise Alyward's story too much and is packed full of tension in the last half an hour or so. It also has an added poignancy as Robert Donat's last film, in some scenes towards the end he looks brittle but still maintains that spark that made him such a good actor. However, the soul of this film is Ingrid Bergman. It was a dicey bit of casting but it ultimately paid off in spades.