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20th Century Fox, 1958

by Mary Hutchings

This large-scale production, filmed in Cinemascope, is an epic, a story which warms the heart, and an absolute inspiration-- at least in my opinion. I first saw the movie in 1959, on the big screen and was totally smitten, both by the story and by its star, Ingrid Bergman, whose greatest fan I became instantaneously! Now I watch it on video and am equally inspired by each viewing.

The true-life story of missionary Gladys Aylward provides scope enough for a memorable film, but it was Ingrid Bergman’s performance that made it what it is. This is the film in which she gave her most heart-felt performance; it is the best of her career and should have won her an Oscar. (Did her 1956 win for ANASTASIA prevent this, I wonder?) From the moment she steps off the train in London at the beginning of the film, to her heroic arrival in Xi'an with one hundred Chinese refugee children, she radiates sincerity, commitment and enthusiasm.

Throughout the film, the expressions on the beautiful Bergman face are a joy to watch. Turned down by the China Missionary Society as unqualified, she goes on to win over everyone with whom she comes into contact-- and no wonder. The travel agent agrees to let her pay for her train ticket to China in instalments; her employer writes to an old missionary friend to ensure she will have a destination. Once in China her enthusiasm and energy in helping Mrs. Lawson (Athene Seyler) re-open an old inn, are heart-stopping. One is carried along by everything that happens to her: her tears of distress after witnessing a beheading are as genuine as are her tears of joy when the Mandarin (Robert Donat) declares his conversion to Christianity. The latter scene is also one of great sadness, both because of the ravages of war in China and because it was Robert Donat’s last scene ever filmed. He died shortly after completing it and Bergman really did cry on screen.

There is a delightful (and true) romance, when the Eurasian Colonel Lin (Curt Jurgens) becomes yet another person to be bowled over by the English missionary-- now called Jen Ai ("The One Who Loves People"). The love scenes are restrained, yet passionate and totally believable.

I urge anyone who has not seen this movie to do so at once! Watch Bergman succeed as the Mandarin’s foot inspector, stopping the custom of foot-binding; hear her anger toward the young father who is about to order his baby daughter’s feet to be bound again. Feel her fear as she faces rioting prisoners-- and quells them. Watch her lead children over dangerous mountains to safety. See the many emotions she displays during these sequences: determination when they find a bridge over a swollen river destroyed-- “We can't stop now!” she says with clenched fist; happiness mixed with incomprehension as, exhausted, she leads the children into Xi'an, amidst cheering crowds. The missionary who meets them turns out to be the same Dr. Robinson (Moultrie Kelsall) who told her she was “simply not qualified” to be a missionary. Now he begs her to accompany them to the children’s village, but she turns her face back towards the mountains and says she is going home.

Cynics might say that the coincidence in the final scene is too much, but this is not a film for such people. Ingrid Bergman, tall, fair and Swedish plays the part of the little Englishwoman with such conviction that surely no one could question the casting. Certainly I cannot think of any other actress of the time who could have even begun to interpret the role.

The locations in the Snowdonia National Park, North Wales make a convincing and beautiful backdrop, doubling as Shaanxi Province, in northern China. Well done to the director, Mark Robson, and to cinematographer, Freddie Young -- and indeed to everyone who helped to make this unique film not just a film, more a way of life. At least for me! But special thanks to the great Ingrid Bergman!

© 1997 Mary Hutchings.

(Send your comments on this article to the author, Mary Hutchings. Thanks.)

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Last updated: March 10, 2011.
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