The film was shot in Snowdonia, North Wales. Most of the children in the film were Chinese children from Liverpool, home to one of the oldest Chinese communities in Europe.
The story begins with Aylward (Ingrid Bergman) being rejected as a potential missionary to China because of her lack of education. Dr. Robinson (Moultrie Kelsall), the senior missionary, feels sorry for her and secures her a position in the home of a veteran explorer with contacts in China. Over the next few months, Aylward saves her money to purchase a ticket on the Trans-Siberian railway, choosing the more dangerous overland route to the East because it is less expensive.
Once in China, she settles in the town of Yang Cheng, where she secures a post as assistant to a veteran missionary, Jeannie Lawson (Athene Seyler). Lawson has set up an inn for traveling merchants, where they can get a hot meal and hear stories from the Bible. The film follows Aylward's acculturation, culminating in her taking over the inn when Lawson dies in an accident.
The local Mandarin (Robert Donat) appoints Aylward, a stubborn but endearing woman, as his Foot Inspector to ensure that the ancient practice of foot binding is eradicated in the region he governs. She succeeds in this, and manages to put down a prison revolt as well, winning her the esteem of the local population and of the Mandarin. Meanwhile, however, China is being invaded by Japan, and Aylward is encouraged by Lin (Curt Jürgens) to leave. She refuses, and as the town of Yang Cheng comes under attack, she finds that she has fifty orphans in her care.
As the population prepares to evacuate the town, the Mandarin announces that he is converting to Christianity to honour Aylward and her work. She is now left alone with the children, aided by Li (Burt Kwouk), the former leader of the prison revolt she helped to resolve. Lin tells her that the only hope for safety is to take the children to the next province, where trucks will evacuate them to a safer area, but they must get there within three weeks, or the trucks will leave without them.
Just as they are preparing to leave, another fifty orphans appear from a neighboring town, so Aylward and Li have no choice but to lead one hundred children on a trek across the countryside. Although it should only have taken them a week, the roads are infested with Japanese patrols, and the group has to cut across the mountains. After a long, difficult journey, they all arrive safely (except for Li, who died to save them from a Japanese patrol) on the day the trucks are to leave. Aylward is greeted by Dr. Robinson, and she reminds him of how he rejected her as a missionary years before.
The film culminates with the column of children, led by Aylward, marching into the town, singing the song "This Old Man" to keep up their spirits.
For the production of The Inn of the Sixth Happiness 20th Century Fox rented space at MGM British Studios Borehamwood, where the Chinese villages were built on the backlot, with location scenes filmed in Nantmor, near Beddgelert in North Wales.
A gold-painted statue of Buddha that was used on a set for the film is now located in the Italianate village of Portmeirion, North Wales. Sean Connery was considered for the role of Colonel Lin. His screen test can be seen on the DVD.
Since the film's release, the filmmakers have been criticized for casting Ingrid Bergman, a tall woman with a Swedish accent, as Gladys Aylward, who was in fact short and had a cockney accent. Likewise, the two male leads, British actor Robert Donat and Austrian actor Curt Jurgens were not even Chinese (though Jurgens' character is said to be half-Dutch). Singer Bill Elliott sang the hit song The Inn of the Sixth Happiness with the Cyril Stapleton Orchestra
The film was based on the novel The Small Woman (1957) by Alan Burgess.
The real Gladys Aylward (1902–1970) was born in London. She was a former domestic in the household of Sir Francis Younghusband turned missionary in China and is best known for her work with children. Aylward became a Chinese citizen in 1936. Four years later, despite being in ill health herself, she led more than 100 children over the mountains to safety at the height of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45).
In 1958, the year of the film's release, she founded a children's home in Taiwan, which she continued to run until her death. Known in China as "Ai-weh-deh" (Chinese: 艾偉德; literally: "Virtuous One"), she continues to be regarded as a national hero.
Gladys Aylward was deeply upset by the inaccuracy of the movie. Although she found herself a figure of international interest thanks to the popularity of the movie and television and media interviews, Aylward was mortified by her depiction in the film and the many liberties it took. The tall, Swedish Ingrid Bergman was inconsistent with Aylward's small stature, dark hair and cockney accent. The struggles of Aylward and her family to effect her initial trip to China were skipped over in favor of the plot device of her employer "condescending to write to 'his old friend' Jeannie Lawson", and Aylward's dangerous, complicated travels across Russia and China were reduced to "a few rude soldiers", after which "Hollywood's train delivered her neatly to Tsientsin."
The names of many characters and places were changed, even when the names had significant meanings, such as those of Aylward's adopted children and of her inn, named for the Chinese belief in the number eight as an auspicious number. Colonel Lin Nan was portrayed as half-European, a change which Aylward found insulting to his Chinese lineage. She also felt her reputation damaged by the Hollywood-embellished love scenes in the film; not only had she never kissed any man, but also the film's ending portrayed her character abandoning the orphans in order to join the colonel elsewhere, even though in reality she did not retire from working with orphans until she was 60 years old. In real life, Aylward and Lin Nan were not reunited—he was lost in the war and she never knew what happened to him.
The film was the second most popular movie at the British box office in 1959.
2003: AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains:
Gladys Aylward – Nominated Hero
2005: AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores – Nominated
2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists: