Sunday, June 13, 2010

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955)

Dr. Han Suyin: Our gorgeous lie did not even last the night.
~from Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955) 
 One of the most lavish romantic spectacles of the 1950's, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing is a film during which sentimental people tend to cry. It is hard not to reach for a hankie as Han Suyin (Jennifer Jones) runs through the streets of Hong Kong to the "high and windy hill" where her lover Mark Elliot (William Holden) will never walk again. Of course, there was never any doubt that it would end badly. Lovely Dr. Han goes from being a respected physician, the venerated widow of a Chinese Nationalist general, to being a fallen woman with no home and no job.
 According to Variety:
William Holden as the American correspondent, and Jennifer Jones as the Eurasian doctor, make a romantic team of great appeal. This is something of an emotional tear-jerker, to be sure, but an awfully well-made one. Han [in her autobiographical book A Many Splendored Thing] was less concerned with drama than with tracing the mating of two kindred souls in a world strange to both.

Up to the middle of the film, things go rather slowly. Both director Henry King and screenwriter John Patrick apparently thought the romantic theme should be enough. Since Elliott (Holden) is married and his wife won't give him a divorce, marriage is impossible. Although compromised, and without a job at the end, Han (Jones) holds fast to her love.

King and lenser Leon Shamroy do a magnificent job in utilizing the Hong Kong backgrounds, whether in the opening shots panning down on the teeming city or in the charming little scene where Han returns to her Chungking home and is followed there by Elliott.

Holden is restrained and completely believable. Jones is pure delight in a very difficult part. In her, the spirit of the book is caught completely. Supporting cast is fine, with Isobel Elsom properly superficial as the British matron who resents Jones. Kam Tong, as the Commie doctor who urges Jones to return to Red China and 'her people,' is sinister yet wisely refrains from playing the heavy.
 With every temptation, there are plenty of moments in which it is still easy to turn back; Suyin allows herself to round the bend to the point of no return, where she is then compelled to give up everything for the love of a man who either cannot or will not marry her. I say "will not" because I have a sneaking suspicion that the excuse of  "I can't marry you because my wife won't give me a divorce" was a convenient one which made having an extramarital affair appear to be the only option open to the star-crossed lovers. 

Suyin knows from the beginning that the true option is separation but such is her emotional state, and the converging of various forces in one time and place, that she loses herself in passion. One of the most silly criticisms of the film I have read complained that there seems to be no reason for the hero and heroine to be so besotted with each other. To me, that is the point of it all, that the love between them comes unexpectedly, without rhyme or reason. It just happens, rather like a car accident. The only question to ask is who will emerge alive. As DVD Verdict expresses it:
Anyone who has ever been in love can relate to this film. It doesn't matter whether the location was as exotic as Hong Kong or whether the relationship had to endure the sort of difficulties of the one on the screen. It's the emotions that are important, and they are conveyed with a sensitivity and conviction that remind one of the real thing and make one believe that the two principal characters truly were in love. One just has to see the first meeting of the two on the hill behind the hospital to gain an appreciation of their feelings for one another. Jennifer Jones and William Holden play the exchange beautifully. Notice particularly the range of expressions that play across Jones's face as she first thinks Holden has not come, and then sees him finally appear.
But can that really be the William Holden that was so often a portrayer of smooth-talking, cynical, and later world-weary men playing the male half of the couple? Well, yes. For once, he underplays his part substantially—making the American correspondent an attractive human being. Yes, he's still self-assured and persistent, but he manages to retain an air of considerateness and general likeability that makes it easy to understand why Suyin is attracted to him despite her best intentions. Nor does Holden try to impose his star status on the film. His role is clearly secondary in importance (if not in screen time) to that of Jennifer Jones, but there is no conscious effort to steal scenes or divert our attention overly from the central theme of a couple in love under difficult circumstances
 The film is based upon the semi-fictionalized memoir A Many-Splendoured Thing by the Belgian-Chinese author Elizabeth Comber under her pseudonym of "Han Suyin." The book is immensely more interesting than the film, as might be expected, because it dwells more upon the political and cultural tranformations that were sweeping Asia at the time. As an Eurasian, Han Suyin had experienced intense prejudice towards her mixed blood. She reacted by rejecting Christianity while embracing all things Chinese as being superior to western ways. She saw Communism as a possible solution for the backwardness and corruption of certain aspects of Chinese culture. Yet for a sophisticated, educated woman, she could be incredibly naive. The film shows her relying upon Chinese fortune-telling in order to convince herself that she will have happiness with Mark.

As for Mark, his real name was Ian Morrison, an Australian journalist who did indeed have an affair with the doctor later known as Han Suyin. His death in the Korean War ended the liaison. Han Suyin had two more husbands, wrote over forty books, and became a distinguished international lecturer with a distinct leftist slant. Whatever one might think of her politics and philosophy she wrote well, capturing with bitter poignancy the struggle to hold onto a forbidden and elusive love amid an era of war and confusion.

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9 comments:

Bad Catholic said...

Great review of a great movie with great actors!

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you very much, BC!

Julygirl said...

I still find the theme music haunting. Both Jennifer Jones and Bill Holden were favorites in all the films in which they were featured.

CarmenDahling said...

Elena Maria, your film reviews are so spot on and the music score is enchanting though after viewing this one recently it seemed that hollywood was promoting adultery and the more honest film title would be "Adultery is a many splendored thing" excusing and romanticizing adultery only led to many affairs and divorces to the detriment of children and families, and it still continues.

elena maria vidal said...

So true, Julygirl.

CarmenDahling, you are spot on, I TOTALLY agree. There is never any mention about what Mark's wife and children are going through while he is romping around Hong Kong with Suyin. You know, I think that Han Suyin wrote her book to glamorize in her own mind the fact that she was being used by a married man and that she was a potential home wrecker. So she tried to turn it into some great and sublime love that justifies any course of behavior as long as the lovers are together. How often do we see this happening around us now? All the time.... "They fell in love" has become an excuse for giving scandal.

boinky said...

One of my favorites also, and my Asian husband also loves it.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Elena, this was a very informative and clear-eyed review! I was familiar with the movie, but not the author's real life.

I confess that I'm one of those "cynics" who thinks that it was more a case of would not marry than could not marry. Interracial marriage wasn't very popular at the time Comber and Morrison fell in love. Their predicament reminds me of the romance between the British naval captain and the native girl in H. Rider Haggard's African-set King Solomon's Mines. It becomes clear that both characters are deeply in love with each other, but know they can never be together. There's the sense that the author and readers "allow" them to have that love story, on the condition that they never socially and sacramentally ratify it in matriomony.

Also, I've recently come across another memoir of a married woman who had a five-year affair with a man who was also married. His death in the middle of their affair prompted her to write her book, in which she claims that they both loved each other deeply--that he was, in fact, the "love of her life"--and that true love is possible in an adulterous relationship. I discussed the book with two sensible married women I know, and they both agreed that the woman was, like Comber, glamourising a sordid situation in her own mind in order not to see it for what it was. My friends also wondered what would have happened to that great love affair, had the lovers both obtained divorces, married each other, and settled down to the day-to-day business of marriage.

It's so easy to say a sublime love affair was real and that a lost love was "The One." But that attitude never takes into consideration that other people are being hurt--wives, husbands, even children.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, E., for the additional examples and reflections. I completely agree.

Peter Yeates said...

Only those who lived and loved in Hong Kong in the fifties will ever understand.The magical mixture of orient,danger,rcaial attraction,bright coloured lights,is impossible to understand. There are a few old men, and some ladies who served in the Ropyal Navy, the British Royal Navy, and only the British know how to run a colony, to understand and love the people whom we ruled, ruled in the lightest sense...More a sense of duty, then and now.
Only we know the magic of a many splendoured thing. We lived, and loved and we knew that love comes but once, maybe if you are lucky twice, but on that high and windy hill, high about the peak, there is a still a magical walk,a walk remembered. Rememrebered by this old man, who was once 18, and who loved and lived then in Hong Kong. Where is she now, my oriental beuaty, gentle, small, exquisite, smiling, that is all we could do but smile and love..
Our love was immortal and it lives in my memory, and will until I die, which is not long now, but we have known, that thing, that many splendoured thing called love.