Francon goes to Hollywood: Ingrid Bergman at the head of Nant Francon. Her expression perhaps suggesting a recent visit to Bethesda.
Moel Hebog’s snow dusted summit had finally shaken off its early morning cloud cap and the luminous glow of the lazy winter sun was gradually lifting the land out of February’s lengthening shadows . At least the short early morning trip from Nantmor to Beddgelert, in an open topped WW2 Jeep, promised to be a dry affair, if guaranteed to suck the marrow out of the gnarliest bones. For Ruth Janette Ruck-wife of the rock climber and smallholder Paul Orkney Work-the journey had been unplanned the preceding evening until she took the call. At first she thought it was a hoax. But who would invent such a scenario and who did she know with an accent like that? No...the caller appeared to be genuine even if his request bordered on the surreal. For the next four months, Ruth Janette Ruck would be propelled into a world which was light years removed from the hum-drum of a smallholders life in 1950’s rural north Wales.
Ruth Janette Ruck and her husband ran a small mixed holding on the southern slopes of Moel Dyniewyd; a Moelwyn outlier which contained the delightful valley of Nantmor. A quiet land laced with small farms, grey chapels and abandoned nettle limed ruins, cast amongst river meadows and steeply inclined fields where only the native sheep could cling on. Broad strands of sessile oak woodland divided the fertile lower meadows from the bare mountain slopes above. Unlike the gaunt bare valleys of Northern Snowdonia, Nantmor’s westerly location-close to the sea- gave it a fatter, richer aspect and character.
The Chinese City of Yangchen created on the slopes of Moel Dyniewyd
The telephone call that Ruth had taken had come from a representative of Hollywood movie giants, Twentieth Century Fox. Ruth and her jeep were needed to transport members of the film direction team on a location shoot for a movie which the company were planning to shoot in North Wales. Although the film was set in the mountains of Northern China and although the company had scoured various locations in the Far East including Hong Kong and Taiwan, it was finally decided that the mountain areas within the Snowdonia national park were closest in character to the story’s location.
The film ‘The Inn of the Sixth Happiness’ was based on the real life story of Gladys Aylward, a self appointed Christian missionary who after being turned down by official agencies, managed to fund her own journey to China where she procured a placement with an elderly female missionary who ran a Christian guest house in the remote the inland city of Yangchen, in the mountainous province of Shansi.
It was a dark period in China’s troubled history. The country was in the midst of it's second Sino-Japanese war In the midst of this chaos, Gladys Aylward’s greatest achievement- and the central focus of the planned film- came when she guided a party of over 100 children through the mountains to escape the advancing Japanese army who were carrying out a bloody campaign under the standard of the rising sun. Her epic trip through the mountains of Shanshi was a feat of courage and endurance for which she received official commendations from both the UK and the PRC governments.
In real life, Gladys Aylward was a short rather dumpy woman with a rich cockney accent. Naturally, Hollywood, as ever sensitive to authenticity, cast a tall, beautiful Swedish woman-Ingrid Bergman-in the role. She would be supported by Robert (Mr Chips) Donet playing a Chinese mandarin and Curt Jurgens as a mixed race officer in the People’s Army. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness being a Hollywood movie couldn’t resist throwing some romantic interaction into the film and throughout the movie, the Bergman/ Jurgen characters simmer in their passion. A highly unlikely scenario in the circumstances and one which the real Gladys Aylward absolutely denied.
Ruth arrived at the Royal Goat Hotel in Beddgelert and describes the early morning scene.... There was the quiet of early morning with the smoke of newly lighted fires pluming upwards, and Will Bryn Felin going from door to door with the morning milk. The only thing which jarred with the timelessness of the scene was the limousine parked outside the hotel with a uniformed chauffeur in attendance.... Eventually, a contingent of movie makers emerged and joined Ruth and her sheepdog Mit in the boneshaker and off they went. Covering all points of the compass and exploring every narrow lane and axel snapping, sump splitting track between Beddgelert and Nant Francon.
Eventually the director Mark Robson and his team settled upon Nantmor itself as the main location for set construction, where, according to Janette Ruck This Chinese city of Wangcheng was beautiful.... It fitted perfectly into those wild surroundings and lent splendour to the great sweep of Moel Hebog behind it. Other sets were being built too. A complete Chinese village appeared on the terraced workings of an old copper mine near Beddgelert, and a graveyard with plaster monuments in the village of Llanfrothen.
‘Wangcheng’ the main focal point of the outside filming was constructed on the craggy slopes of Moel Dyniewyd. The main crag of Dyniewyd is the site of one of Paul Work’s best routes, the delightful ‘Christmas Climb’. A route which was one of Menlove Edward’s last climbs, completed with its progenitor a few months before he committed suicide. Edwards was another one time Nantmor resident who lived just up the valley from Paul and Ruth in the tiny cottage of Hafod Owen, and whose ashes were scattered in the valley just months before the film shoot.
One of the other main film locations was the head of Nant Francon just beyond Ogwen Cottage where the film company were forced to base their activities. Access along the old road which runs parallel to the A5 was impossible to all but 4x4’s at the time. It was at this location- where the hillside runs up to and spills over in Cwm Idwal -that the main filming took place which detailed the exodus through the mountains. Much of the battle footage was also filmed above Nant Francon and below the West Face of Tryfan. Eagle eyed film watchers familiar with Snowdonia will watch the movie with a wry smile as Ingrid Bergman and Bert Kwouk - best known perhaps as Peter Sellers Pink Panther accomplice Cato - lead their ragged caravan under the shadow of Y Garn and the distant Devil’s Kitchen.
The small village of Beddgelert, would have been a fantastical surreal place for anyone passing through at the time with bloody Japanese soldiers, Chinese peasants and panniered war horses wandering up and down the high street . A High Street alive with local, American and Scouse accents. Most of the Chinese characters including the Chinese child refugees were recruited from Liverpool’s Chinese community. Back in Ogwen, Ruth continued her role as a cast and props runner in her Jeep. Regularly running Ingrid Bergman up from Ogwen Cottage to the shoot location in her increasingly clapped out and gradually disintegrating boneshaker. Thankfully for Ruth, the film company had by now commissioned half a dozen extra Land Rovers to relieve the burden.
Back on Dyniewyd, the unwitting visitor cresting a neighbouring hill would have witnessed a sight which was guaranteed to knock them back on their heels. Japanese bombers strafing a impressive oriental walled city as peasants ran from the rice fields for their lives. Below the walled city, hundreds of extras and crew mingled out of shot on the mountain’s lower slopes. Down the road in the Aberglasllyn Pass, the film crew shot the river crossing scenes with Ingrid Bergman and Bert Kwouk leading their young Scouse charges through the fast flowing waters of the Afon Glasllyn.
By late June the film was in the can. In Ruth’s words... It seemed hard to imagine the countryside with no cars and people blocking the roads, no curly eaved pagodas on the hills, no sampans floating on the quiet waters of Llyn Dinas. The end came. The children left first. The vans, Lorries and buses went home. The casual goodbyes of constant travellers were said and the film makers slipped out of our lives. A few men were left to demolish the sets, but in a short time these too had finished, had loaded their last truck and departed. There was not a fragment of pagoda, not a bamboo pole, not a rice bowl left to tell us that China had ever been to Wales. The turf was replaced, the rubbish gathered, the hills restored to the sheep and mountaineers and the grey stone villages in the valley were quiet again.......I turned again to work which was governed by the sun and moon and the slow revolutions of the seasons.
An old climber once told me though, that years later you could still happen upon a ‘curly eaved’ Chinese building in the hills around Dyniewyd so perhaps the set managers were not quite as diligent as Ruth Ruck suggests? Sadly, in my many visits to this beautiful area, I have never come across so much as a sandal or chopstick.
The film was released in 1959 and became one of the year’s highest grossing films. Its appeal continues to this day and despite it very much being stylistically of its time, modern film fans still consider it something of a classic of the genre. For Gladys Aylward, the central character, the film with its romantic undertones was not to her taste and she refused to be associated with it or exploit its success by giving interviews or attend screenings.Ruth Janette Ruck returned to the smallholders life and wrote two books which anticipated the escape to the country/good life boom by several years with her Faber & Faber published Hill Farm Story and Place of Stones. An essay ‘Wild Mountain Time’ appeared on Footless Crow which contains a potted climbing biography of her partner- Paul Orkney- Work. Ingrid Bergman died aged 67 in London.