In 1862, British widow Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr) and her son, Louis (Rex Thompson), arrive in Bangkok, where Anna is to teach the children of King Mongkut (Yul Brynner). The king has hired Anna because he wants his many offspring, as well as his many wives, to acquire the best of Western culture and knowledge. In exchange, he’s promised her £20 a month and a house of her own outside the palace walls — but when she arrives, she discovers that she and her son are expected to live inside the palace after all. The strong-willed, independent Anna confronts the king, despite being warned against it, and though he admires her for her lack of fear, he refuses to give her the house. She decides to return to England, only to change her mind after meeting the children. Still, she won’t give up on getting what she wants, and this won’t be her only conflict with the equally strong-willed king.
The King and I, released in 1956 and directed by Walter Lang, was adapted from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s stage musical of the same name (which was, in turn, adapted from the novel Anna and the King by Margaret Langdon, which was itself based on the real Anna Leonowens’s memoirs). Possibly because I saw the play several years ago, or possibly because it’s been a while since I’ve watched a classic Hollywood musical like this, I couldn’t help noticing the staginess of the film. At times — when the children are introduced to Anna, for example, or during some of the songs — it all feels as if it’s been set up for a theatrical performance rather than a movie, and the wide CinemaScope aspect ratio and dearth of close-ups add to that feeling. That being said, the massive, elaborate, colorful sets are beautiful, as are the costumes, and the many long shots show them off to great advantage. (As it happens, the scene that struck me the most, visually speaking, was the most blatantly theatrical: the play-within-the-play, a Thai-style retelling of Uncle Tom’s Cabin — yes, really.) The king’s palace is meant to impress and overwhelm, after all, so perhaps a more intimate style would have diminished the power of the setting somewhat.
But Anna, though she may be out of her element on occasion, doesn’t allow herself to become intimidated by her new surroundings or by the king’s power. She’s an admirable figure, unafraid to stand up for her rights and beliefs, appalled by the idea — shared by the king and his wives — that women are lesser beings. (He considers Anna an exception because she’s “scientific.”) Her attitude and behavior don’t fit in at the Siamese court, but they must have made her rather unusual in Victorian England as well.
Just as fascinating, if not more so, is the king himself. In some ways, he’s surprisingly open-minded, eager to become the best leader he can be by expanding his knowledge and reconsidering the information he’s already learned, not to mention educating his children and wives. On the other hand, he’s unwilling to give up his authority and supremacy, to the point that he expects everyone — including Anna — to keep their heads lower than his at all times.
Ruling, as he does, in an age of colonialism, his position is actually much more tenuous than it might appear. He’s already lost territory to France, and a few months after Anna’s arrival, he faces the possibility of being removed from power by the British, who consider him a barbarian. In order to prove otherwise to them — thereby saving himself from their interference — he decides to entertain them with a Western-style banquet. “The British ambassador knows we’re Siamese. I wish him to know we’re also Europeans,” he tells a skeptical Anna. It’s a kind of paradox, this need to protect his country’s sovereignty by conforming to another country’s standards. He likes the idea of being a great modern nation, and Anna’s presence certainly opens his mind and those of his household members to a wider world, but he also wants to keep that wider world at bay when it becomes a threat, as it inevitably does. While the film doesn’t explore these issues in quite as much depth as I would have liked, they are at least present, and I was left wanting to learn more about Thailand’s history.
This post is part of the 2017 Blind Spot Series, hosted by The Matinee. My full list can be found here.