“Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera”
You don’t get much more dated than the 1956 musical edition of The King and I. Through all the pomp and circumstance, it’s the trite storyline of a wannabe-modern king and the British school teacher who thaws his barbaric ways that comes through. All that’s wrong with the Western world is brought to the forefront as this woman alters a culture from the inside out. These exotic places must be taught what it means to be just and moral without thinking about the generations of customs their current kingdoms have been based upon and we must be the ones to teach them. By no means am I a proponent for slavery or abuse or polygamy or any of the unfortunate activities happening in Siam during the 1860s, but I also hate to see the arrogance of one culture belittling another in its drive to prove they’re the best. Perhaps I’m reading too far into this musical meant to entertain with its comedy and songs, but one can’t help disparage the insensitivity of its central plot thread.
Based on a novel by Margaret Landon, which in turn was a semi-fictional account of Anna Leonowens’ memoirs, I won’t deny the truth to what is portrayed. It’s a nice tale in so far as seeing a nation better itself and I’m sure the input of Anna came at a much more gradual, intelligent, and agreeable manner than the insolence and disrespect we see in the interaction onscreen. The worst thing of all, though, is how neither side of the equation is strong-willed enough to stick to their ideals. Both are so wishy-washy that they will kowtow to whatever the other says. The King of Siam (Yul Brynner) wants so much to be a great man versed in the scientific knowledge of countries all over the world and Anna (Deborah Kerr) tries so hard not to anger him and ruin the progress he has already set in motion that neither becomes as difficult as the other screams they are while stomping feet in tantrums. They just need to kiss and get it over with already …
I’d actually be very interested in hearing the true story behind King Mongkut because he appears to be quite the visionary. In what’s now known as Thailand, he has ushered in a new era of education. Wanting desperately to be spoken in the same breath as countries like Great Britain, he has taken major steps towards teaching his wives and children English. But nothing compares to the lessons of someone accomplished in disseminating them to Western children. So he willingly spends the money and hires an English widow to come with her young son and help them become the great nation he wishes his home to be. Even as King, he has more to learn. This realization comes in the form of the self-doubt that, despite what his subjects believe, he doesn’t know everything. He wants to improve, but the duties of his position and the history of his country mean change won’t come easy.
The kids cause a fuss after seeing a map showing Siam as smaller then surrounding nations; the King’s right hand man refuses to hide his contempt for Anna as he watches the strong man needed to keep their nation safe becomes weak of mind and indecisive; and the subject of slavery enters the fray in the most heavy-handed way possible—yes, a Burmese slave (Rita Moreno’s Tuptim) is given a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to learn English with. I understand the necessity of very broad subjects to help show the clash of cultures with blockbuster spectacle ease, but it subverts all credibility. How many times can we see the same thing over and over again? When will enough be enough? I can only watch the King show his anger, Anna yell sternly back, him give in with a sly smile before yelling for a compromise, and she groveling on the floor like the servant she adamantly denies being so much before I completely check out.
I had hoped the music would get me through, but besides “Getting to Know You”, the Rodgers and Hammerstein soundtrack does little to enthrall. Where that fails, though, the visuals do excel. Shot in Cinemascope with overly vibrant colors, the extremely wide framing is fantastic for showing the intricate sets. Exotic and Eastern, the rooms of the palace and the brief exterior from boat dock to town are chock full of the alluring beauty of the orient. From a fan dance at the beginning to the fast paced dance between Kerr and Brynner to the highlight of the entire film—a Siamese theatrical adaptation of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”—it’s the periphery stuff that shines while the petty arguments and empty threats of the leads disappoints. When a subplot concerning Burmese heathens in love is thrown away after serving its purpose and a dinner party for English dignitaries does nothing but make us want Anna and the King to finally hook up and stop their alternating dance of respect and disrespect, it’s tough to really care what happens.
There are some moments of humor—sadly mostly due to comically racist portrayals of the Siamese by white people (yes, I know Brynner won an Oscar)—and the underlining story can captivate when not dumbed-down for the masses looking for the extravaganza advertised. It is ‘spectacular’, but at what cost to quality storytelling? The acting leaves something to be desired, the music is bland, and the horrific look into another culture without giving it any chance to defend itself before being usurped by the more ‘educated’ West does give me pause to ever recommend despite its status as an important film of the genre. Again, though, my major problems might simply show its age and if I saw it back in 1956, maybe I would have lauded praises upon it too.
 Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr
[2 & 3] courtesy of Costume Captures