Next to The Sound of Music, everyone knows the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I. Their celebrity status probably is the reason both have similar plotlines: A governess out of her depth travels to a new place to teach a powerful’s man children, of which there’s several. Where The King and I is problematic is its racist depiction of the King of Siam, a problem irritating the Thai people who’ve banned the movie in their country. Outside of that irksome fact, the movie lumbers from one song to another (oddly enough there aren’t many) before ending with an honor killing. I understand those who appreciate it as “as part of its time” but I wasn’t interested in “getting to know” it beyond a cursory viewing.
Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr) travels with her young son to Siam to act as governess to the King’s (Yul Brynner) several children. Along the way, she ends up teaching the King about being a civilized ruler.
Oklahoma! set the bar high, and I went into The King and I with the same knowledge I had of the former movie. I knew the name and a song, other than that I went in cold. In many respects, The King and I acts as a foundation for which The Sound of Music would build to greater heights. Where that film took almost three hours to tell a complete story with several memorable songs, The King and I does in two-hours with only a handful of songs. There’s no clear sense of progression or zero sense of time. I laughed out loud when Anna declared she’d lived in Siam “many months” had passed since she landed in Siam and we were only at the 36-minute mark. By the conclusion, I assumed it was the same “life in a day” schedule as Oklahoma!, but it could have been years.
Like Oklahoma!, The King and I delivers the same level of cinematography, this time with the aid of cinematographer Leon Shamroy. Where the first movie was about the land, Shamroy’s camera is in love with the sets. The massive palace of the King, recreated on the Fox backlot, is exquisitely decorated by set designer John DeCuir and Lyle R. Wheeler. The geometric designs and opalescence certainly creates an earthy, exotic feel. Since the movie opens with Anna landing
on Plymouth Rock in Siam, there’s no way to compare the world of England to Thailand, so it’s conveyed through sets and costumes. The Asian headdresses and clothes of the King’s wives are beautiful but lack the voluminous pleats and hoop skirt of Kerr. When Kerr makes mention of the ladies lack of undergarments, prudery clashes with sexuality reiterating one of several tired stereotypes between England and the Orient.
If you enjoyed woman buying in Oklahoma! you’ll get plenty more in The King and I. The more eye-catching subplot involves Burma woman, Tuptim (Rita Moreno) and her forbidden love with Lun Tha (Carlos Rivas). Tuptim is a captive of the King, in a way more threatening and sexually aggressive than any imprisonment Anna perceives she’s a part of. Tuptim’s duet with Lun Tha is a beautifully framed sequence and contains more passion than the “Shall We Dance” number between the King and Anna. I understand the relationships between Tuptim and Lun Tha, specifically the punishment of the two, is harsher in other interpretations-keep in mind Tuptim was a fictional character Leonowens invented for her autobiography-and the King’s benevolence in letting her live gives you enough to like him by the end. However, Lun Tha is killed off-screen by drowning, letting the King off the hook but still punishing Tuptim for going against the rules of the kingdom. The King’s palace is also depicted as a happy brothel with the King’s wives “in favor.” The King’s main wife, Lady Thiang (Terry Saunders) is the pro-King mouthpiece for the movie, but also belittles the women to impress Anna. “You scientific, not lowly like woman.” It’d be great if a part of the movie involved educating the women, but they’re left in the same pitiable position they were in from the beginning.
Before I get into the major element turning me against The King and I, let me reiterate: I understand this movie is attempting to depict a way of life perceived as “backward.” Despite knowing Leonowens faked much of her source material, and the King of Siam was deemed a ruler who brought advancements to his people, the Orient’s never received a fair shake in classic films. It would be easy to chalk up the stereotypical and racist depictions of the Asian characters as “that’s how it was” if this wasn’t 1956. The 1940s racism against Asians was rooted within WWII-fears, but post-WWII there’s little need for antagonism, and really the only reason the audience is against the King and his family is they’re backward when placed against the prim and proper English. Anna Leonowens represents civility, technology, normality, and dominance (England may be smaller on the map, but it certainly held greater power than Siam). Anna, for all her cries-and there’s many-of leaving Siam, comes up with excuses to stay because she knows the King isn’t a barbarian. This is an interesting route to take, and Yul Brynner takes a character who is a Charlie Chan stereotype in certain scenes, and attempts to humanize him. He acknowledges he doesn’t know anything, and wants to educate his children in the ways of the West.
The problem is the King isn’t where our POV lies, we supposed to watch events unfold from Anna’s perspective. To her, the palace and King mean confinement. There’s also a very muddy slavery plotline wherein Anna tells the King slavery is a horrible practice only to encourage a lengthy ballet performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. For 1956 audiences, and especially audiences today, the movie discourages certain types of slavery while allowing another. This is a white savior film, wherein the white savior (Kerr) saves/liberates a backward country into the life of Western civilization. Even for 1956 the movie is preachy and offensive. And even sadder, the King, on whom we’ve come to enjoy as a man stubborn in his thinking, fades off into the sunset without a true moment of realization. He dies from losing his honor to an English woman (a double threat), losing all the power and magnanimity he started with. When placed up against the big, bad English, he’s a small man who dies of shame. And just for giggles, not one Asian person is in the main cast (Brynner=Russian, Moreno=Puerto Rican). The characters aren’t quite on par with Boris Karloff in West of Shanghai, but it’s close.
With no real ending to speak of, The King and I suffers from being all middle. At over two hours, the movie’s slow pace and lack of songs, let along memorable songs, are just frustrating. The costumes, set design, and cinematography are breathtaking, on par with Oklahoma!, but the plot and interpretation of events are too dated and unfocused for modern audiences. It’s a worth purely for nostalgic purposes.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.