As much as I love musicals (and I really do, especially old-school pre-1970s classics), I never really liked The King and I. But I had this weird idea that the non-singing versions of the story might be more interesting. Well … no. Let’s put it this way — neither Anna and the King of Siam (1946) nor Anna and the King (1999) can fully deal with the fact that this is an ethnocentric story of white people telling people of color how to live. The only upgrade is that the later film has an actual Asian man playing the King instead of a British man. OK, and much more historically accurate Oscar-nominated 1860s costumes by Jenny Beavan. But that still doesn’t make up for the overwhelming cultural imperialism.
Sometimes, you just have to look at movies and ask the hard questions, even when you’re reading a silly costume site, right? We go on and on and on about historical accuracy in clothing, that’s our thing. You could say that depicting the unequal relationships between cultures in a way that favor the more powerful culture IS perfectly historically accurate. The 1860s, when British Anna Leonowens traveled to Siam (modern Thailand) to become a governess for the children of King Mongkut was definitely an era when the British felt they were superior to anyone native to Asia. The original story is told through Leonowens’ eyes, with as much — or as little — introspection into the Siamese characters as an outsider can ever expect. The British point of view and Western way of doing things is automatically considered the best, and everyone else is supposed to get with the program. So while that perspective is historically accurate in some ways, it’s also deeply one-sided and reveals the biases of the times just as much as a 1940s hairstyle does.
The original stories that Leonowens wrote of her experiences were turned into a fictionalized novel Anna and the King of Siam, published in 1944 by Margaret Landon. That book was a huge hit in America, leading Hollywood to make the first movie adaption in 1946 (and obviously, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical later). According to an article on TCM.com, the producer at Twentieth Century-Fox, Darryl Zanuck, said Landon’s book was “one of the funniest stories I have ever read” and “the comedy possibilities are enormous.” While he also praised the tale as having “wonderful personal drama” full of “tenderness and conflict,” that he highlights it as a comedy kind of disgusts me, having seen the result.
See, the King of Siam is totally played for laughs. Rex Harrison uses patently offensive, sing-songy Asian stereotype vocal mannerisms to speak all his lines, plus he’s made up in essentially yellow face (as much as you can tell in a black-and-white film) with exaggerated eyebrows and weird greasy hair. The plot makes the King look the fool over and over again, and Anna, while sometimes shown to be stuffy and presumptuous, always comes out on top.
Half a century later, the 1999 version tries very hard to be more politically correct, and yet the script is still taking Anna Leonowens’ novel at face value. Presumably, by casting an Asian man, Chow Yun Fat, as King Mongkut, this version was supposed to be more sensitive to the Asian point of view. And yet, this is no revisionist tale — Anna and the King circa 1999 tells the same story as the 1946 movie (or the 1956 musical). Worse still, this film tries to add a frisson of romance between the King and Anna, which feels incredibly forced (they’re each great actors, but they have no chemistry together) and layers on a strange power dynamic. The 1999 King is both more powerful as a ruler and more vulnerable as a man, until he’s not — it’s Anna and her son who save the day and essentially scare off the King’s enemies in the final scenes. Anna rules over him diplomatically by orchestrating a grand dinner (which has some amazing 1860s ballgowns in sari fabrics, btw) and again with her “military” success. The King is not played for a fool, the treatment is more subtle, but he and all Asian peoples and cultures are still shown as “other” and less valid than English / Western culture.
Costumes in Anna and the King
The 1999 Anna and the King gets the English 1860s costuming spot-on, thanks to the always brilliant Jenny Beavan, while the 1946 version looks predictably ’40s-ish with big shoulders, pompadour hairstyles, and hoops that appear recycled from Gone With the Wind. Both films make a reasonable attempt at Siamese / Thai costume, although it’s hard to tell if they are simply using modern Thai or 19th-century fashions. In looking for reference material, I did find that throughout the 19th and early 20th century, it was a little trendy among the Siamese court to mix Western styles with their own traditional dress. The resulting fashions are sometimes quite bold for the era, as if to remind would-be colonizers of the country’s independence.
What do you think of the cultural issues and costumes in either version of Anna and the King? What about the musical?
I love musicals, but The King and I has never been one of my favorites. I always liked the dancing because her dress looked pretty and I thought Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr had good chemistry.
YouTube has the clip from the Tony Awards Broadway revival production, though. There’s a lovely sample of those costumes throughout and the chemistry between Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe is fantastic.
I actually really like “Anna and the King,” and I don’t think it’s particularly slanted in either direction. True, Anna’s quick thinking at the end saves the king from death, but there are many instances in the film where he is shown to be the wiser, more intuitive, bigger picture thinker, of the two of them.
Her bold, independent nature results in meddling, which has consequences for all involved. In some instances, the native culture is condemned for its more barbaric practices — and in others, Anna’s heavy handed “the British do it better” winds up hurting innocent people. I think the most powerful scene to me is when he rakes her over the coals, because now he must condemn Tuptim to death. He intended to help her, but now he has no choice but to deny Anna’s public appeals, so it doesn’t appear that he is taking orders from her. It’s an exploration not only of pride but traditionalism within the culture, and outward perceptions.
To me, the plot is kind of symbolic of what you’re talking about — it’s addressing the British bigotry within the main narrative, by making Anna a representation of the British empire itself. You could even argue that the king represents Siam — in some ways, foolish, and in other ways, profound, ancient, wise, and realistic. It’s fascinating, if you care to look deeper.
Anna neither understands nor respects their native culture and her own biases. She’s not really the great intelligent white savior who fixes Siam; she has a lot to learn! I like that about her. She’s deeply flawed.
The costumes are wonderful, as is the score. Such a haunting soundtrack.
I haven’t seen the earlier version (I almost didn’t recognize Rex Harrison!), but I am rather partial to “The King and I.” Those songs get stuck in my head on a regular basis. Da da DA da da da!
Except Anna doesn’t really learn in the course of the 1999 movie. It’s the same basic plot as the ’46 movie, & I suggest watching them back to back because that really reinforces the similarities. The differences are more in better costuming in the later.
I remember one big controversy with Anna and the King was actually the casting of Chow Yun Fat as Mongkut. The fact that he is Chinese (and actually, the casting made use of a ton of Chinese actors, aside from him and Bai Ling) was seen as a huge slap in the face to many Thai. I mean, Chow Yun Fat is total hotness in this film, but what, there were no Thai actors who could have played the role? Especially ones who weren’t actually living in Thailand and therefore not subject to the country-wide ban on this particular movie/book? Again, it was that mindset of “No one’s going to notice if we use this guy who is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT NATIONALITY, because all Asians look alike, AMIRITEGUYS?”
The 1999 producers originally wanted to film in Thailand, but were told a big fat NO, because the earlier movies were so offensive & disrespectful in their depiction of the Siamese/Thai royalty. The first movie & the musical have always been a huge source of contention in Thailand, & the 1999 remake was just more of the same.
I agree with Charity. I adored both the King and I (that DRESS for the grand ball!) and Anna and the King. Jodie Foster has never been my favorite, but she does a pretty decent job in Anna and the King of portraying a British woman blinded to the good of any culture except her own. Chow Yun Fat was incredible as an emperor who understood that he needed to keep his traditions and culture alive and flourishing, while also educating his children so they could “play” in the Western world’s games without becoming a chess piece themselves. Considering the story of modernity vs traditionalism is a story that still thrives in modern day (see Trump beckoning with stylized version of 1950s America), it transcends the setting and cultures.
Hey… I love your articles, but…
This one was a little overdone. No offence but it kinda comes off a bit as a university student getting themselves into a lather about cultural imperialism. This site reviews SO many movies that are so historically inaccurate, that make some people look terrible, and you don’t say boo about that. I just find this one a little off.
You have to take into account that Anna Leonowens was a masterful liar and when she wrote her autobiography, she exaggerated her own importance and that of her position because she was broke and needed money. 80% of what she says about herself is not overly truthful. That said, King Chulalongkorn felt enough affection for her that in her later life, he supported her financially at different times and even came to visit her. (They were going to have that in the movie, but it ended up on the cutting room floor)
The book written in the 1940s was an example of its time, as was the movie. Actually, I didn’t have a problem with Rex Harrison’s accent, because you have to take it in stride for the time it was made. Watching this movie waiting to be offended is like watching Gone With the Wind, waiting to be offended. It’s GOING to happen… so take it as a piece of the time it is from. It’s not accurate. It’s not going to be. It is what it is.
As for the Thais, (I lived there for a time) they have a real love/hate affair with this whole thing. (Someone in a comment mentioned no Thai actors- I don’t think many Thais would act in it) They like the interest people have in their country because of the story and they hate the story itself. They think the whole book is very close to lese-majesty and makes an incredibly progressive king look not so great. They didn’t allow the new movie to be filmed in Thailand and didn’t want much to do with it.
It would have been nice if they had made an accurate story about Anna Leonowens- she did live a fascinating life in her own right- suffragette, world traveller and educator- but thats not what people want to see. (or what the studios wanted to show!) They were remaking the story that people expected to see. Was it an insult? No. I don’t think so. Could it have been better? Well obviously.
Still… It was an enjoyable movie. It is what it is. I would rate it on the same level of ‘truthiness’ as a number of other hollywood movies… from the Coppola Marie Antoinette to… well…omg… anything else that has ‘based on a true story’ written under it.
A big reason we have yet to review Gone With the Wind on this site is due to the inherent racism of the film. We like pretty dresses, but we are also very aware that we are living & watching movies & TV shows today, in 2016, & must judge them by today’s standards. That’s also what we do when we say this bonnet or hoop shape isn’t historically accurate — sure, the movie was made in 1953 & maybe they didn’t care, but we study this stuff today & we care. Just like we care about accurate representation of different cultures today, even if the producers of a 1940s movie — or the revivalists of said movie in the 1990s — didn’t care about it then.
As I said, there was always something that bugged me about the musical “The King & I” & now, having delved into the actual story & 2 non-singing versions, I know for sure — the whole thing is white-washed fantasy made up by Anna Leonowens. I *did not* enjoy it at all. I was offended by Rex Harrison’s performance (& I usually love him; search the site for my other reviews) in the 1946 movie. And I feel like Chow Yun Fat got short shrift in the 1999 version. Anna’s entire storyline is to come in & teach the yellow man how he done wrong, & it’s just awful. It’s not funny, it’s not romantic, it’s not cute. As I said, it’s an ‘example of it’s time’ but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. Again, like an inaccurate costume, we’re perfectly within our rights to point out what’s wrong with cultural insensitivity too.
and I believe Leonowens was herself Anglo-Indian, something she “left out” of her story and is ignored in later versions as well.
That’s 100% true. She was about 1/4.
Another interesting point – the actor Boris Karloff is related to Anna Leonowens; descended from her sister.
I love the music of The King and I, but if I’m going to watch a non-R&H-musical version I would like it to tell a skeptical/debunking version of the story – one that would tell a more balanced and historically informed story than Anna Leouwen’s self-serving and blindered narrative!
Sign me up for that :)
*Raises hand* PoC here. Seeing Hollywood, books, TV and other media push white centric narratives, white washing characters of color, and showing white people as superior, be it explicit or subtle, gets so old.
Making matter worse is that such viewpoints are often defended or their problematic points are glossed over, providing implicit approval. Harmful narratives must be acknowledged so as to better avoid them.
Thanks for weighing in!
Definitely! Being of Asian heritage, I get pretty tired of Orientalist “exoticism” which you expect (but don’t have to forgive) in a 1940s movie, but c’mon, in a 1990s movie too? Ugh. Nope, still not cutting it, Hollywood.
Oh… I remember the one I was trying to remember… Eddie the Eagle. Fun film… only about 10% was based on reality… but… fun film.
At CSA in Cleveland, Melissa Leventon gave a really interesting talk on later generations of Thai royalty and thier connection to Western clothing; and has worked with the present Queen to establish a costume museum of her couturier clothing from, I believe, Balmain, purchased for a Royal tour of Europe. It was fascinating. I have the abstract, somewhere …. if none wants the citations and bett info than my heat-addled brain is providing at this moment.
The few photos I could find from the 1890s-1920s were amazing, so I can only imagine what a fabulous museum *that* would be! I’d love to hear more about this talk.
Jodie Foster in any kind of period piece just seems wrong to me. She’s a very good actress but no, just no.
Yeah, she’s SO modern!
Mongkut was the great modernizer who kept Siam independent in the face European colonialism so of course modern Thais have a problem with him being played for laughs. As for Anna she was a strong feminist and wrote her books in part as polemics against the treatment of women in Siam which honestly wasn’t all that hot. However she seems to have pretended to witness acts of oppression that had actually occurred generations before or never at all.
Her lies about her origins are completely understandable given her times. She may have been hiding Indian blood, we just don’t know, but she was certainly hiding her working class origins. A Welsh gentlewoman and officer’s widow would get much more respect than the daughter of an Indian Army non-com and widow of a civilian clerk.