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The King and I (1956)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera!”

This multiple Oscar winner by Rodgers and Hammerstein (R&H) contains some of the best music in movies. R&H adapted the musical from a 1944 book by Margaret Landon about the experiences of an English gentlewoman tutoring the royal family of Siam (now Thailand). Before the R&H musical, Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne starred in the first movie based on the book: Anna and the King of Siam (1946). In 1999 Jodie Foster starred as Anna and Chow Yun Fat as the King in a movie based on Anna Leonowens' memoirs while teaching in Siam: Anna and the King. Although more true to the facts, neither the 1999 nor 1946 versions of the story have R&H music.

The movie opens with the credits while the exotic main musical theme plays. The story begins with the camera showing a steamship arriving in a Siamese port in 1862. While the Captain barks out orders and deckhands gather items from the ship’s hold, a young passenger -- Louis Leonowens (Rex Thompson – who also played the oldest son in All Mine To Give) -- asks if they have arrived at their destination. The captain says “Aye laddie, that’s Bangkok alright.”

Louis is called by his mother, Anna Leonowen (Deborah Kerr), as she appears on deck in a very wide skirted gown. When Louis asks if the King will meet them at the docks, she assures him he won’t. However, there is a commotion on deck when the royal barge is seen approaching. It bears the Kralahome (Martin Benson) the King of Siam’s “right hand man” -- “a sort of a Prime Minister.” The captain expresses worry for Anna being virtually alone in Bangkok. She assures him that the King has promised her a house of her own where she can raise her son the way she feels will be proper for him.

As the barge approaches Louis seems a bit frightened. His mother reassures him by singing “I Whistle a Happy Tune” the first of this musical’s many well known melodies. Although the Kralahome may seem very unsympathetic, he and his entourage provide a first taste of the coming culture clashes. When the Kralahome brings Anna and Louis to the royal palace, the King (Yul Brynner – who richly deserved and won the 1956 Best Actor Oscar for this role) receives a gift from the Prince of Burma. The Burmese emissary Lun Tha (Carlos Rivas) delivers Tuptim (Rita Moreno) a young woman presented to King Mongkut of Siam. The gift of a person from one despot to another seems to astonish Anna.

The audience may see something King Mongkut and his court miss: Tuptim and Lun Tha have fallen in love. After receiving his gift the King concludes his audience. When the Kralahome tells Anna this and turns to leave, she takes Louis and advances to the front of the court. The Kralahome catches up when the King notices the strangers. He asks the Kralahome who they are and discovers the schoolteacher he hired. As Anna starts to state her case for the house that was promised, the King talks of the plan he has to bring the best of Western ideas to Siam. He takes Anna and Louis through the palace to introduce them to his “head wife” Lady Thiang (Terry Saunders) and other members of his court. The King desires to make Siam more modern and “scientific.” When the King seems to renege on his promise of a house, Anna plans to return to England. However, when she meets her prospective pupils, the King's charming children, she changes her mind and stays.

In The King and I, like South Pacific and Flower Drum Song, Rodgers and Hammerstein  deal with the meeting of Eastern and Western cultures. However, the issues in The King and I do not directly relate to racism, but center on other topics: the nature of monarchial despotism, patriarchy and slavery. Even though the King is on the wrong side of all these issues, he is still something of a sympathetic character. He favors progress: the “modern and scientific.” For his time and place he stands above what most expected from an oriental despot. As a Victorian gentlewoman Anna opposes most of his stands on the issues stated above. However, she comes to respect the King. Their relationship and the conflicts brought by both the threat of European imperialism and Tuptim’s desire for freedom to pursue her love for Lun Tha lead to the remaining events of the story. As usual Rodgers and Hammerstein provide wonderful music. If you give The King and I a viewing, you’ll find what quite a few people consider the best musical ever made.

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