The King and I is one of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. The film is based on the novel, Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Langdon, which chronicles the real-life story of Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr) in the 1800’s. Mrs. Leonowens was a widowed Englishwoman who after the death of her husband, accepts a teaching position in Siam (modern day Thailand). Her charges are the numerous children, subsequent wives, and concubines of King Mongkut of Siam (Yul Brynner).
Getting to know you. Getting to feel free and easy. When I am with you, getting to know what to say. Haven’t you noticed, suddenly I’m bright and breezy. Because of all the beautiful and new things I’m learning about you. Day by day
Siam is equal parts mesmerizing and infuriating but completely foreign to Anna’s English sensibilities. Despite an initial squabble about housing though, she decides to honour her teaching post when she falls in love with the royal children. Anna, however, has her work cut out for her. King Mongkut is a fascinating contradiction. While he desires a modern, progressive, scientific Siam, he is also a traditionalist at heart whose arrogance and force of will is mighty.
Immediately Anna and the King clash as their cultural differences and personalities create friction. Mongkut wishes for the world to see Siam as a modern civilization and Anna works alongside him to dispel the notion that he is nothing more than the barbarian the west would brand him as. However, when a young concubine, Tuptim is brought to the palace, her love for another man places her at odds with her duty towards the king. The consequences for Tuptim (Rita Moreno), Anna and the King are devastating. Unfortunately, while Mongkut wants to usher Siam into modernity, change in tradition cannot happen overnight.
SHALL WE DANCE
The obvious thing that works about The King and I is the music! Oh, how the music works. Of all the musicals in all the world, most everyone who adores the genre must know the iconic “Shall we dance” which is surely the film’s crowning glory. Anna and the King share a dance and it’s strange to describe. On one hand, she remains teacher and he a pupil. On the other, the scene is underscored by a tangible sexual chemistry as the two leads touch. It feels forbidden, despite the fact that there is nothing strictly inappropriate about it. The scene is also framed by the King’s frenetic personality, which should negate any hint at romance. However, it doesn’t.
Shall we dance? On a bright cloud of music? Shall we fly? Shall we then say goodnight and mean goodbye? Or per chance, when the last little star has left the sky. Shall we still be together with our arms about each other and shall you be my new romance? On the clear understanding that this kind of thing can happen, shall we dance?
The cast of The King and I, especially its leads Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, are electric. The commanding voice of Brynner, the on-screen presence and his tyrannical, yet effervescent charm is incredibly captivating. While there are elements of the ridiculous in the character, that is a flaw of the writing, not the actor. It’s no wonder Brynner won an Academy Award for his performance. King Mongkut is vigorous, brash and full of life. Yet Brynner imbues him with hints of great affection and kindness. These traits layer the character and make him more complex than one would initially assume.
He will not always say what you would have him say. But, now and then he’ll say something wonderful. The thoughtless things he’ll do will hurt and worry you. Then, all at once he’ll do something wonderful
Deborah Kerr, unfortunately, did not win an Oscar, though she did take home a Golden Globe for her efforts. As Anna Leonowans, she is warm and sympathetic. The character is also strong-willed and quite willing to challenge the King – perhaps more creative license than actual historical fact – but it’s fun to watch nonetheless. Kerr infamously did not sing her songs for The King and I – that honour belongs to ghost voice, Marni Nixon.
Nevertheless, Brynner and Kerr have sizzling chemistry. While the musical never goes full romance, their heat is quite undeniable. Even if it is the 1800’s, she’s laced up to her throat and he’s stalking around bare-chested.
Like many a classic film that is appreciated and revered for its acting, cinematography or in this case its music, as I mentioned earlier, The King and I is a product of its time. For that reason, the characterization of the Asian culture as backward and the lack of diverse, appropriate region-specific casting is problematic and deserves a mention. King Mongkut, in particular, is characterized as inept, silly and narrow-minded. In contrast, Anna is uncharacteristically independent and verbose for an Englishwoman in the 1800’s. While from a story perspective this gives us great verbal battles between the King and Anna, in reality, it’s highly unlikely the real Anna Leonowans was as glib and free-spirited.