“The king is not ordinary man.”

In 1862, a young British widow and teacher, Anna Leonowens, arrived in the small Asian nation of Siam (now Thailand) to accept a position as governess to the court of the country’s ruler, King Mongkut. Her pupils comprised the king’s expansive harem, made up of over one hundred wives, mistresses, and children, all of whom he wished to be educated in a “Western” manner. After more than five years in the service of Mongkut’s court, Leonowens returned to Great Britain and, several years later, produced two highly fictionalized memoirs of her time in Siam: The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and Romance of the Harem (1873). In 1944, almost thirty years after Leonowens’ death, author Margaret Landon adapted these memoirs into the bestselling Anna and the King of Siam, which further exaggerated the English teacher’s experiences, highlighting Anna’s supposed influence on Mongkut’s political decisions and personal life.

Two years later, 20th Century Fox acquired the rights to the story and produced a film based on the material, also called Anna and the King of Siam. The movie version was one of Fox’s most successful productions of the year, eventually winning two Academy Awards (for cinematography and art direction) and critical praise. Still, the 1946 version of Leonowens’ life is not the most well-known today; a decade later, Fox’s musical adaptation of the story, called The King and I (based on the Tony Award-winning 1951 stage musical) would go on to even greater success, winning five Oscars and almost universal acclaim.

I enjoy the musical (particularly Yul Brynner’s charming, Oscar-winning performance as the King), but ultimately there seems to be something missing from the movie, particularly in comparison to its older counterpart. The addition of songs to the story makes for a lighter tale, with the drama created by the clashing Eastern and Western values being mined for laughs in lieu of making any profound statements about the intrinsic differences between cultures. In my mind, the 1946 version’s more serious take on the material simply makes for an overall better film.

This version of the tale stars Irene Dunne as Leonowens and Rex Harrison as the King. Dunne was initially thought by Fox chief Daryl F. Zanuck to be “too old” for the part of Anna (the actress was 48 at the time)—he envisioned Dorothy McGuire for the role, but could not work out an arrangement to borrow the actress from the notoriously difficult David O. Selznick. Zanuck also wanted William Powell or Charles Boyer for the part of the King before Harrison was finally awarded the part.

Dunne and Harrison ultimately work very well opposite one another, demonstrating an easy chemistry and on-screen camaraderie that adds great depth to their portrayals of these characters. Though Harrison is not one of my favorite actors, this is my favorite of his film performances. I’ve always perceived him as a somewhat stilted actor, and strangely enough, that quality works for him in this part (incidentally, this movie presented the British Harrison with his first American film role). Dunne, for her part, is a typically lovely presence—she adds a spunky nature to Anna that is somewhat dampened in Deborah Kerr’s portrayal in the musical version. And in case you were wondering, the gorgeous Dunne definitely doesn’t look “too old” in the role.

The supporting cast is equally capable, and is filled with some familiar faces including Lee J. Cobb as the King’s Prime Minister (Kralahome); Linda Darnell as the doomed young wife Tuptim; and Gale Sondergaard as Lady Thiang, the number-one wife. Sondergaard was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance. Other notable names associated with the production of the movie include composer Bernard Herrmann, who infused the score with the distinctive sound of gongs, and actor/director John Cromwell, who helmed the production.

Though I find the movie to be thoroughly enjoyable, the material is admittedly unrealistic, amounting to little more than a kind of fairy tale. That a woman—even a woman of foreign birth, not subject to the rules and social mores of the kingdom of Siam—could exercise so much influence on a decidedly patriarchal ruler is the stuff of pure fantasy. Leonowens herself admitted as much, as did her erstwhile biographer Landon, both of whom acknowledged that Leonowens’ tales had been significantly exaggerated to elevate Leonowens’ importance in the Siamese court. And the film embellishes the tales further still to heighten dramatic effect: for example, the movie version kills off Anna’s son, Louis, in a riding accident, but the real Louis lived well into adulthood and even returned to Siam in later years and served a term in the country’s military). The movie also depicts Anna as being present at the King’s death and her subsequently remaining in Siam to help his son, the new King, in his duties—in actuality, she left the country a year before Mongkut passed away and never returned. The factual inaccuracies and the film’s depiction of the King (particularly his behavior in the incident with Tuptim) led to the country of Thailand actually banning the movie (and the subsequent versions) for “unfavorable” and “offensive” views of the monarchy.

Leonowens’ story was adapted once more in 1999 in Anna and the King, starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-fat. For some reason, the filmmakers added a subplot of a military coup (because the innate culture clash at the heart of the story was not dramatic enough for them?), but even a halfhearted attempt to add elements of action to the plot is not enough to keep this version of the story from being utterly uninteresting. If you’re looking to take a trip into the fictionalized Siam of old, trust me—you’d be much better off going with the 1946 take on the material.

If you’ve seen the multiple versions of Anna Leonowens’ cinematic life, tell me: which film treatment is your favorite?

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8 thoughts on ““The king is not ordinary man.”

  1. It’s been many years since I saw “Anna and the King”, but the memory is favourable. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical has surpassed its origin as a star vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence – perhaps that happened on opening night when audiences were awed by Yul Brynner – but I think the sincerity of of their approach justifies its’ continuing popularity.

  2. I tried to watch the animated version and couldn’t get through more than about 3 minutes.

    The Jodie Foster version is a lovely picture postcard, that’s it. Although I love Chow Yun-Fat’s intensity, Foster is too unsure of herself (and her British accent) to bring a consistently exciting test of wills that is central to the story.

    You make a good point that THE KING AND I makes the subject matter more for laughs than its predecessor; the Irene Dunne version certainly takes itself more seriously. Yet somehow, the push and pull of the main characters seems uneven in the 1946 film.

    Perhaps it’s Rex Harrison’s use of a sing-song intonation that makes me not fear that his king is a big threat to Mrs. Anna’s plans; he’s more irritating than anything else. Yul Brenner’s more boisterous potentate is a force to be reckoned with, making the stakes for our heroine higher.

    Great, thought-provoking post.
    - Java

  3. Thanks so much your excellent post and for bringing in the historical background to the movie about the real Anna Leonowens. It’s always interesting to sort fact from fiction and to see what’s been done for dramatic effect.

  4. I liked Harrison in Major Barbara and in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, which he made just after Anna and the King, so perhaps I’ll check it out. A childhood memory from the 40s: my mom kept a modest shelf of books and Anna and the King of Siam was one of them. I used to take it down and handle it, but never opened it and read a word, that I recall.

  5. a much more faithful to the book movie version of the margaret landon novel than the later musical remake. a very beautiful and fascinating film adaptation. the cinematography is haunting, i would like to see a colorized version. the players are very well chosen. it is one of my favourite stories of all times.

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