Directed by Walter Lang
Screenplay by Ernest Lehman, based upon the musical of the same name by Rodgers and Hammerstein, which was based upon the novel, ‘Anna and the King of Siam’ by Margaret Landon
Starring Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr and Rita Moreno
I watch three movies at least once per year: The Shining, It’s A Wonderful Life, and Gone With The Wind. And with Gone With The Wind, I’ve read the book multiple times, too – more times than I’ve read The Shining. Which is actually a pretty big commitment to make when you remember Gone With The Wind the book is somewhere between 800 and 1000 pages, depending upon your copy.
I’d say I love Gone With The Wind, but over time, my love for it has become a bit tainted by an increasing awareness of it’s ickier racial elements. The way it glorifies slavery and the antebellum south. The way it is a love-letter to a backward, dark chapter of American history. The way it avoids using the N-word when referring to the salve, and also avoids calling them slaves, as if that is progressive, and instead substitutes in the word ‘Darkies’, which is not better. Yes, some of the more racist claims against it can be mollified by the fact that Mammy, a black woman, is the one character whom all other characters look up to and respect. Of course, that there is even a Mammy in the story carries its own racial stigma.
Now, when I was back in law school we studied a case involving Alice Randall, a woman who was being sued for copyright infringement for a book she wrote, The Wind Done Gone. What was the book about? I can’t say for sure, as I’ve never read it, but it was apparently the story of Gone With The Wind, only told from the perspective of the slaves and the black characters. The Margaret Mitchell heirs who own the copyright to GWTW didn’t care for this at all and so sued for copyright infringement.
The case was ultimately settled without a resolution on whether this was copyright infringement or not.
To be blunt – my feelings on GWTW are complicated. I love it for being big, epic stories about people picking themselves up from rock bottom to make something of themselves. At the same time, I cringe every time Prissy comes onscreen to talk about ‘birthin’ babies’. I often wonder what it says about me, an open-minded liberal, that I have a real affection for something so unenlightened. What kind of person am I? And while I can’t answer that question, I’m at least introspective enough to ask the question.
Anyway, what does this have to do with The King And I? The racism, of course. Perhaps not in the text of the movie – The King and I is explicitly pushing back against racism – but moreso in the way the movie was made. Specifically, who was starring in it.
You see, aside from Deborah Kerr, as the lone white Britsh lady in the movie, every other major character is Asian – Siamese, to be exact. Or, what we call Thailand these days. Except, while the characters are Asian, none of the folks with speaking parts are. The King is played by Yul Brynner, a white Russian. His right-hand man is played by Martin Benson, a Brit. The Burmese ‘gift’, Tiptum, is played by Rita Moreno, a Puerto Rican. Tiptum’s lover is played by Carlos Rivera, a Texan.
In short, this movie is a yellow-face monstrosity. And while I can watch Gone With The Wind and sometimes hardly acknowledge the racism shining through it, when I watched The King and I, it was all I could see. And what’s strange is that, while we’ve long gotten to the point where white-washing black people from films is not okay, or where the racist themes of old are not okay, we’ve only just now started to reach a place where yellowface, and the white-washing of Asian characters from stories, is icky. Where we can now cringe at Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, instead of laughing at him, and wonder why it is the remake of Ghost in the Shell needed a white woman in the place of the Asian woman in the first place.
But even if we’ve reached that point, it’s doubtful we’re at the point of fixing it, which means we should all expect some form of continuing racism in our films going forward, even as we do everything we can to fight it.
What’s It About?
The King of Siam engages a British woman as a teacher for his children, and some of his wives. Inadvertently, she teaches the King a thing or two about equality.
The film is ultimately a two-hander between Kerr and Brynner and both acquit themselves well. Kerr is forthright in standing up for herself, which is no small feat given she’s dealing with a man unaccustomed to being defied, and Brynner has the whole alpha-dog thing going on you really want to see in a king. He’s commanding, but not hardheaded and at all times you could seriously buy him as a king – there’s a reason why Brynner won a Tony and Oscar for this role. Better, given the movie is in some sense a chaste love story – with the dancing standing in for sex – they have real chemistry with one another.
The one area that suffers in all of the performances, though – except Kerr’s, for obvious reasons – is that the accent work is shit. On the whole, the accents are all over the place, with none of the actors even attempting anything Asian at all, or even attempting the same accent. Instead, each just does their own thing. On the one hand, I appreciate this – just enjoy the movie and don’t get hung up on the accents. On the other hand, I hate this – if you’re going to try an accent, which many of these folks are clearly doing, then either find one you can all do together, or do the one you’re supposed to be doing right. To be fair, Kerr’s accent as a British woman is spot on. Then again, as a British woman, it’s no trick to be what you are.
The Problem With Musicals
In some ways I’m a broken record when it comes to musicals, there are by their very nature unnatural. After all, it’s abnormal for people to randomly break into song and start dancing in their everyday lives in real life, unless they are a singer or dancer or go to a performing arts high school. So, at it’s core, musicals are uber-fake.
There are two ways most films come at this problem: some lean into the artifice of it, like My Fair Lady, and use it to enhance its themes. In that case, the movie was about facades and appearances, and being something other than what you are, so it makes sense the movie would embrace the fakeness of musicals. Other musicals innovate, like Cabaret and Chicago, which separate out the musical numbers and use them as a Greek Chorus, or a way to peer into the inner-workings of the characters psyches. Honestly, there is no right choice as to which way to go, and while I have a preference, both are valid. The only bad choice is to do nothing other than to sit in the middle. That choice is death. Rather than be one or the other they become a Jack-of-all-trades, and therefore a master-of-none.
The King and I leans into the artifice and makes the most of it, but in a strange way we know it doesn’t lean hard enough. Even as it tries to embrace the fakeness with both hands, it fails to get right that palaces are gaudy as all hell, Thailand included, and because the palaces in the film look like little more than paint on plywood, and not genuine ornamentation, it has the look of kids putting on a show, versus a studio dream factory doing what it does best.
It’s Racist, But…
The film is not overtly racist in intent, just in the way it presets itself. Despite this, the film is very forward-thinking when it comes to the equality of men and women. This is the essential drama of the film: the debate between the King and Anna over the roles of women in society. And it is this debate that, in the end, pushes them apart. Yes, by 1956 women had the vote for several decades, so it wasn’t that revolutionary for some of that content to come through in the film. But given where America was with respect to the role of women in the 1950s, the message of equality had to be daring and for a movie filled with such frivolity – and what is a musical if not frivolous – it was endearing to see such political content shining through.
A Scene To Remember
Late in the film the British are coming to Siam, possibly with the idea to annex the country and put it under British rule. In the leadup to this, the King of Siam wants to make a good show, so they will not find him a barbarian and will let him be. To impress them, he has his many wives made up in beautiful British-style dresses. In the scene where the King comes to look them over, the wives all bow upon his entrance and Anna, who is there standing behind the wives, looks stricken when they do. Not because their subservience repulses her then any more than at another time, but because apparently, the wives weren’t wearing any undergarments and so, the movie insinuates, she just saw a whole lot of royal vagina. A pretty racy gag for a movie in the 1950s, if we’re honest.
The direction of the film is mostly bland – Walter Lang may have had a long career in Hollywood, but there’s a reason he’s not mentioned among the great, or even the minor auteurs. It’s because he hasn’t the goods to be one. That said, the scene between the Burmese ‘gift’, Tiptum, and her lover, when they walk in the garden by moonlight is brilliant, with the blue tint to the scene explicitly echoing, and foreshadowing, the melancholy and tragedy that will befall this relationship.
The Play Within A Play
In The King and I there is a play-within-a-play of The Small House of Uncle Thomas (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) that is incredibly imaginative and captivating. Because it’s presented as a stage-play it uses the effects of a stage play, including blue-streamers thrown for rain, blue fabric laid on the floor for ice and water, bent wires held up in the shape of mountains to symbolize mountains, men holding metal cut-outs for lightening, and branches with metal medallions shaken ever-so-gently to symbolize a forest and the wind. Moreover, given the play is about independence and servitude it’s a good parallel to the worry in that scene, which is of the possibility of Siam being made a servant to England, at the same time as the King has many wives who are, in essence, slaves to him.
Anyway, this play-within-a-play struck me when watching it, first for being enjoyable, and secondly for being another example of the strange happening in musicals in the 1950s, which was for the show to stop dead and become something else for a while. Here it’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In An American in Paris there is a ballet. In Oklahoma! there is another ballet, of a sort. Given all these scenes serve as metaphors for, and the thesis of, the larger story, and helps give them meaning, it made me wonder why they needed the movie around it at all. I also wondered if this was all some sort of callback to Hamlet, and its use of the players showing up and putting on their play for the king.
Better Than Best?
Your Best Picture 1956 was Around The World in 80 Days, a terrible movie if ever their was one. As I’m slightly better than lukewarm on The King and I – despite it’s positive attributes, it’s too long and a bit boring – I guess that means it’s better than best. No surprise, I don’t think it’s actually the best of 1956.
Curiously, 1956 overflows with filmic riches. Among the Oscar nominees that year were George Steven’s flawed epic, Giant; Kurosawa’s masterpiece, The Seven Samurai; the boy and his bull story, The Brave One; the man and his dog story, Umberto D; and the sci-fi great, Forbidden Planet.
Among the films not nominated were Stanley Kubrick’s first great film, The Killing and Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
That all said, while all of those films might deserve their own write up, the one film from 1956 I revisit most, and which also has it’s own accent problems, is Vincente Minelli’s take on the life of Vincent Van Gogh, Lust for Life.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 If I’m honest, I probably never will.