John Cromwell’s Anna and the King of Siam isn’t nearly as well known as The King and I, the Technicolor extravaganza starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr that was made a decade later. Both films tell the same story, but The King and I does it in the form of a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. I saw The King and I when I was a kid, and have strong memories of certain scenes, but not of the film as a whole. So I came to Anna and the King of Siam relatively fresh, and was able to watch it without constantly thinking of Brynner’s iconic performance, at least most of the time. The one big difference — if memory serves correctly — is that the later, musical version of this tale was more of a love story. It’s not as if it ended with a marriage, or Kerr being added to the king’s harem or something, but there was a romance of some sort that grew over the course of the film. The closest Anna and the King of Siam gets is a couple of scenes between Anna and the king that end with the king leering, and seeming to contemplate her in a sexual fashion.
Anna and the King of Siam is the first filmed adaptation of Margaret Landon’s 1944 book of the same name. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck reportedly bought the rights to Landon’s book immediately after reading the galleys. As is often the case, the real-life Anna Owens was a considerably more interesting and complicated person than she was portrayed in the book or any of the films about her. This is largely due to her own self-invention. Anna Leonowens was born in poverty in India in 1831, the daughter of Sgt. Thomas Edwards, a soldier in the private army of the Dutch East India Company, and his wife Mary Anne Glasscott, an Anglo-Indian woman. Later in her life, Leonowens took pains to hide her origins, and claimed that her father’s rank was lieutenant (later she claimed he had been a captain), and that she had been born in Wales. It’s important to remember that these fabrications were not merely for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. As a widow and a single mother, Leonowens faced an uphill battle in life, and almost certainly would have faced discrimination if her mixed-race heritage had been known.
While Anna and the King of Siam doesn’t delve deeply into Anna’s background, there is never any intimation that she is anything but the most proper of British ladies. The Anna Owens of the film, played by Irene Dunne, embodies the best values of the “modern” British empire, while King Mongkut (Rex Harrison) represents an older form of governance; repressive, misogynistic, autocratic, and superstitious.
Reportedly, most Thai who saw the picture were shocked and angered by the portrayal of their revered nineteenth century king, and the film was banned in Thailand due to “historical inaccuracies.” It’s hard to argue with this assessment. Landon’s book and Leonowens’s own recollections were by all accounts at least partially fabricated, and overemphasized Leonowens’s role in the king’s life, as well as the harshness of his regime. And there’s the larger question of how well any white actor — even one as talented as Rex Harrison — can portray an Asian character.
Granted, the yellowface portrayals in the film look ridiculous, especially Lee J. Cobb as the “Kralahome,” or prime minister, who appears for much of the film stripped to the waist, covered with dark makeup, and sporting a pomaded pompadour. But, like Harrison, he delivers a nuanced performance, and in their scenes together they drop the stilted line deliveries that they have in their scenes with Anna or her son Louis (Richard Lyon). (They continue to speak English, of course, but the syntactical variance is still a nice touch.)
If one ignores questions of historical accuracy, Anna and the King of Siam is an excellent and involving story of cultural differences and the challenges and rewards of education in the face of adversity. The principal actors all give great performances, especially the beautiful Linda Darnell as the king’s newest and most alluring wife, Lady Tuptim. It’s a role that easily could have been one-note, but Darnell is able to create a sexy yet repulsive character who grows more complicated as the film goes on, and eventually becomes the central tragic figure of the picture. Also, Anna and the King of Siam looks fantastic. It won two Oscars, one for best black and white cinematography and the other for best art direction, and they were well-deserved.