The King and I (1956)
Director: Walter Lang
Actors: Deborah Kerr, Yul Brynner
Anna and the King (1999)
Director: Andy Tennant
Actors: Jodie Foster, Chow Yun-Fat
These movies are supposed to go about telling the story of Anna Leonowens and her relationship with King Mongkut. They take very different approaches for a very different effect. The King and I portrays Mongkut as a buffoon who needs to be manipulated (yes, there is supposedly womanly wiles and sexual tension present in the movie, but I was too blinded by the garish sets to notice) by a patronising Anna. In Anna and the King Tennant recognises that King Mongkut and Anna are intelligent and complicated people. Both movies had problems with portraying the King as a Nice Guy. The message seemed to be that as long as he treated the white woman well and engaged in witty conversation with her, it didn’t matter that he treated his wives and concubines like property.
Racism in the King and I is very much part of the tradition of other musicals of that era, such as South Pacific. The actors portraying the Siamese (today the Thais) were mainly white with a few people from all over peppered in the mix. Somehow I don’t think they were trying to point out that race is a social construct when they put an Indian boy next to a Latino boy with eye makeup. In Anna and the King there isn’t a lot overt racism that I observed, but the message of the movie was definitely to follow the middle road. Tennant points out the stupidity of colonial superiority quite effectively: in the beginning of the movie Leonowens states that “the ways of England are the ways of the world” and in a poetic twist her words are unknowingly thrown back in her face by a traditional English woman many scenes later. Yet when the King attempts to emulate British customs that is portrayed as the wisest course of action.
In both movies the character Tuptim features as a concubine wishing to run away from the palace. Lang uses the device of a play within a play to good effect, presenting an adaption of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe to draw a link between Siamese slaves and American slaves. The play within a movie is interesting visually, reasonably sophisticated and in many respects the highlight of the movie. Tuptim runs away after the play, is caught and Anna intervenes to stop Tuptim from being whipped by the King. In contrast, Tennant shows Tuptim imprisoned, whipped then executed in an overly sexualised fashion. Both movies dance around the point that Tuptim was raped by Mongkut. Rapists should not be love interests.
The movies pay lip service to feminism, featuring an independent woman refusing to let her gender get in the way of doing what she thinks is right. The King and I presents the royal wives as sheep, needing a white woman to tell them they are equal to men. Anna and the King gives the wives slightly more distinct personalities but no real say or character development. In both movies the feminist thought is all about Anna and her sensibilities, not about women in general.
Anna and the King suffered from attempting to make the movie into a romance when it could have worked better as a friendship. The King and I suffered from the unpleasant plot dip of having Mongkut die at the end from a scolding. If an able-bodied man can’t feed himself then he probably shouldn’t be running a country and I feel absolutely no pity for him.
On a technical note it is blindingly obvious that The King and I was adapted from a play. The shots are mainly front on, the camera is almost always medium distance away from the action and there isn’t a lot of movement. The acting is overdone and the musical numbers made me want to shoot myself. Anna and the King features nuanced acting, beautiful visuals and a range of interesting shots.
It is a mistake to think that either of these movies are progressive but that doesn’t mean there aren’t differences between them. The King and I is a movie you have to grit your teeth to sit through from start to end while Anna and the King features only a few minutes of teeth gritting.