Something Wonderful: Making Sense of The King and I


Would you believe that this post began as “Top 10 Best Dresses in Film?” My brain decided to go in a different direction…but still, the silver dress deserves mad respect.

Some movies age better than others, and I’m not talking about special and visual effects. Every generation has a handful (or bucketful) of odd beliefs and behaviors that the next generation frowns at. For example, today, we are horrified at a scene in Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) where a character offers the pregnant Zira a glass of wine, saying it will relax her. By the same token, I’m sure future generations are going to look at our fascination with male-led superhero films with the same sort of amused “We know better now” attitude.

Films that avoid such cultural missteps remain timeless. Think of the family-friendly film adaptations of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals, many of which are considered classics by today’s standards. The Sound of Music, for example, features lots of stuff we still love today: a strong female lead; a dashing, wounded male lead; sassy, singing nuns; love triangles; and catchy lyrics. Its gender dynamics are progressive enough that they don’t stand out as terribly old-fashioned. Maria is flighty and unfocused and wants to be a positive force in the world but has no clue how to do that (girl, I feel you). Georg is engaged to the Baroness because it’s the easy choice, but it takes a complicated, messy friendship-turned-romance to show him that the easy choice is boring. Even teenage lovers Rolf and Liesl are still familiar to anyone who has seen Frozen and realizes that Rolf is Prince Hans and Liesl is Anna. Nazis aside, it’s a totally relateable story.

Other films have not aged so well, such as The King and I, one of my favorite movies of all time. It tells the story of an English widow who is hired by the King of Siam to give his children a Western education. The two strong personalities don’t hit it off and, after spending a lot of time verbally sparring with one another, they begin to form an understanding that eventually grows deeper than mere friendship. As a kid, I desperately wanted to twirl around in Anna’s gorgeous silver dress be half as cool as Yul Brynner’s character, King Mongkut. I never caught on to any of the film’s more troubling aspects then, but looking at it years later, there are a number of inescapable elements that are hard to explain away, especially regarding portrayals of race and gender.

Nonetheless, childhood nostalgia keeps me from giving up on this one. The visual design, the lavish costumes, Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr’s wonderful chemistry, the music, and it’s message of mutual understanding overriding initial hostility keep this cemented as a beloved classic to me and many others. But I think it’s important to discuss the film’s prickly issues nonetheless. Militant political correctness would dictate that this film be ignored and forgotten as a relic of outdated orientalism, but I think we should keep it around so as to foster discussion. I would say the same thing about other such troubling classics like Gone with the Wind.

So, to paraphrase ole’ R&H, how do you solve a problem like The King and I?

The first issue is the portrayal of the Siamese people. People in present-day Thailand have little interest in The King and I, and I’m sure many are dismayed that the film version of the musical is the only exposure to their culture that many Westerners have. Anna’s culture shock in the film is a very real and relatable thing, but the portrayal of the culture is quite simplistic. It’s all shiny fabrics and stereotypical broken English. One such example of this  is the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet, an absolutely gorgeous theatrical moment that, try as it might, has very little in common with actual traditional Thai theater. Choreographer Jerome Robbins uses a lot of cultural trappings to create an appealing visual spectacle (and I love the idea of Tuptim re-appropriating Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a protest against her own loss of freedom) but it’s very clear that this particular piece of theater was conceived of and created by non-Buddhist Westerners, which makes it a beautiful but culturally hollow piece of entertainment, not something we should mistake for being an accurate representation of what traditional Thai theater, and the Buddhist worldview that informs it are actually like.

Also, the Asian characters are often played by non-Asian actors. Yul Brynner, legendary talent that he was, was Russian-American. Musical theater icon Rita Moreno, who played Tuptim, is Puerto Rican-American, and Carlos Rivas, who played her lover Lun Tha, is a Texan. Likewise the actors who played Lady Thiang (Terry Saunders) and the Kralahome (Martin Benson) are, respectively, American and English. I think it’s safe to say that, aside from perhaps some non-speaking background characters, there are no actual Thai actors in the film, which is quite unfortunate.

Also, some questions have been raised about how Anna is presented at having “superior” knowledge, especially in one scene wherein Lady Thiang shows the children a stylized map of Siam which illustrates how strong Siam’s king is in relation to Burma’s king. After this, Anna drops a Western-made map of the world over top their own map, hiding it from view. Symbolically, it is a bit troubling that the symbol of Western colonialism blots out the symbol of Siamese nationalism (especially since Thailand has never been colonized and they have a lot to be proud of), but the script does address Anna’s desire to keep Siam from becoming an English protectorate (which is her reason for organizing the ball later on), so perhaps the map isn’t quite so sinister after all, more of a careless gesture.

In the end, the King’s son Chulalongkorn, who is to succeed him, takes elements from the philosophies of both Anna and his father in describing how his rule will proceed. This is where things get sticky. Should we be dismayed that Anna is able to subtly “colonize” Siam by influencing the King’s son with Western beliefs and ideas, or should we applaud Chulalongkorn for not being afraid to change and incorporate new ideas into his own worldview so as to avoid cultural stagnation? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

The other aspect of the film (and the musical, for that matter) that has not aged well is its portrayal of gender politics. The song “Something Wonderful” sung by Lady Thiang in the film, is completely beautiful, but it’s lyrics touch on a few troubling elements. One lyric reads as follows: “The thoughtless things he’ll do will hurt and worry you, / Then all at once he’ll do something wonderful.” The rest of the song is more about seeing past a person’s flaws and shortcomings, and focusing on their kind, well-meaning heart instead, which is admirable, but the lyric does have a dated quality to it, suggesting that a wife should just accept her husband’s thoughtless words and remain passive. Counterbalanced by Anna’s strength and her unwillingness to accept Mongkut’s imperious attitude toward her, this only reinforces the stereotype that all Asian wives are passive and weak while Western wives are strong and much better at holding their own in a verbal duel of wits. Regardless of how you interpret this relationship, the condescension inherent in it is hard to ignore.

One last thing, I wanted to touch on (this is getting long, I’m sorry) was how the women in Mongkut’s palace all call Anna “Sir” because they believe her knowledge of science makes her closer to a man than a woman. I like the idea of a woman muscling her way into the patriarchy, proving that she can succeed just as well as any man, but it is also troubling that this title relegates women, more specifically the Siamese women, to a low position, far below Anna and the other men (although it should be noted that some of Mongkut’s imposing guards are women, so that’s something).

Good intentions aside, the film does  present the Siamese people as childlike and well-meaning, but foolish, and it’s up to Anna, the strong, intelligent Englishwoman to set them all straight, King Mongkut included. *cringe*

So, is it right to still love this movie? Its portrayal of the Thai people is insensitive and condescending, and its depictions of Thai culture are clouded by spectacle-driven orientalism. Anna is a strong, self-assured, very modern character, and her verbal dueling with the haughty king is absolutely delightful, but, at times, their relationship is more akin to a governess and a spoiled charge rather than an advisor and royalty. Two of the songs, “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance?” both speak of opening oneself to new ideas and experiences, which I can appreciate, but the depiction of Siamese culture is limited and rife with stereotypes. The subplot of Tuptim using theater as a protest against her enslavement is excellent, and her appropriation of an American novel to do so is interesting, but the performance itself is not an accurate reflection of Thai culture or art. Overall, it’s a film full of admirable sentiment but insensitive application, with contradictions and paradoxes exploding out of every corner.

I don’t think we should delete the film from our cultural consciousness, though. It’s flawed, but there is also a lot to admire about it. I love it’s exploration of faith and science and how it’s important not to over-simplify the world into simple absolutes (even if the resultant chaos makes you want to self destruct). I also think it does a good job of exploring the psyche of someone who desperately wants to improve and learn and grow, but who is too impatient to slow down and really take the time to let the natural progression of things unfold. I think that if we analyze this film’s missteps while celebrating its triumphs, we’ll get more out of it in the long run.

I’d love to hear my reader’s thoughts on this. Or, if you don’t want to reply, I encourage you to go out there and learn about what Thai culture is actually like! They have a beautiful history and a rich, multilayered culture that Hollywood movies can’t capture adequately. The real King Mongkut was a fascinating individual, a Buddhist monk and a devoted scholar. So go and learn and expand your horizons! And while you’re doing that, be sure to “whistle a happy tune,” et cetera, et cetera, et cetera…

See you next week!


2 thoughts on “Something Wonderful: Making Sense of The King and I

  1. With poorly-aged, poorly-informed depictions of foreign cultures, I tend to think of the better ones as being set in fantasy lands that are inspired by other cultures. I think what separates the ones worth keeping from the rest is whether there’s anything left after you take away the exotic setting. The King and I still has a plot and actual characters that change as it progresses. Something like Down Argentine Way really doesn’t hold up as well (except maybe as a time capsule for historians) because there really wasn’t much more to it than the pseudo-South American setting.
    Anyway, those are my thoughts on inept Hollywood treatments of far-off lands.

    Liked by 1 person

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