The King and I (1956)
The King and I (1956)

Genre: Romantic Drama and Musical Running Time: 2 hrs. 13 min.

Release Date: June 29th, 1956 MPAA Rating: G

Director: Walter Lang Actors: Deborah Kerr, Yul Brynner, Rita Moreno, Martin Benson, Terry Saunders, Rex Thompson, Carlos Rivas, Patrick Adiarte, Alan Mowbray, Geoffrey Toone

 


 

E

nglish widow Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr) and her young son Louis (Rex Thompson) arrive in Siam in 1862, hoping to be greeted by the king himself. Instead, a royal barge containing the Kralahome (Martin Benson) – a prime minister of sorts – sails out to their ship. The captain warns of the potentially dangerous powers held by such officials, but Anna shrugs it off, certain that King Mongkut of Siam (Yul Brynner) will uphold his promise of a place for the two Leonowens to stay, as a condition of her new position as the schoolmistress for the royal children.

Before they even disembark, mother and son share a song, setting the stage for musical numbers to be conjured out of nothing. Rather than aiding in telling the story, this first tune merely elaborates upon their unease in a foreign country – a feeling reiterated when they meet with the cold, stern Kralahome. At least the boat, the city, and the palace itself are immersed in vibrant colors, paired with elaborate costumes and ornate architecture – components at home in the adaptations of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s works.

The King dismisses Anna’s concerns about a dwelling outside of the palace walls, harshly insisting that she meet his collection of wives – including recent gift Tuptim (Rita Moreno) as an offering from Burma – and then his medley of children (106 in total), whom she’ll soon teach (67 of which aren’t present, due to their mothers not currently being in favor with the King). He has grand visions for introducing Western culture and ideas to Siam, from technology to education. But part of embracing outside customs involves recognizing that women aren’t lower creatures than men – something Anna will bravely assert.

In many ways, “The King and I” mirrors “The Sound of Music,” as an independent, forward-thinking woman infiltrates the strict household of a narrow-minded patriarch, shifting perspectives and instilling a sense of fun. And, of course, there’s also the similarity in the love stories; both leading men experience the facades of their physical and mental barriers crumbling in the face of an educated woman’s touch. And even though the pigheaded rulers are adversarial at first, the kindly instructors soon find themselves falling in love as well. “You are very difficult woman!”

Here, however, the music doesn’t attain the same level of poignancy or memorableness. The oriental styling and flair impart a different visual appeal, but they don’t contribute to indelible imagery or sing-along worthy songs; the tunes are pleasant but cursory. More prominent is the romance itself (enveloped by antiquated monarchal structures as it may be), bolstered by conversations and disagreements rather than music. In fact, the subplot of Tuptim’s separation from her own lover, Lun Tha (Carlos Rivas), is likewise more striking than any of the songs during the first half.

When characters aren’t crooning or flirting (their English is choppy and heavily accented during exchanges of dialogue, but grammar and proper pronunciations return when sung), there’s an amusing undercurrent of sociopolitical themes – from the reluctance to adopt new scientific reports, slavery in America versus slavery in Siam, the double standards of polygamy, inaccurate translations in text and teaching tools, the contrast between religion and science, and reshaping the reputation of an entire kingdom. But these notes tend to be drowned out by exceptional humor and sweetness (and comical jealousy) as two disparate minds slowly begin to see eye to eye (in a pleasing, if overly idealistic, fashion). The love story is simple, but enough time is spent to make it genuine and moving.

Kerr and Brynner are perfect in their roles, adopting fitting qualities of confidence, pride, generosity, and stubbornness. And Brynner’s repetitive idiosyncrasies are quite theatrical – ranging from finger-wagging to gasps and grunts to his overuse of the word “etcetera.” When they’re onscreen together, the script is incredibly entertaining. But side stories and other songs delay their opportunities to remain at the center; a balletic interpretation of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is one such lengthy sequence, which is enjoyable and artistic but better suited for a separate production (it ultimately contributes nothing to the main plot). Unfortunately, in the end, the epic romance never really evolves or culminates, though Anna’s hope that she’s set into motion an unstoppably progressive, gradual curtailing of showy, barbaric rule is undeniably gratifying.

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10