Making the Grades
Few stories have captured popular imagination like the recounting of Anna Leonowen's experiences as governess to the King of Siam's children. First written as a personal account, her time with the royal family has been the subject of novels, a Broadway play and several movies besides this one, such as Anna and the King (1999), The King and I (the 1956 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical), and an animated The King and I (1999).
In this 1946 telling, the widow (Irene Dunne) sets sail for Siam in the 1860s, arriving in the "still half barbaric" country with her son Louis (Richard Lyon) and superior attitude in tow. Initial introductions with Prime Minister Kralahome (Lee J. Cobb) come off badly, leaving both parties feeling snubbed by the rudeness of the other. Cultural ignorance continues to plague the new employee's interactions with the court, in everything from accommodations to student discipline.
Still, that doesn't stop the stubborn educator from matching wills with the revered monarch (Rex Harrison). Her persistent tactics include subtle nagging about having a house of her own, pleading against the ill-treatment of slaves, chiding over uncivilized behaviors, passionate outbursts regarding the miscarriage of justice-- etc, etc, etc.
Meanwhile, the equally headstrong ruler does his best to ignore or resist her suggestions. His purpose for hiring the British teacher may have been to improve his household's understanding of the English language and his country's status among the European nations, but he isn't prepared to abandon one thousand years of tradition - or take counsel from a woman! Surprisingly, their frequent power struggles result in the two opponents developing a mutual respect.
When released in 1946, Anna and the King of Siam was banned in Thailand (the modern name for the ancient country.) And no wonder. Even though Hollywood audiences found little objectionable (with the possible exceptions of a burning at the stake, a bare back wounded by a whip lashing, the depiction of a polygamous family, and some slightly-revealing native costumes), the portrayal of a motherly Anna arrogantly advising a childlike King Mongkut was offensive to many Thai citizens.
There is no question the script takes the opportunity to champion western ideals like democracy and freedom, with a feminist sense of equality. The bias is even quietly underscored by the casting choices -leading man Rex Harrison is English, while the actors playing the parts of Kralahome (Lee J. Cobb), Lady Thiang (Gail Sondergaard) and Tuptim (Linda Darnell) are Americans with no Asian heritage.
So why have so many people been enthralled by this tale? Perhaps because they have seen it as just that: a more-fiction-than-fact version of Anna Leonowen's life. With such a perspective, the movie can be enjoyed for what it really is - entertainment.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Anna and the King of Siam.
In what ways do European values and western ideals take the stage in this movie? Why does the bias of the creator sometime get communicated through his/her work? Can you think of other examples of this in film or literature?
King Mongkut wrestles between modernizing his country and hanging on to old traditions. What things did he risk by trying to move with the changing times? What valuable things might he lose by giving way to progress? How do you balance such battles in your life?