Making the Grades
Of all Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals put to film by 20th Century Fox, The King And I likely suffered from being the most "staged." Yet with help from the grand sets, lavish costumes and (perhaps most importantly) Yul Brynner, this film has become immortal.
A feast for the eyes (especially if you can view it in wide screen) and ears, the movie centers on Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr), a British tutor hired by King Mongkut of Siam to teach his children English. Interwoven are some of Rodgers and Hammerstein's most unforgettable tunes, including Getting to Know You and the magical We Kiss in a Shadow.
But aside from the lighthearted score, the story deals with the serious issues of culture conformity and infidelity, especially with the introduction of Tuptim (Rita Moreno), a young girl from the neighboring country of Berma, who is given to the King as a wife. Tuptim's decision to pursue a love of her own leaves the King in a difficult dilemma, to which Leonowens provides abundant advice.
The King And I is a classic example of how history can be distorted by popular culture. Based on questionable facts from Anna Leonowens' diaries, kept during her four-year employment to the Siamese royal family, it is little wonder that she is portrayed as the saving saint who convinces the King to bring his outdated culture into line with Western sensibilities. Romantic notions including the fictitious Tuptim, added by novelist Margaret Landon, make the truth even more convoluted.
Brynner's performance as the King who couldn't tame his English tutor was cemented into the minds of millions after Fox's film adaptation was released. Its recent restoration to DVD ensures even greater longevity. But in Thailand (the present name of Siam), this and many of the other versions of the story (including the recent Anna and the King ) are banned.
Ironically, The King And I has left a strange twist in its wake. Brynner's role as the King of Siam would not only overtake the real identity of Mongkut, but also his own. Forever stereotyped, the King and He would forever become one.