Most people now would know the story of English schoolmistress Anna Owens and King Mongkut of Siam from the 1956 movie of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical starring Yul Brynner.
Now, I dig Rogers and Hammerstein, but their version just doesn’t work for me as a movie. They wrote some catchy songs, but the story suffers. I’ve never quite managed to sit through the whole thing.
By contrast, I was immediately caught in chancing across the original 1946 movie version on cable. It took this version to put across to me the character of King Mongkut (Rex Harrison’s first American role).
Now, I don’t know how much these or the recent Jodie Foster version reflect any kind of relationship to the actual historical figures. However, this movie version of the king shows one of the most perfect representations of man struggling to overcome our animal nature that has ever been committed to film. All the millions of years of development Kubrick represented in 2001 from the bone throwing ape to the Starchild are reflected in the King of Siam.
The king is learned, and committed to being “scientific,” honoring reason and learning above nearly all else. Yet being the king, he does not have the luxuries of an academic. He’s responsible for the whole country and everybody in it RIGHT NOW. Thus, he has the critical second circuit territorial defense imperatives welling up from our lower mammalian brain circuitry tugging at him in a most highly concentrated manner.
The most striking behavioral trait of the king was his constant late night reading of every book of the Western civilizations he hoped to join. Behind the mostly cute displays of royal arrogance, the real soul of the man is consumed with having to catch up to civilization for his whole country.
The king very consciously recognizes the harsh and unreasonable behavior his privileged situation allows him to create under these exceptional pressures- the arrogance and arbitrary self-indulgence. Thus, the main dramatic point of the movie is the king’s heroic internal struggle to understand, and put the leash of enlightenment on his own animal nature.
The worst insult or accusation you could throw at him is “barbarian.” Anna’s most important contribution is in helping him understand what things exactly differentiate a barbarian from a progressive, civilized human being.
Her most interesting and significant contribution was to argue that adhering to the rule of law, superseding the privileges of power, this is the core test of a civilized person or society.
Now, besides stopping the action every few minutes for a song, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s version gets compromised as story by the gentility of Broadway musicals. They were just not going to properly deal with the true dark side of the beast, which in this version shows the king drawing down on himself from Anna the very word “barbarian” that he hates most of all.
One of his many dozens of wives ran away for love, and he insisted on burning her to death just outside Anna’s door. [It gives me a bit of heebie jeebies to note that the actress who played the burned wife in fact died in a fire 20 years later] That night the king failed that civilization test profoundly.
This brings out the dark soul to contrast to the enlightened one. That part of the story is critical in getting the depths of a real character.
Despite these struggles and failures, though, the king makes progress spiritually and practically for his country together. The ways in which this virtue pays off in practical application are the ultimate validation of his approach.
Most specifically, his big political achievement advancing the long term security of his people comes in recruiting the Western governments he wishes to move towards to open local consulates in the kingdom to facilitate closer communications and relations between their countries.
Note that this makes the king’s most important success specifically a moral rather than an intellectual achievement. Anna suggested the consulate idea. The king’s virtue came in the self-discipline to override the very strong, deeply ingrained traits of royal ego to accept what he recognized was a good idea. Thus, it came not only from someone else, but a woman. This moment of mastering his own ego was his greatest single achievement.
But this has been mostly talking about intellectual principles, not the characters and the story- the movie. This film really shines through with the characters and dramatic situations from many distinctive positions in the social/family order. The eldest son and heir, and his mother, the powerless elder wife provide particularly critical and illuminating points of view. The resolution with the son in the last scene has been earned.
And for all the sturm and drag of this essay, the film’s mostly a comedy. They get a lot of low hanging good will inducing comedic fruit from what is 99% presented as charming and boyish arrogance from the king, greatly mitigated by his generally extremely civilized responses when challenged. That he had the grace to be charmed rather than offended by Anna’s early and subtle none-of-your-business claim to being 150 years old buys him a lot of latitude.
Some of the best comedy, however, comes from the king’s relentless self-education, questioning the Western books and ideas he encounters. He’s constantly calling Anna from her sleep at odd hours to ask questions about the books he’s reading. He gets particularly good mileage out of his negative assessment of Moses, based on his authorship of Genesis.
This movie really goes somewhere, spiritually and dramatically. I highly recommend this film to everyone who does not absolutely require explosions and poo jokes in all viewing. Even the brighter end of pre-teen boys might appreciate a lot of the simpler humor.
Best solution, then: get the soundtrack album to the Rodgers and Hammerstein version, but watch the 1946 Rex Harrison version for an actual movie.