Well, I guess a good place to start would be around 32 years ago – the fall of 1985. I had just been granted parole from an all-boys preparatory high school, rigidly focused on athletics and academics, and was about to begin my sophomore year at Sacred Heart, a co-ed high school more arts and drama-driven. The director of that year’s school musical was a good friend of mine, and he had saved me a part. The part – Prince Chululongkorn, and the musical – The King and I.
It was my third Rodgers and Hammerstein show, after having done Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music at a local community theater, and in many ways was the most challenging. Everyone except Anna and Louis had to wear that skin-bronzing makeup, and don some pretty elaborate costumes, stitched together with all the time-consuming labor our art department could manage (and then some). And let’s not mention the scenery and set design, the dancing, the Siamese accents (some were better than others) and some pretty hefty acting chores, heaped primarily on the shoulders of the two leads. And ours were pretty damned good.
But we had a pretty great time. And now, looking back on my experience after viewing the film version (which I hadn’t seen since that time), I can now declare a greater appreciation for the work. Sure, I loved the music, liked the story, but now I have an increased awareness of its themes – which now, for better or worse, are timelier than ever. And knowing more about history than I did during my callow teen years has enabled me to view the story more contextually, and thus more profoundly. In short, it’s a great film, if only for the reason that a great film evolves, and changes, just as its audience does.
Set in 1862, The King and I loosely adapts the true story of Englishwoman Anna Leonowens, who arrives at Siam to teach the children of the country’s king (Yul Brynner), a leader who realizes the need for greater civility in an era of ever-increasing Westernization. From the very start the relation is dicey: Anna resents her new boss’s oppression of women, tolerance of slavery, and failure to live up to his promise of providing her a suitable residence for her, while he is resistant to her lack of obedience and traditional respect for his title. Nevertheless, he is pleased with her affinity for the children, and realizes he needs her help now more than ever.
But elements arise to threaten the delicate balance of their already strained union. A “gift” from Burma arrives in the form of a new wife for the king, a scared young girl named Tuptim, torn from the arms of the man she loves, her escort to this new land. Kralahome, the king’s right hand man, is skeptical of Anna’s presence, fearing her influence will split and confuse the monarch with needless new ideas. Only Lady Thiang, the king’s head wife, seems to be the sole source of succor, helping Anna by getting her to understand that the king does indeed need her help, but is limited by his title in demonstrating it.
Things come to a head at the arrival of the ambassador from Britain, who wants to determine the king’s level of barbarity in deciding whether or not to take over his country as a protectorate. Things go well, despite Tuptim’s Hamlet-esque presentation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a protest against the king’s enslavement of her, as well as a romantic overture by the ambassador’s escort and Anna’s old flame, Sir Edward. But the new world clashing with the old gets to be too much for the king, and his frustratingly platonic affections for Anna don’t help much either. He dies, but is pleased by Anna’s last-minute change of mind to stay in Siam as a teacher, and the notion that his country will now be in good hands under his open-mined, inquisitive successor, Prince Chululongkorn.
The King and I, despite lacking traditional romantic elements, fits the Rodgers and Hammerstein formula almost perfectly – a man and a woman, coming from two totally different worlds, meet, fight, sing and fall in love. But ultimately, those worlds come back to threaten their idyllic romance, which either dissolves or is strengthened by the trial. Both Brynner and Ker are positively spellbinding in their role, and I was surprised to remember just how much talking is going on here. Sure, there are musical numbers aplenty, but they’re far less frequent than scenes of the two stats simply verbalizing. That, too, is a R&H hallmark, and perhaps that’s why their shows are so immortal.
Also immortal – the themes, particularly as the necessity for globalization is more pressing than ever before. With NATO, SEATO, the UN, and trade orgs like NAFTA and TPP, alliances are a way of life, and any nation opting for an isolationist policy is generally classified as backward. And the king’s oppression of women? Look no further than the current GOP candidate, or even he GOP mantra for that matter. Sex slavery and polygamy is alive and well in much of the world, and so is nativism here in America. So the king, looking downright primal in 1862, might just fit in pretty well now in 2016.
I daresay the only element that might date the picture just a bit is its depiction of Asians (back then: Orientals). You can hardly fault the film for that; in he 50s, Eastern racial stereotypes was the norm in the media, and actually King was far more progressive than others of its kind. Still, it’s hard to imagine a Hispanic actress like Rita Moreno getting cast as an Asian nowadays (although between her youth and makeup, she’s hardly recognizable), and even a Swiss/German/Russian like Brynner might have a hard time getting cast in what would become his signature role.
But those are quibbles – this is a musical masterpiece. A film for the ages, and for all ages (let’s not let the American movie musical fade into obscurity). If you haven’t already, see it. It truly is “Something Wonderful.”
P.S: Oh, and BTW, this film is the first in the collection to feature the now always-used extended Fox fanfare. At the time, they needed it to be longer to cover the “Filmed in CinemaScope” notification.