A Mix of Fact, Fancy, and Fascination
Gary F. Taylor | Biloxi, MS USA | 04/02/2010
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Anna Leonowens (1831-1915) was not entirely what she seemed. A widow with two children and no resources in the far east, she essentially re-invented herself as both an English Lady and an expert teacher--and while the "English Lady" was not true, the "Expert Teacher" was. There is little doubt Leonowens had the gift, and it served her well: in 1862 she received the truly extraordinary offer to teach the wives and children of Mongkut, King of Siam. She continued in this position through 1968 when, while she was on sabbatical in England, Mongkut unexpectedly died and his son ascended the throne. Although it seems she had been greatly respected by Mongkut and the new king Chulalongkorn, it also seems that Chulalongkorn regarded her as meddlesome; whatever the case, she was not invited to resume her duties under his reign. Leonowens was therefore in much the same situation as before: she was still widowed, she had two children, and she had no job or money. She responded by writing a series of magazine articles on her time at the Siamese court. They proved extremely popular and she collected them into two volumes of memoirs and then went a bit further, fashioning court gossip into a sensationalist romance titled ROMANCE OF THE HAREM.
Although Leonowens was clearly a very intelligent woman, an early feminist, and possessed strong anti-slavery sentiments, all her works were written for money from the European and American markets. Consequently, she did not hesitate to stretch the truth when it suited her, and the Siamese people were thoroughly outraged by what they considered her sensationalist, biased, and in some instances flatly fictional description of Siam, King Mongkut, and the royal court. Her works were considered discourteous at best, libelous at worst. Still, Leonowens' became less widely read after her death--and the whole contoversy might have ended but for Margaret Landon, an American author who created a fictional re-telling of Leonowens' writings and life. The book was extremely popular and in 1946 was filmed as ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM, starring Irene Dunne as Anna Leonowens and Rex Harrison as King Mongkut. Like the novel, the film incorporated a subplot lifed from ROMANCE OF THE HAREM, which told of a concubine who was tortured and ultimately burned to death for infidelity--a bit of fantasy that Siamese citizens found particularly outrageous. Although the film was allowed to be shown in Siam during its original 1940s release, the Siamese (now Thai) government later banned it--and has very consistently banned all other versions of the story, including the celebrated Rogers and Hamerstein's THE KING AND I, which has never been seen in that nation.
Although Thailand might consider the story absolutely unacceptable, the story has continued to have a strong appeal in the west--primarily due to the chemistry that arises in the clash between the major characters of Anna and the King, a clash that eventually resolves into mutual respect, dissolves into Anna's horror at the King's punishment of a concubine, and then is ultimately restored when she discovers that the King has, albeit grudingly, supported her democratic teachings to his son, who now inherits the crown. In ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM we are also treated to a subplot that involves the death of Anna's son--a clear indication that this is a work of fiction, for her son Louis Leonowens not only survived, he created a business that is still very much a going concern in Thailand to this day.
So, between the fantasy, fact, and fiction, what is left? A vastly entertaining film. Irene Dunne never gave a bad performance in her career, and she is flawlessly cast as Anna, headstrong, determined, and stuffy English--and not in the least afraid of the King, well played by Rex Harrison and just as headstrong, determined, and stuffy as Anna. It is a clash of titians executed with lush production values, elegant black and white cinematography, and executed with a surprisingly lack of sentimentality and surprising crispness. At this period the Asian characters are inevitably played by occidental actors, and you find Rex Harrison, Linda Darnell, Lee J. Cobb, and Gale Sondergaard in Asian roles; even so, they carry them well. Although it is very much a film of the 1940s, ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM is a very entertaining film, a very well executed film. The danger, of course, is in assuming it is more than just vaguely historical. Anna Leonowens probably did not have as much influence as she claimed; the King, a determined Buddist, would hardly order the vicious torture of a concubine as depicted in the film. And far from being wildly barbaric, Siam of the era was a cross-roads of cultures, highly sophistocated and often widely admired as an example to the other nations of its area.
The DVD includes a video profile of Anna Leonowens which makes her life--and her fictionalization of it--clear in a very specific but very kindly way, emphasizing her need to present her self in a certain way in order to provide for herself and her children, but also very clear in noting how unfactual her stories often were. I usually recommend that you see bonuses after watching the major film, but in this instance you might do better to watch the biography first: it gives a clearer vision of the fictions involved. But whatever your choice in the matter, and regardless of the international offense it creates, ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM is a fun film, well played, enjoyable from start to finish. Recommended--just not as history.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer"