Movie Critique - Anna and the King of Siam

Stars: 4 / 5

Recommendation: A fine adaptation of a classic tale despite the subtle negativities shown, the film is elegantly produced with some superb action, and a very touching plot. 

Anna and the King of Siam is a 1946 drama film directed by John Cromwell and produced by Louis D. Lighton. The lead cast includes Irene Dunne, Sir Rex Harrison, Linda Darnell, Lee J. Cobb and Gale Sondergaard. The film is an adaptation of the 1944 novel of the same name by Margaret London, screenplay for which was written by Talbot Jennings and Sally Benson.

In 2019 I had the opportunity to watch the Broadway show King and I which is when for the first time I came to know about the film it was based on - Anna and the King Siam - and the oh so many Broadway plays they performed. I was curious to watch the movie that began the play's journey to fame in Broadway world. And as always Turner Classic Movies (TCM) never fails me. So, here is my review.

The plot is set in 1862. Anna Owens (portrayed by Irene Dunne) arrives in Bangkok along with her son Louis (portrayed by Richard Lyon). She becomes the governess and teacher to King of Siam, Mongkut's (portrayed by Sir Rex Harrison) very many wives and his 67 children. Lady Thiang (portrayed by Gale Sondergaard), the head wife, who knows English becomes the mediator between the rest of the wives and kids; and Anna. 

The book that the film was based on was a fictionalized version of the real diaries of Anna Leonowens, an Anglo-Indian woman who had become governess in the Royal Court of Siam (modern Thailand) during the 1860s. The plot gives a beautiful blend and clash of Victorian values of British and the autocratic rule of Siam's king. 

This was Sir Rex Harrison's first American film. I watched him recently in the 1947 American romantic fantasy film, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir; and had fallen in love with him in that movie. 

Sir Rex must have studied the mannerisms and ways of people from Siam, aka present day Thailand, for this film. However, it did come out a cheap imitation. But Sir Rex still excelled in his acting as always, and dashing to no end.

Irene Dunne as Anna Owens is very aristocratic and a proper English teacher. I saw her in only one movie before, the 1939 American romantic film Love Affair with Charles Boyer in the male lead.

In this film Irene's Anna has confusion about her background. She mentions she is from Welsh, but she has servants who are from India, and she can understand Hindi too. How one who grew up in Welsh has all this tied to her. I think the screenwriters in changing little of the novel missed out on this.

Gale Sondergaard portrays the role of Lady Thiang. One who has only love for her son and caught in a situation when her husband, the King, keeps marrying every girl he comes across. As Lady Thiang she does have some pretty effective dialogues to go with her character.

Linda Darnell's Lady Tuptim touched my heart in the musical when I saw in 2019. But she actual broke my heart into pieces in the film. The plot touches some age-old customs and traditions of the country that could be considered barbaric and unfair. Those customs are the ones that broke me to tears when Lady Tuptim's fate is decided.

Lee J. Cobb who portrays the role of Kralahome makes an impression surpassing every other supporting character. At times he might have tended to outshine Sir Rex too. 

The film received two Academy Awards - Arthur C. Miller for Best Cinematography; and Lyle R. Wheeler, William S. Darling, Thomas Little and Frank E. Hughes for Best Art Direction. 

The novel was adapted into a Broadway show, King and I, the fifth musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1951 which began the journey for this book in countless number of film and stage adaptations since. The musical version had considerable changes than what the film had; but the film stuck very close to the original book. Although there are several differences in the film compared what really happened in history.

Very interesting fact to note was that when Anna Owens and her son Louis arrive in Bangkok, everyone who come with her keep addressing her as "Memsahib" - a Hindi (Indian language) word for "Madam". But no where in the film they show that Anna has come from India to Bangkok. In fact in the film she claims to be Welsh. So the Indian people in her entourage should not have been there to begin with. 

The opening credits of the film has a preface to the movie plot in a title card listing out how Anna happens to come to Siam. 

What bothered me though was that the other western countries considering this eastern country's way of living as barbaric and hence they want to set a council to reform the country. But why would another country have to force their way into this country? Why cant they accept the other country's way of life? Yes there are customs and traditions that need to change, but that is upto the country to decide, not an external country.

There is a certain racism shown openly by white people on other cultures. Although there is shock to see how women are treated equal to or beneath the household furniture. The plot also shows how much the King tries keep the country from being colonized. Nonetheless the film is highly acclaimed.

A fine adaptation of a classic tale despite the subtle negativities shown, the film is elegantly produced with some superb action, and a very touching plot. Some history, some culture, some fiction and some biography - all culminates to a fine classic film.

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1951 Broadway play, King and I, was made into a musical film in 1956; and remade into a biographical period drama Anna and the King in 1999 starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat.

b. This film and the 1999 version, both were banned in Thailand because of the historical inconsistencies the Thai government seemed to think were in the film.

c. A 60 minute radio adaptation of the movie was broadcasted by Lux Radio Theater on January 20, 1947. Sir Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne reprised their roles. Another one was broadcasted by Lux Radio Theater again on May 30, 1949 with Irene Dunne alone reprising her role. 

d. Linda Darnell who portrays the role of Lady Tuptim is burned at stake. Linda was terrified of fire and was the most difficult shooting for her. Ironic and sad that she died in a house fire 19 years later in 1965.

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. Technically not an error, but still want to mention. In the film the character is named Anna Owens but her trunk has three embossed initials - A L O. In the book her name is Anna Leonowens, so the initials make sense. But not for the film name of the character.

b. When King Mongkut has his children brought in to meet Anna, we can see that scenes having several actors playing the part of kids and nurse maids are repeated to show his large number of children. 

c. Anna marks on a calendar the number of days she has been waiting for audience with the King. But check the way they are marked. Dates from May 1 to 16th are crossed out and from June 1st to June 9th. Shouldn’t the May 17th to 31st be crossed out instead?

d. The flags of British Union Jack is shown upside down; French flag is replaced by that of The Netherlands and the US flag is shown with 48 stars. In 1870 here were only 37 states so should have only 37 stars.

e. When the king is dying in the long shot, we don’t see any paper under his pillow. But in the very next close-up shot there is a paper beneath his pillow.


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