In 1944, Margaret Landon wrote a semi-biographical novel entitled “Anna and the King of Siam,” which was based on the memoirs of a governess to the children of King Mongkut (Yun-Fat Chow) of Siam during the 1860’s. Anna Leonowens spent five years in Siam, and recorded her activities in her diaries. Landon’s book, based on the diaries, was first made into a film with the same title in 1946. Then, under the title of “The King and I,” it was made into an award-winning Broadway musical in 1951, followed by a film version of the same name in 1956.
Jodie Foster - Wikimedia
The present film, entitled “Anna and the King,” was made in Malaysia because the Thai government would not allow it to be filmed on Thai soil. Supposedly, the story as told here was full of historical inaccuracies. The film is still banned from being shown in Thailand. King Mongkut was about 60 years old when Anna Leonowens arrived in Siam, and he was a respected and sensible monarch. It is not realistic to believe that he fell in love with the young English teacher hired to teach his children and some female members of his court.
In reality, only ten of King Mongkut’s children studied English under Anna Leonowens in the 1860’s, whereas the film showed 58 children under her supervision in the classroom. There are no pictures of Yun-Fat Chow extant today.
Nevertheless, the film was highly enjoyable, and Jodie Foster did a commendable job of portraying Anna, given that she had to follow Deborah Kerr who did a memorable job in the role back in 1956.
Deborah Kerr, who also played "Anna" Wikimedia
Anna Leonowens was a widow of 23 months with a young 12-year-old son named Louis when she was offered the position of teacher to the children of King Mongkut of Siam. When they arrived in Bangkok, they were taken to their quarters in the palace, whereas Anna was told they would have a house to themselves off of the palace grounds. She was told “Everything in Siam happens in its own time.”
Before she even met the King, she was further offended by the fact that the Prime Minister kept referring to her as “Sir.” Her protest was answered with the explanation that women do not stand in the presence of His Excellency. When she objected to the Prime Minister’s questions her about her private life, she was told that the Siamese asked questions to be polite. She was warned that she should touch her forehead to the floor when she greeted the king. She did not meet him for another three weeks.
The costumes in the film are breathtaking, as well as the unbelievable scenery (which is Malaysia), and the props, such as the carriages, the elephants, and the buildings. All of it speaks to the care that was taken to produce this film.
Yul Brynner who also played the King Wikimedia
Anna Meets the King
When Anna finally met the King, they seemed to like each other immediately. However, he did tell her that she could stand upright in his presence provided her head was never higher than his. The King and his entire household referred to her as “mem Leonowens.”
Anna’s son Louis made friends with the King’s son, Prince Chulalongkorn, after an initial fist fight over some trifle. Following some of the Prince’s questions, Anna gave him a book to read: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe. This did not sit well with the King who had many slaves in the palace.
One of the King’s concubines, Lady Tuptim, asked Anna if she might join her class since she wanted to learn how to write English. Members of the household had great respect for the teacher.
Some Burmese soldiers had come close to the palace and gunfire was heard. Burma was a British protectorate, and it was hoped that the British were not involved in the skirmish.
Yul Brynner and Samantha Eggar in a Television Production of "Anna" - Wikimedia
Anna and Louis Are Given Their Own House
Anna and Louis finally moved into the house they were promised. King Mongkut decided to have a huge gala to honor his anniversary as King. He wanted to invite English nobles and diplomats. He asked Anna to take charge of all of the formalities which astounded her. She therefore insisted that he could not have the servants bow every time he walked into the room. For the first time in history, the King allowed everyone to stand in his presence.
The King and Anna Dance the Waltz
On the night of the gala Anna arrived in a beautiful gown. When the music began, the King asked Anna to dance. She said it was the first time she had danced with a King. He said it was the first time he had danced with an Englishwoman. All of the onlookers were amazed at the couple out on the dance floor. Anna remarked later that she had enjoyed herself, as though she were one of the King’s 26 wives. One of the English soldiers at the gala told Anna that her husband was a courageous man; the soldier had served alongside him.
The next day, King Mongkut gave Anna a beautiful ring for her efforts for the Anniversary party, saying that it was a custom to bestow favors on those who pleased the King. Anna thought the ring was beautiful and a lovely gesture, but she said that she could not accept it.
Anna Leonowens' Gravesite - Wikimedia
Tiptum and Balat
Tiptum’s true love, Balat, wrote a letter to her, saying that he was going to devote his life to Buddha but that he would never forget her. The letter was discovered in her bedchamber, and she was sentenced to die. Anna was distraught as she was given the letter to transmit to Tiptum in the first place.
Anna was asked to visit the King’s youngest little girl, who had developed cholera and was very sick. She loved Anna very much and smiled when her visitor arrived. Shortly after, the poor baby died. The King was distraught, and Anna was also.
The King’s brother, Prince Chowfa, and one of his generals were killed by the Burmese. It was decided that Siam must go to war against Burma, even though it was a British protectorate.
At War with the Burmese
Anna was told by the King that she and the children must evacuate the premises. The Burmese General Alak and his army were on their way. The King would meet up with them later. As the Burmese were spotted getting closer to the palace, it was decided that they would wait until the army was crossing the bridge, and would blow up the bridge at that point. King Mongkut went out to meet them. His soldiers were shocked when the King rode his horse to the bridge and engaged General Alak in conversation. They had to hold back on blowing up the bridge. When the conversation ended, the King and his horse withdrew from the bridge and the King’s soldiers knew that was the signal to blow up the bridge, and they did.
Map of Thailand - Wikimedia
Anna and Louis Leave Siam
Anna decided that it was time for her and Louis to go home to England. She was sorry to leave her students, whom she had grown to love. She had also grown to love the King. He asked her for one small favor, to dance with her on the porch where they were speaking. He remarked “I did not understand until now that a man could be satisfied with only one woman.”
Years later, King Mongkut’s son, Prince Chulalongkorn, who had been tutored by Anna, abolished slavery in the land, instituted religious freedom, and reformed the justice system.
I learned a great deal from this film which I will take away with me. It was also beautiful entertainment. I want to see the original version again with Deborah Kerr to compare the two films.