by Palita Chunsaengchan
The King and I, based on a famous Broadway musical first staged on March 29, 1951 by the famous duo, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, became an immediate sensational Hollywood hit once released in 1956. The film was produced by dominant American film producer Charles Brackett, and directed by Walter Lang, whose cinema career began in the silent era with The Red Kimono (1925). It also starred Yul Brynner, who played the role of King Mongkut on Broadway stages, and yet whose appearance as a Siamese monarch in the film version was so popular that it set him up for another Hollywood success in The Magnificent Seven (1960) — an Old West adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Chose specifically for the cinematic role of Mrs. Anna Leonowens, a British school teacher hired by the royal court of Siam to teach King Mongkut’s offspring, Deborah Kerr had already made her name with Black Narcissus (1947), also screened as part of the Orienting Paradise programme, and Young Bess (1953) by the American media mogul, MGM. This Hollywood version of The King and I garnered 9 nominations from the Academy, and 4 from the Golden Globes, with one nomination for “Best Film Promoting International Understanding.”[i] Perhaps the film did not receive this particular award because of its ban in Thailand. However, most of the American media and reviews in film magazines and journals all saw the film in the same positive light. For example, for a review written in Action issued in July 1956, the cover had a photograph of a big sign “The King and I” with a packed front of a theatre and a caption “premiere of a smash hit.” One part of the review states that “the 20th Century Fox film version of the smash hit is flawless in every department. And most important of all, “The King and I” launches a new tradition in ‘super production,’” The author further writes: “In an industry which, in the past ten years, has not been without its and downs, the hue and cry is for the ‘magic’ that will revitalise a flagging box office. […] The long lines of ticket buyers outside every theatre that proudly carries the title ‘The King and I’ on its marquee represents no magic – on the contrary, they are the same clear-thinking Americans who had patronised this industry’s product over the years and who have always known what they had wanted for their entertainment dollar.
— “The King and I gives it to them.”[ii]
Giving it to them, in the context of America entering global ideological conflicts cannot be taken lightly. It is an exemplary rhetoric that underlines the power of monetary and economic exchanges, in this case, between the studio system of Hollywood and the American public, and that evokes a sense of entitlement based on the value of dollars. Therefore, what is quite important about this version of The King and I lies not only in the film’s diegesis (its plot, character’s motif, etc.) but also, and perhaps even more so, in its extra-diegesis: the commercial world and industrial reality of Hollywood that made the film, the American public’s reception – the success of the film in America – vis à vis the Thai government’s mandate to ban the film from screening in Thailand following its box office release in the US and for the international circuit.
Currently, the world is familiar with social debates around representation, identities, and agencies. Questions such as who represents whom on the cinematic screen, whose voices are heard or repressed, what legitimises the speaker to speak as such, are, to some degree, a result of global struggles of decolonisation and anti-racist politics. Given these political stakes, one cannot deny how The King and I postulates so many controversial topics deemed problematic in that regard. A critical approach to the film would look like this: A critique of the American production that used a white feminist figure to situate and mediate Siam for the public’s imagination of the West, of the long tradition of Hollywood’s white cast and yellow face as seen in Yul Brynner who plays the role of historical figure, King Mongkut (Rama IV) of Siam (now Thailand), and of a lot of explicit exoticising denigrating discourses on the pre-modern, barbaric, polygamous Siam – a trope used to mark the inferior positionality of Siam to the West. These are by all means very important discussions and allude to a high degree of complexity.
By complexity, I wish to address two important social paratextual elements. First, by speculating how this film could be read through the lens of a social critique as mentioned above, I want to call to attention how much our interpretation of the film is, to some degree, informed by contemporary discussions. A recent Hollywood art-film blockbuster like Dune (2021) invites criticism around its representational images of Islam and the Middle East.[iii] Yet, it reminds us how the problems of identities and cinematic representations can never avoid the reality of the racialised history of Hollywood nor can it eschew the contemporary emphases on social justice, diversity, and the collective decolonising mindset. Very much tied to cinematic representations and discourses, discussing The King and I, therefore,begs us to stay clear both on what it did in its own time (e.g. being exemplary to the problematic racialised history of Hollywood cinema) and what it can do in our time as we watch the film within our contemporary contexts.
As a result, I want to point out that The King and I (1956) is by no means a single text detached from the West’s textual and discursive narratives around nineteenth-century Siam. The film version is convoluted and intertwined, firstly, with Anna Leonowens’ two famous writings on Siam: The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and The Romance of the Harem (1873). These texts gained popularity among her American readers[iv], and on the cultural level, marshalled to reinforce the already existing Orientalist vision about Siam. Leonowens’ focus on gender especially by comparing the trope of “women’s rights” that she represents to the stories of the royal harem marks the radical distinction between post-abolition America and Siam where “woman is the slave of man.”[v] Secondly, the film draws from the fictional universe of Anna and the King of Siam, written by Margaret Landon and published in 1944. Living in Siam for 10 years as American missionaries tasks, the Landon couple – especially Kenneth Perry Landon, Margaret’s husband – later became important resources for the American government in its tasks to understand Southeast Asia, and particularly Siam as a potential ally of America during the beginning of the Cold War. Margaret Landon’s fascination over Leonowens’ memoirs, which to her, uncovered the truth about Siam and became the motif for her to write Anna and the King of Siam. Leonowens’ texts and Landon’s novel work together on the discursive level to seal the imagination about Siam with a stamp claiming and attesting to “historical facts” and “reality of Siam”. By resorting to the purportedly “historical reality,” these texts equate denigrating orientalist tropes to what is generally “natural” of a pre-modern nation-state like Siam. Anna Leonowens both as a schoolteacher in Leonowens’ own memoirs and as a fictional character in Landon’s share the same task: She is there to help fix the barbaric nature, to help progress to a stage of modernity. However, it became even more complicated when Anna Leonowens became a popular figure under the direction of Hollywood. The latter is– as we all know– a powerful cultural site not only for film production to which Theodor Adorno refers to as culture industry but also a real tangible infrastructure that strategises, circulates, exhibits, exports and monetises from its cinema as much as it does from American ideologies. What is “given to them [the Americans] were also circulated globally under the American flag from the start of the 20th century, and perhaps most aggressively during the wake of the Cold War.
Framed in this intertextual relationship, the film version of the musical, The King and I, could be examined through a feminist or postcolonial lens arguing for its deliberate proliferation of Orientalism so deeply engrained in the public imagination of the West. And yet, I intentionally introduced this film through the varieties of many of its cinematic successes with focuses on the American-Hollywood production and reception, precisely because, I believe more critical attention needs to be spared to America as a leader of the liberal power of the free world in the Cold War, how Hollywood partakes in American international politics, and how American cinema makes known the power of America to the rest of the world. If we go back to the review above, giving it to them exemplifies the monetary power of the dollars that which also determines the industry of Hollywood that dominated the world. There is no way we can understand The King and I only for its orientalising nineteenth-century account of Siam, especially when the production took place amid America’s power expansion in the post-Second World War. It is important to place The King and I as a cultural embassy not so much of Thailand to the American public, but the other way around. In other words, the film is not just about “getting to know Siam.” Rather, it is a cultural diplomat from America generating understanding not only about its liberal politics but its stance on anti-slavery and anti-communism.[vi] To trace this new world order and American ideologies that the film so subtly advocates, the essay will briefly map some of the exchanges, negotiations of power between America, its Hollywood productions as their diplomats, and Thailand.
Mapping American Diplomacy
“If I might be allowed to give you a word of warning. That man has power.”
“O…You must stop worrying about me Captain.”
“Sometimes I wonder if you know what you’re really facing. An English woman alone in a country like Siam?”
“They look so cruel, Mother. Fatherwouldn’t want us to be afraid, would he?”
After an establishing shot of old Bangkok, the first sequence starts with a group of British people on board as the British ship approaches the port of Bangkok. The conversation above is between the captain of the ship, Mrs. Anna Leonowens and her son as they approach the royal barge of the Minister of Defence (or they awkwardly call him in Thai, kalahom). It is quite hard not to comment on the explicit Orientalist attitude shown in this very first comment. The beginning already says everything if one tries to map an Orientalist projection of the West in the film. However, what is noticeable in this remark is not just how they view the Other but how they view themselves. The strength of a white woman – a faithful wife and mother and a culturally well-rounded Christian educator – has arrived on a foreign unknown land. Unlike our contemporary time, the colonial settler mindset seems to be processed so naturally as if it was the only ideological option. Though problematic, it is important to acknowledge that in the late 50s when the production took place, the complexity of the colonial settler mindset had shifted from simply taking the land to building infrastructure including generating cultural support so that the indigenous would ally with the purposes of the Empire, or to offer the labour and resources to the indigenous so that they would establish a sense of loyalty and patriotism. It is a gift-granting strategy that sets apart the one who has and the one who has not.
But as far as the free-market liberal economy goes, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Only minutes later into the sequence, Mrs. Leonowens has an argument with the Minister about her working conditions, and she wants to take the issue to King Mongkut himself. She stubbornly announces, “I have come here to work. And I intend to work. But I shall take nothing less than what I’ve been promised.” The dialogue signifies the significance of exchanges between her ‘labour’ and both the monetary and material payment that have been agreed upon. A focus on this rhetoric that daringly challenges the power of the absolute monarch underlines a liberal politics and business model introduced as a new mode of interaction with the Sovereign. “We are doing the business,” and this would be the agreement that benefits both parties. In this rhetorical movement, resources are promised, exchanges will be made, and it entails a legitimate entitlement to a payment to the provider of goods and services. This mode of exchange gives a significant warning that a top-down exercise of control will mark the end of the business– a decision that benefits neither of the two parties. Seen in this light, a figure of a British Victorian woman who has been overturned by the Hollywood production defined by their monetary relationship with the audience, has delivered the message: America of the post-World-War-II (and not any longer the British schoolteacher) has settled on this land, brought you the resources, and now it is time for you to pay back.
Payment as a form of replacement
The role of the governess as the only foreign educator of the royal court is prominent not only to the American and British audience, but also to the history of Siam, especially during King Chulalongkorn’s reign. Western audiences might view the film, especially scenes in which a copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is given to Tubtim, and motivating an adaptation of the novel into a royal play, as an indication of a successful modernising curriculum. As Leonowens herself references in her memoir, crown prince Chulalongkorn, whom she taught, finally abolished slavery in Siam once he succeeded the throne from his father, Mongkut. On the one hand, this reference in Leonowens’ book legitimises not only herself as a carrier of Western civilisation but also the general claim over the positive influence of the Western education vis-à-vis the issues around human rights and modernisation of Siam. On the other hand, some historians argue that the matter of the abolishment of slavery in Siam is more complex involving concerns over sovereignty as well as attempts to reduce the power of former feudalist slave owners and centralise administrative power to the king, and therefore, cannot be reduced merely as an outcome of Leonowens’ curriculum on slavery.[vii] Needless to say, in The King and I, the depiction of the positive influence of the Western education is palpable. For example, some might see its appearance most clearly in the “geography lesson” scene when the governess replaces the old map of Siam with a new one that “just arrived from England.” Or others might consider the rebellious act of Tubtim as another proof of success in which Western liberal education has improved the quality of life of the disempowered. These two examples make it very clear what the film tries to convey. There’s no hidden message, only an outright announcement by Leonowens that underlines her missionary white-saviour task: “O your majesty, in my country we have a far different attitude …”
Though each of these scenes manage to convey the ideological superiority not only of Western education but of Western morality (i.e. monogamy, anti-slavery, etc.), I want to suggest that this form of education also occurs on the level of cinematic structure– on the arrangement of the scenes themselves. Scenes that contain the governess either singing, debating, or giving direct lessons to the Siamese subjects always follow scenes where King Mongkut or his subjects do things in their Thai way. Because the musical genre is determined by a “singing”/”voicing” subject taking the centre of stage– grabbing all the attention, the appearance of the singing Mrs. Leonowens, though cinematically graceful, always “corrects”– replacing what was wrong in the previous scene or previous stance with herself, her thoughts, her at the centre of the stage. It is a subtle– musical and sentimental –replacement of what was considered incorrect. Take, for example, how she nods gracefully when Lady Thiang gives a lesson over the old map of Siam. The wait to replace the “incorrect version” of the map with the “correct one” that “just arrived from England” is followed gracefully by her singing “getting to know you, getting to like you.” However, regardless of how much Siam is “[her] cup of tea,” the American version of Leonowens reminds the audiences that the diplomatic act of “getting to know you” is conditional upon America’s superior positionality– upon the fact that America will “[put] it my way, but nicely.” Loud and clear, the message was delivered:
“I” want to know you. “I” want you to be my ally. But I will replace the knowledge of you with “my way”.
Payment as Alliance
The King and I gained even more attention, perhaps, because the government of the targeted nation –an heir to King Mongkut’s kingdom– decided to ban the film from screening in Thailand. No wonder that the reasons for the order to ban lies in the film’s caricaturist treatments of King Mongkut and Siam as a barbaric nation. In 1956, the prime minister of Thailand was Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, who took his second premiership after the success of his coup d’état in 1947. The second term of Phibunsongkhram is known for its advocacy for the United States, and firm stance on the national sentiment toward anti-communism. During this period, Thailand received not only military support, training, and funding from America,[viii] but was also offered significant cultural and educational support i.e. the Fulbright scholarship starting in 1950.
But could it not be considered counter-intuitive for the government of Phibunsongkhram to issue a ban for an American film if they held such an amicable bilateral relationship? If one were to look at this global-hit sentimental musical as a successful tool for America to expand its free-world liberal democracy in the wake of the Cold War, then the answer would be no. Both America and the Thai military understood that in order for them to successfully defend the threat of communism and to adopt American liberal democracy in the regional ideological war, the key lies in the sustenance of the insurmountable strength of the monarchy of Thailand. To make communism a threat to the nation-state (chat), the only way is to make it a threat equally to the other two sacred institutions: religion (sassana), or rather Buddhism; and the king (phra-maha-kasat). To ban the film for the public of Thailand was not to show any lack of support to America. On the contrary, it meant that they shared the same vision– using the monarchy as a shield to block out communism and to fortify the public’s attachment to nationalism through the monarchy. To wane off communism and to strengthen the country is to protect the monarchy, even from a popular joke or an ally’s caricature of the monarchy.
The messages in the film were translated as an insult to the Thai monarchy by the pro-monarchy government. And most importantly, the insult was supposed to trigger only the king’s subjects– those who were supposed to mobilise and defend the monarchy of Thailand and its long history at all costs. While the hostility was generally created for the people outside the royal court, this matter was probably nothing at all for those within the palace as Hollywood was never an enemy of the monarchy. In fact, there were many royal and governmental visits to Hollywood studios in the 50s-60s. “[When] Queen Sirikit eventually saw a New York performance of the show in 1985—at Yul Brynner’s personal invitation—” the queen’s spokesperson, Pharani Mahanonda reported the Queen’s thought: “She thinks the show is fun. She and the king are open-minded and we all know that the court would never act like that.”[ix]
In America and elsewhere in the world to which Hollywood’s studio-based distribution and exhibition network could reach, here’s the film that “revitalise the box office,” and “is fun.” The success of Hollywood defining global popular taste while inevitably reenforcing the Orientalist fantasies, racial and gender politics, as well as liberal democracy and economy of America attest to its power in the world order of the post-Second World War era. In Thailand, The King and I, in spite of as much as because of the ban, gains the public’s attention. But, for better or for worse, it also intensifies the clarity of the Thai government vis à vis the monarchy and its consequential anti-communist stance and sentiments.
I have attempted to explore how Orientalist tropes in The King and I were reissued into the pro-American politics, how the film complicates the dynamics between Hollywood’s all-access pass as a cultural diplomat and local authority, and how censorship actually becomes generative in the Cold War rhetoric to the pro-Americans. What I meant by generative is that the more the Thai government insisted on not giving [the film] to the Thai people in favor of the sacred monarchical institution, the safer the country remains as it becomes a protégé of its ally and the emergent world leader — America.
After all, the film was a mandated affront for the people, but a pro-American “pure entertainment” for Americans and for the Thai upper class.
The statement: “The King and I gives it to them,”works as a reminder that “them” are never innocent spectators. “Them,” as much as they appear to us, were part of the American politics in the wake of the Cold War.
About the Writer
Dr. Palita Chunsaengchan is an assistant professor of Southeast Asian cinema and media cultures in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her current book manuscript titled, Siamese Chimera: the Sovereigns, Fans, and the Revolutionaries in Early Thai Cinema, draws together the beginnings of Thai cinema from the period of the absolute monarchy to the decade following the Siamese Revolution. The book traces cinema’s complex intertwinement with the questions of modernity, sovereignty, and nation-state. Her past publications appeared in The Complete Guide to Thai Cinema and Asian Cinema. A couple others are currently in production at SOJOURN and Journal of Modern Periodical Studies.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.
[i] See full 1957 nominee list of the award: https://www.goldenglobes.com/winners-nominees/promoting-international-understanding
[ii] “King and I Top Hit,” Action. Vol. 17 No. 5, July 1956, 6.
[iii] See some of the examples of the debates here: https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/11/10/hollywood-orientalism-is-not-about-the-arab-world
[iv] Interestingly, Leonowens’ book “were less well received in England.” In The King and Who? Dance, Difference, and Identity in Anna Leonowens and The King and I, Sharon Aronofsky Weltman cited a comment by The Athenaeum, which “accused [Leonowens] in 1873 of outright ingratitude to her royal employer, perhaps suggesting -that a British subject ought to be more respectful of monarchy in general.” See Sharon Aronofsky Weltman’s “The King and Who?: Race, Dance, and Home,” 55-78.
[v] See Klein, “Musicals and Modernization,” in Cold War Orientalism, 204-5.
[vi] See Klein, “Introduction,” in Cold War Orientalism, 12-15.
[vii] See Grisworld; Moffat; Terwiel.
[viii] See Baker and Phongpaichit, “The American Era and Development 1940s o 1960s,” 159.
[ix] See Esther Pessin, “The Queen of Thailand Had a Date With the…”
Books and articles
Baker, Chris, and Pasuk Phongpaichit. A History of Thailand. 4th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. doi:10.1017/9781009029797.
Griswold, A. B. King Mongkut of Siam. New York: Asia Society, 1961.
Klein, Christina. Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961. Oakland: University of California Press, 2003.
Moffat, A. L. Mongkut, the King of Siam. Itaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1961.
Morgan, Susan. Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of The King and I Governess. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
Terwiel, B.J. A History of Modern Thailand, 1767-1942. St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1983.
Țion, Lucian. “‘Putting it My Way, but Nicely’: Neocolonialism in Feminist Clothing in Andy Tennant’s Anna and the King (1999) and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I (1956)” in Orientalism and Reverse Orientalism in Literature and Film: Beyond East and West, eds. Sharmani Patricia Gabriel, Bernard Wilson. London: Routledge, 2021.
Weltman, Sharon Aronofsky. Victorians on Broadway: Literature, Adaptation, and the Modern American Musical. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020.
US-based Newspapers and Film Magazines
Action. Vol. 17 No. 5, July 1956.
Pessin, Esther. “The Queen of Thailand Had a Date With …,” UPI. March 16, 1985. https://www.upi.com/Archives/1985/03/16/The-Queen-of-Thailand-had-a-date-with-the/1698479797200/ (accessed April 20, 2022).