There have been four film versions of the story of Anna Leonowens, the Englishwoman who travelled to Siam in the 19th century to teach English to the children of the king. Whilst this 1946 version was the first, it was followed in 1956 by The King And I and in 1999, an animated version with the voice talent of Miranda Richardson and Ian Richardson as well as Anna and the King, which starred Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat. There was even a television series of thirteen episodes in 1972 in which Yul Brynner reprised his role from The King And I and Samantha Eggar played Anna Owens.
As with any story in which multiple versions exist in film, what is often most interesting is what each version says about Hollywood at the time of its making. The King And I (1956) is about the splendour of a Hollywood lost in the beauty of Cinemascope productions and of an optimism that coursed through the United States some eleven years after the end of the Second World War. The animated version came about through a late flourish by the non-Disney studios to reap some of the rewards that were then being heaped upon such films as Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Lion King (1994) and Mulan (1998). Finally, the same year's Anna And The King retold the story with a greater political outlook, which was only possible when looking back over decades of conflicts in South-East Asia, as well as a more explicit relationship between Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut that would have been frowned upon in earlier versions.
This version of the story arrived at a time when, a year after the final shots of the Second World War, the mood of cinemagoers was for richly acted melodrama. 1946 was also the year of It's a Wonderful Life, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Notorious and although Anna And The King Of Siam has a greater sense of the epic than any of those films or, indeed, many of the other films released that year, it plays down the far flung location in favour of a nod back to the United States and of a reassurance to the American people that their country is not only a fine example of democracy but that it has also been in the right hands for at least a century before.
Anna And The King Of Siam sees Anna Leonowens (Irene Dunne), a British-born teacher of English, arrive with her son, Louis (Richard Lyon), in the kingdom of Siam, where she is to teach English and western customs to the king's children. Before her first day at school, Anna struggles to find an audience with King Mongkut, despite holding a personal letter of invitation and finds that the prime minister only blocks her attempts to visit the king in his palace. Eventually, the king appoints her to the position of palace teacher, asking her to teach not only his children but also his wives and, in her free time, to learn western habits, customs and laws in his advancement of his kingdom. There are, however, greater passions in the palace than can be held in check and Anna soon learns that the drive to modernity also requires one to respect the past.
The least successful of the four tellings of the Anna Leonowens story is the Jodie Foster film, which is simply very dull. The 1956 version is spectacular, the animated film, although cheaply produced, has a rather naive charm about it and this is a solid piece of forties melodrama. Indeed, I would say that of the four, this has come to be my preferred telling as it balances humour, the difficult political situation in which the king finds himself and the complexity of a polygamous relationship, illustrated here by the fable told by Lady Thiang, Mongkut's first wife, to Anna.
But what none of stories are is accurate and that is something that has always troubled me about the various tellings of the Anna Leonowens story. Read a little on Leonowens' history and unlike the teacher who arrives in Siam as an innocent traveller to parts of the world still strangely backward compared to her beloved England, Leonowens not spent a considerable time away from England but was, in fact born in India. Leonowens' own version begins with her birth in Caernarfon but it is now thought that she was born to an English father an Indian mother and it was only in meeting Thomas Leon Owens, who she married in 1849, that she moved to London. It was there that she gave birth to a girl and boy, Avis and Louis, before her husband moved back to South-East Asia to work with Anna and Louis following soon after. In 1859, Thomas died and in order to support herself and Louis, Anna became a teacher for the children of army officers, which led directly to an offer being made by the ruler of Siam, King Mongkut, asking Anna to teach his sixty-seven children.
With that in mind, it is easy to see how each film rather exaggerates the arrival of Anna Leonowens in Bangkok - certainly her wide-eyed marvelling at the quaintness of her new surroundings would not have troubled the real Anna given her extensive travels across Asia. After that, each film takes as read the role that Anna played in the changes that were then afoot in the court of the King of Siam but it is also thought that Anna gave herself more of a role than the one that she actually enjoyed. There is little in records from the time to suggest that Anna Leonowens was instrumental in the westernisation of Siam nor that she sat on a night with King Mongkut and composed letters to foreign leaders with him.
Unfortunately, that is why Anna And The King suffers in comparison with this film and The King And I. Both of the earlier films seem to treat the Anna Leonowens story with a certain degree of amused tolerance as though they were aware of the possibility of it all being a garnished version of the truth. The King And I cannot really avoid taking a sideways glance at the story, what with it being a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical but Anna And The King, on the other hand, really should know better than to treat the story with a po-faced acceptance of it all as gospel.
In this film, Rex Harrison does a terrific job of playing King Mongkut with a twinkle in his eye, forever toying with Anna Leonowens' sensibilities. Even the pomposity of the character is endearing as it's performed in such a way as to also show vulnerability as well as hinting at the playing of Professor Higgins that was to come. Harrison even allows a hint of steely determination to be shown in the way that he deals with Tuptim leaving his court. Irene Dunne is not bad as Anna but simply cannot compete with Harrison in the many scenes that they share nor even with Lee J. Cobb as Kralahome.
Arguably the most interesting part of the film is the relationship between the king and his wives, two of which are given something approaching a lead in the film. The story of Tuptim (Linda Darnell) is included to present a side to the king that might have been swept under the charming front for modernisation. Tuptim is introduced early in the film and has a certain waywardness around Anna, which we interpret as jealousy given the latter's role in the court with Tuptim being the king's most recent bride. Tuptim is, however, in love with a young priest and runs away from the palace dressed in the clothes of a novice but she is found and brought back to be punished. Not only is she whipped but she and her lover are also burned at the stake, an act that provides the first glimpse of a breakdown in the relationship between Anna and Mongkut.
The second story from the point of view of a wife is less melodramatic but more lasting and it is that of Lady Thiang (Gale Sondergaard), who was the king's first wife. Throughout the film, Thiang is an odd presence but it is only when Anna goes to leave Siam after the death of Tuptim, that Thiang confides in her the jealousy that she has felt and the rejection when new wives were taken but that both are somehow worth bearing in silence knowing that her son, the Crown Prince, will eventually be made king. That said, there is neither enough time nor depth in the film to illustrate how other wives must feel with the experience not only of rejection and jealousy but that the sons and daughters that they bear will not have such an illustrious future.
Had Anna And The King Of Siam been strictly about the two titular characters, it would not have been as strong a film as it otherwise is and both Gale Sondergaard and Linda Darnell are to be thanked for that. Therein lies the trouble with the film as well as other versions of the story - in the end, Anna Leonowens was simply a teacher in the court of the king of Siam and nothing, other than the inventions of the Jodie Foster film, can add a love affair when none existed. Leonowens may feel despair at the death of Tuptim or empathy for Thiang's situation but she does not feel the loss they do and her role prevents her from doing anything about it. Enjoy the story without thinking of that too much and it's an interesting but thin film, the enjoyment of which owes much to Rex Harrison but this is not the romance that is suggested by the cover.
Whilst there are occasional glimpses of dirt and scratches on the print that has been used for this DVD release, Anna And The King Of Siam is, otherwise, not in bad shape. The contrast is rather too rich and although there is some jog in the picture, it is only really noticeable during the title sequence. There is, however, a clear difference in the amount of detail between scenes with some being perfectly acceptable while others are much too soft.
Thankfully, the original mono soundtrack is included on this release and the only complaint that I can make is that some of the dialogue is rather harsh but, as with the damage to the print, this is due to the condition of the source material. Fox have also included a stereo audio track but it lacks a warmth across the range of frequencies, being rather too loud at the extremes of the highest and lowest frequencies but with little substance in the middle.
English and Spanish subtitles are included for the main feature only, not the extra features.
Fox Movietone News (57s): As is common with these Fox Studio Classics releases, the Movietone news footage is much like the Hello! of today and this is no exception. Looking as though nothing could possibly upset the evening, this short film of the Gala Hollywood Premiere features such stars as Rex Harrison, Shirley Temple and Paulette Goddard
Theatrical Trailer (3m17s): Beginning with the burning of Tuptim, this trailer draws upon both the drama in the school and the conflicting relationship between Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut in the film to promote it.
Biography : Anna And The King (44m04s): It is clear, given the footage from the film and the interviews with Jodie Foster, that this was produced by the Biography channel to tie in with the release of Foster's Anna And The King. It does, however, do a good job of cutting through the romance of the films and of Leonowens' own tampering with the truth. As such, it presents a factual account of her life with, quite unexpectedly, a particular focus on her time in Siam.
I can't say that I learned anything from this film nor was I entirely sure of its historical accuracy - the writing of a letter to Abraham Lincoln offering elephants may actually have happened but it feels twee - although I enjoyed the film.
This is not as light as the Rodgers and Hammerstein version but it is enjoyable and with a decent transfer and a good documentary on the disc, this would make a fine purchase for a fan of The King And I, giving them an alternative view of the Anna Leonowens story. Although, as with all such versions, the Thai government, who have banned all such films, may yet wish to present a more authoritative view on the influence that Anna Leonowens enjoyed whilst employed by King Mongkut.