[Film Review] The King and I (1956)

The King and I poster

Title: The King and I
Year: 1956
Country: USA
Language: English, Thai
Genre: Musical, Drama
Director: Walter Lang
Ernest Lehman
Oscar Hammerstein II
Margaret Landon
Music: Alfred Newman
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Deborah Kerr
Yul Brynner
Rita Moreno
Terry Saunders
Martin Benson
Rex Thompson
Carlos Rivas
Patrick Adiarte
Alan Mowbray
Geoffrey Toone
Marni Nixon
Rating: 5.3/10

This classic musical extravaganza stars a contrasting pair Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner, a British widow Anna sails to Siam to be the governess of King Mongkut’s many children and wives in the early 1860s, as the king is dedicated to modernize his country with western civilization.

This premise is grating enough to introduce the scenario completely based on westerners’ wanton concoction and superior hubris to a less civilized society. As a successful adaptation of a sensational play, the film practically is a more lavish play in a giant set, it won 5 Oscars (Brynner won for BEST LEADING ACTOR) with 9 nominations altogether including the big five.

The film goes extensively into the ostentation and extravagance of its exotic setting, which must have been marvelous for audience then, all that glittery, kitschy bells and whistles are visually winsome, most prominently is the enthralling choreography of a Thai version of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN. But the central story, an oriental king versus a dignified British lady, fabricates the drama which is too primitive and too on-the-nose, what’s more disheartening, the film in shamelessly biased in the Thai culture, and not in an ironical way which one can laugh about it as a self-mocking ridicule, under today’s world, it is untimely, irrelevant and politically incorrect (at least hiring some real Asians in the extras for Christ’s sake!).

Brynner’s Oscar-winning performance is quite a novelty then, a star-making opportunity for him to introduce to audience with his unique handsomeness and virility, with a bald head although it is a reprise of his role in the original play, he insistently flaunts his sinewy bod to justify his masculinity, verbalizes his lines with peculiar accent and extracts a lively combination of royal panache and congenial naiveté albeit his plot twist in the end is too brusque to accept.

This is maybe Deborah Kerr’s most memorable role and she is so fearlessly engaging in embodying all the virtues of a dignified woman with nobility, candidness kindheartedness and self-respect (with Marni Nixon’s euphonious voice attached), sadly both her and Brynner cannot rescue the entire film from becoming awfully outmoded after nearly 60 years.

All its music numbers are standard show-tunes from a bygone era, some is bordering on cringe-worthy for my ear, simply not my cuppa. The story itself is a detritus made only for the worldview of 19th century, our concept of ethnology has thankfully evolved through one and a half centuries, so sometimes, something better being left in its own time-frame, otherwise heedful readjustment is indispensably needed to adopt the new mindset of a different generation, as much as I adore two leads’ performances and all the efforts behind the production team, the film I really cannot endorse.

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