Happy hundredth birthday, Yul Brynner!
Yes, one of my favourite actors was born on this day a hundred years ago. Named Yuli Borisovich Bryner, ‘Yul’ Brynner was born in Vladivostok on July 11, 1920 and ended up moving first to Harbin (in China) and then to Paris, along with his mother and his sister Vera after their father abandoned them. Yul’s musical and dramatic abilities came to the fore in Paris, where he became a guitarist and later a trapeze and theatre artiste. In 1941, having travelled to America, he debuted on stage in Twelfth Night. That was the start of Yul Brynner’s career in the US, debuting onscreen eight years later in Port of New York (1949).
Yul Brynner’s decidedly exotic features meant that he, like contemporary Omar Sharif, ended up playing several different nationalities in films. Russian, of course; German; Mexican; Japanese…
… and Thai.
In what proved to be his only Oscar-winning role in a career spanning almost three decades, Yul Brynner played a historical figure: the Thai ruler King Mongkut.
The ‘I’ to ‘The King’ in this much-loved and hugely popular musical is Mrs Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr, whom Yul Brynner had specifically recommended for this role). When the story of The King and I begins, the widowed Anna and her young son Louis (Rex Thompson) are on board a ship that’s just about to dock at the harbour in Bangkok. Anna has been appointed school teacher to the royal offspring of King Mongkut, and is looking forward to the house outside the palace that the king has promised as part of the contract.
Before Anna can be presented to the king, however, she is met by his Prime Minister, Kralahom (Martin Benson). Kralahom is imperious, suspicious of this Englishwoman, and disdainful. When he mentions that Anna will be staying at the palace, Anna clarifies that no, she has been promised a home outside the palace. And that she will insist on it, even to the king himself.
Kralahom is appalled at Anna’s impudence, as he perceives it. But Anna is hell-bent on having her way; after all, this was part of the agreement.
Anna, with Louis in tow, therefore goes to the palace, all ready to battle with the king. Kralahom takes her to the audience chamber, and Anna is shocked to see the way everybody is obliged to fall on their knees in front of the king. She is intrigued when she sees a young woman, Tuptim (Rita Moreno) entering, escorted by a man named Lun Tha (Carlos Rivas). Kralahom explains: Tuptim has been sent as a present for King Mongkut by the King of Burma; Lun Tha is the envoy from Burma.
Anna is horrified: a woman being sent as a present?!
Anyway, once every other item on the agenda has been attended to, the king leaves, and Anna hurries after him to insist on being given a house. This is refused, and Anna eventually has to agree to stay within the palace, and be school teacher not just to the king’s many children, but to some of his principal wives. Of these, the favourite wife is Lady Thiang (Terry Saunders), who—like the king—knows some English.
Anna watches on as the little princes and princesses, including the Crown Prince, Chulalongkorn (Patrick Adiarte), all enter the chamber, one by one, pay obeisance to their father and greet Anna. She is enchanted by them, but also seemingly a little dazed by all the many new things she’s seeing. This is a culture shock.
…but Anna Leonowens is a steely woman, and not one to be deterred by something like that. Within the space of a few months, she has established herself firmly in King Mongkut’s palace. Many of the children and royal wives are now quite fluent in English, and they’ve learnt about various alien concepts: about snow and ice, for instance, or the (blasphemous!) idea that Siam, far from being the biggest country in the world, is a tiny blip on the map. Which, Anna is quick to point out, is still larger than little England, tucked away in another corner of the world (Anna is diplomatic enough to keep quiet about the fact that England’s sprawling colonies all across the globe make that little country far more formidable than Siam).
Anna also discovers that Tuptim already knows English. Tuptim asks Anna if she may borrow a book from Anna; Anna lends her Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and it affects Tuptim immensely. Tuptim also confides in Anna: Tuptim and Lun Tha (the man who had escorted her to King Mongkut’s court) had fallen in love on the journey from Burma to Siam. There is, given Tuptim’s status as a concubine to Mongkut, no hope for her and Lun Tha.
And Anna gets to know King Mongkut better. He has employed Anna, at £20 a month, to teach his children because he firmly believes in making Siam progressive, a modern, scientific-minded country. With that, Anna is completely in agreement. What does not appeal to her is the imperious way in which Mongkut insists on being the totalitarian king. He might disapprove of slavery and want to send elephants to President Lincoln to help him win the Civil War, but Mongkut is far from being the very forward-thinking ruler he aspires to be.
Problems arise soon enough. There comes to Mongkut’s notice the rumour that Queen Victoria is going to be told that he, Mongkut, is a ‘barbarian’, and this throws the king completely off-track. Simultaneously, Anna realizes that Tuptim and Lun Tha, forbidden though their love may be, have not let that fact keep them apart.
What I didn’t like about this film (because this has a bearing on what I liked):
The whitewashing, the way white actors don yellowface and play all the important Asian parts. It’s not as if there aren’t any Asian actors in The King and I: there are plenty of them, playing soldiers, dancers, maids, Mongkut’s wives and children—but everybody with any major speaking part is of non-Asian origin. It wasn’t even as if there were no good Asian-origin actors in Hollywood back then: Benson Fong, Henry Nakamura, Victor Sen Yung, Phillip Ahn, Anna May Wong, Richard Loo, Soo Yong, Miiko Taka, Miyoshi Umeki, James Yagi… they were all already there, and even playing important (in some cases, leading) roles in Hollywood films.
In tandem with the whitewashing, there’s the racism. The King and I, make no mistake, is racist, even if one of the two title characters is Asian, and even if most of the important characters are Asian. It’s racist in a condescending sort of way (which is exactly the expression Deborah Kerr wears through a lot of scenes where the Thais do something she isn’t familiar with, or which shows off their ignorance of Western ways). The king’s wives, wearing Western ball gowns and little underwear, bow; the king wants to send elephants to Lincoln; the women are fascinated by Anna’s belongings; the king refuses the veracity of a world map… everything is a way of showing how ignorant these poor Siamese are. It is the white man’s (and in this case, white woman’s) burden to help them cast aside not just this ignorance, but what is deemed their barbarism too. So patronizing, so suffocatingly sure that the Western way is the only good way.
(Incidentally, The King and I proved so offensive to the Thai government that the film was banned in Thailand for a long time).
What I liked about this film:
Given the inherent racism in the film, given too that I cannot stand whitewashing, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked Yul Brynner as King Mongkut. He comes across as a very likeable person: a man’s who always trying to do a balancing act. Balancing between East and West, between science and superstition, between being tyrant and benevolent ruler (and, on a similar note, strict disciplinarian and loving father). He can be irritatingly obstinate and pig-headed at times, and playful, with an excellent sense of humour, at others.
A good bit of characterization, but Yul Brynner must be lauded for pulling it off. He is very convincing in portraying the different aspects of this complex man—and he dances and sings beautifully too! (Interestingly, while Deborah Kerr did not sing her own songs for the film—Marni Nixon sang playback for her—Yul Brynner sang all his songs). This was a well-deserved Oscar. Incidentally, The King and I won a total of five Oscars; the other four were for Best Art Direction-Set Direction (Colour), Best Costume Design (Colour); Best Sound Recording; and Best Music (Scoring of a Musical Picture).
Lastly, there’s the aesthetics of it. The King and I has visually stunning sets. I don’t know how authentic these are (though they do look rather like what I’ve seen in Thailand), but they’re gorgeous. What really stood out for me as an example of the visually impressive aspect of The King and I was the superb dance drama, The Small House of Uncle Thomas. The dancing, the costumes, the props, the way everything from trees to snow to waves is depicted by simple objects carried by players: this had me totally entranced, it was so beautiful.
Little bit of trivia:
Anna Leonowens was a real woman, and had been appointed by King Mongkut to teach English to his children. However, as this interesting article explains, Mrs Leonowens seems to have been at least as good at fabricating information as she was at teaching English. Besides having cooked up stories about her own life, she appears to have not really stuck to fact when describing Mongkut and his court.
Final verdict: Worth a watch for Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr (whom I always like, anyway), and the sheer beauty of The Small House of Uncle Thomas. The King and I is no more path-breaking than most other Hollywood musicals (if you want to watch a Hollywood musical which actually does justice to Asians, see Flower Drum Song instead)—but it’s still good. And, it’s entertaining.
Thank you for the cinema, Mr Brynner!