Appropriation has been a rather significant point of conversation as I have navigated through this month of musicals, most notably as it relates to the American South and the pictorial depictions both post-War African-American communities, or more commonly the lack of depictions in favor of things like blackface and hyper-performative elements by the few black actors and performers who were able to make a name for themselves in a white entertainment business. Not known for their particularly subversive depictions of gender, race and by extension class, I knew that the engagement with the Rodgers and Hammerstein fare that was to be The King and I would not be the most ideal of situations. While Yul Brynner does an exceptional job in the film, met with an equally paced performance on the part of Deborah Kerr, the film does suffer a bit from a dated insight into how to properly depict a country that is less than familiar to the Western world. There is a high sense of absurdism at play in the film, where joking passes and barbarism on the part of the Siam persons on display takes on a rather blatant and unfortunate level of Orientalism. I say unfortunate because much like the blackface performances of eras earlier, The King and I is a visually perfected film that happens to incorporate rhetoric and performance that would, and should, be considered racist and sexist in a contemporary setting. Like The Jazz Singer though, the film represents a considerable shift in the language of cinema, here not so much as a matter of technological advancement, but is instead in direct relationship to shifting understandings of narrative construction and what place a musical interlude can play into a narrative. I would place this in a similar space as Black Narcissus although that Powell and Pressburger film exists in a world all its own, the only real significant connections being the lead actress and a considerable layer of Western encounters the East through institutionalized colonial movement. Watching The King and I with a critical eye can prove a rewarding experience, one that is accepting of its ethical problems, while also enamored with its visual audacity.
The King and I centers on the life of Siam dignitary and decided egomaniac King Mongkut (Yul Brynner) whose recent dirge of children, 106 altogether, paired with an expanding world of Western influence, cause him to agree to hire on a teacher for his various children and wives. The woman hired is Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr) who along with her son Louis (Rex Thompson) take to Siam only to discover a world far apart from their demure British life. Mongkut is a highly assertive figure, demanding complete humility by all those involved, including the equally confrontational Anna, seeing her status as a woman as a thing to serve his male privilege. Furthermore, considering the rather solitary space of Siam, Mongkut has a very limited understanding of the Western world, pulling much of his knowledge from The Bible, whose words are confounding and particularly confusing, when Anna begins to teach his children and wives about the world of science, contradicting the religious text blatantly. Mongkut is further frustrated by Anna's use of Uncle Tom's Cabin in her curriculum, both in its message about slavery, as well as in the realization that it was written by a woman. Nonetheless, through some sacrificing of dignity, Anna is able to convince Mongkut of the benefit of her education, while also preparing the somewhat brutish king for a visit by other British dignitaries, one that requires considerable posture training on his part amongst other points of etiquette. Indeed, it is during their visit that both Anna and Mongkut come to realize that they want similar things, both for themselves and their children to be respected, leading to a unified effort to impress the British by what Siam offers. Mongkut's various wives and children then put on an ballet adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin that is complete with replacing the figure of God with that of Buddha, although the entire performance nearly derails when one of Mongkut's more outspoken wives calls attention to her own status as servant. While this is corrected, the remainder of the even goes off successfully and Mongkut comes aware to his own aggression and oppressive behavior, which is fortunate as he is very close to dying. It is indeed in this moment of death that Anna agrees to stay on as an educator, while the previously male-minded king appoints one of his daughters as the new leader of Siam, her first act to remove any act that would create a stander of lesser than another.
While much of the narrative is about issues of appropriation, it is equally so about bargaining with powerful forces, or more specifically patriarchy in a Western context. Both Anna and Mongkut represent figures who are oppressed in various ways. As a widowed mother, Anna is allowed very little mobility, particularly in 1860's England, where her economic privilege is inherently tied to a male figure and little was placed on the issue of divorce, death or any situation that might remove that access. As such the seemingly absurd act of seeking out employment in Siam is met with necessity. While Mongkut might also seem like a figure of power, it only extends to the space of his incredibly small kingdom, one that is sheltered from the Western world and subject to the eyes of greedy colonizing bodies who see he and his barbaric land as a thing in need of reform to reflect the Christian, Western ideal. Anna realizes that her financial safety is contingent on Mongkut continuing to keep her employed, therefore she plays into his demands for keeping her head at a lower place than his, while also knowing it is nothing more than a bargaining chip to remain employed, while also subversively teaching the various women in the kingdom of their ability to rebel. Mongkut is not ignorant to all this by any means and does seem quite hesitant to embrace such a set of teaching, however, he is also bargaining with his own status as a body that is threatened by colonization. He knows that to teach according to what he believes would make his family look foolish, but he also seems quite aware that he is working with a woman who will be capable of teaching he and his family to fend for themselves in the corrupt world of colonization and imperialist movement. This all coalesces in the bargaining of the Uncle Tom's Cabin narrative to reconsider the element of servant in a colonial context, by reappropriating the image of the African-American slave to represent Siam, one that further extends to allegorically consider one of Mongkut's wives. While he is initially frustrated by such a confrontation, he is able to come to a realization of his own problematic oppression in the process. Here the bargaining is provided with a positive outcome, tragically such maneuvers do not always play out as successfully.
Key Scene: The entire Uncle Tom's Cabin sequence is quite stunning and aside from its problematic elements, one of the more intriguing rewordings of a narrative I have seen to date.
This is an easy thing to obtain on DVD, but is probably worth renting before owning.