194th Meeting – February 2000

 

Anna and the King – The movie

A panel discussion led by Larry Ashmun

 

Your convenor writes: I was at this meeting as a member of the audience. No summary was written at the time so I have put the following together based on Wikipedia articles on the films; 1946 and 1999, and Anna Leonowens, my own research, my own copy of ‘The King of Siam speaks’ by M.R Seni Pramoj and M.R. Kukrit Pramoj, and my recollections of the discussion that ensued that evening. Other members of the audience may well have different recollections and I would be pleased to hear from them and add their memories to these minutes. 

 

History of the Controversy:

Most Thai people were shocked by the portrayal of their revered nineteenth-century king Rama IV in the 1946 film Anna and the King of Siam and in the subsequent musical The King and I. All the portrayals in those productions were based on Margaret Landon's 1944 book, Anna and the King of Siam, based on Anna Leonowens’ somewhat fictionalized accounts of her experiences. Landon further fictionalized the story and, like Anna herself, made up incidents to make the story more appealing to her target audience. Both women were dedicated to the women's rights movement and thus present a distorted, prejudiced view of King Mongkut and Siamese palace life.

To put the record straight concerning King Mongkut, in 1948 the well-known Thai intellectuals M.R. Seni Pramoj and M.R. Kukrit Pramoj wrote The King of Siam speaks. The Pramoj brothers sent their manuscript to the American politician and diplomat Abbot Low Moffat (1901-1996), who drew on it for his biography, Mongkut, the King of Siam (1961). Moffat donated the Pramoj manuscript to the Library of Congress in 1961. (Southeast Asian Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress). The Siam Society published the book in 1987 and in his Preface, M.C. Subhadradis Diskul, The Honorary Vice President of the Siam Society, writes …“This book is mostly a translation of King Mongkut’s letters into English by two scholarly brothers, but presents as well the king’s own letters in the same language. The two authors in producing this book were trying to portray to the world King Mongkut’s real character in contrast to that figuring in the popular book “The King and I” and the musical movie and play of the same name.” … “Those who read this book will understand and appreciate, I hope, the real character of the king who had been a Buddhist monk for 27 years before his accession to the throne. His real love for his country and his subjects can be clearly felt. The king was meticulous in everything and if one would think about the danger of Western colonization during his period, one would understand quite well his prudence and great care to maintain the independence of his country as well as to modernize it with the latest Western technology. The love for his family, especially his children, can be easily perceived.

“The writer of this preface feels extremely proud to be one of his many descendents.”

(The King of Siam speaks, by Seni Pramoj and Kukrit Pramoj ISBN 9748298124)

 

Anna and the King (1999) is a remake of Anna and the King of Siam, but differs in many respects from that movie and also from the related musical, The King and I.

The film was directed by Andy Tennant and stars Jodie Foster as Anna Leonowens and Chow Yun-Fat as King Mongkut. None of it was shot in Thailand; mostly in Malaysia, particularly in the Penang and Ipoh region.

The film begins by following the story of Anna Leonowens and Rama IV as it is usually told; Anna is a widow who has come to Siam with her son Louis to teach English to the 58 royal children. She is a strong-willed, intelligent woman and this pleases the King. Anna is enchanted by the royal children, particularly Princess Fa-ying. The little girl identifies with the spirit of the playful monkeys who live in the trees of the royal garden. When she is suddenly taken ill with cholera, Anna is summoned to her chambers to say goodbye. She gets there just as Fa-ying dies in Mongkut's hands, and the two mourn together. Sometime later, when the King finds that one of the monkeys has "borrowed" his glasses, as his daughter used to do, he is comforted by his belief in reincarnation and the idea that Fa-ying may be reborn as one of her beloved animals.

King Mongkut wants to modernize his country to keep it safe from the threat of colonialism, while protecting many of the ancient traditions that give Siam its unique identity. In order to win the favors of Britain, the King orders a sumptuous reception, and delegates Anna to organize it. During the reception, the King verbally spars graciously and wittily with Sir Kincaid, of East India Company, who accuses Siam of being a superstitious nation. At the end of the reception, the King dances with Anna.

Lady Tuptim, the King's new favorite concubine, was already engaged when brought to the court. The King is kind to her, but she's too unhappy and eventually runs away, disguising herself as a young man and joining the monastery where her former fiancé, Khun Phra Balat, lives. She is tracked down and brought back to the palace, imprisoned, and initially caned along with Balat. Although the King intended to mitigate the severity of the final charges, Anna, in front of the entire court, insists that the King be merciful, severely limiting the King's ability to sanction a lesser punishment out of political and cultural concern that it would appear as though he had been lenient because of Anna's insistence; Tuptim and Balat are beheaded in front of the entire court, despite the well held belief that the sentence is monstrously unfair. This particular story lacks independent corroboration and is dismissed as out of character for the king by some critics, particularly in view of the fact that the king issued The Royal Proclamation Pledging Royal Permit to Ladies of the Inner Palace to Resign. If Tuptim had wanted to leave, all she had to do was ask. A great granddaughter, Princess Vudhichalerm Vudhijaya (b. 21 May 1934), stated in a 2001 interview: “King Mongkut was in the monkshood for 27 years before he was king. He would never have ordered an execution. It is not the Buddhist way.” She added that the same Tuptim was her grandmother and had married Chulalongkorn.

The political aspects of the story are completely fictional: Siam is under siege from what appears to be a British-funded coup d'état against King Mongkut, using Burmese soldiers. Mongkut sends out his brother Prince Chaofa and his military advisor General Alak to investigate. However, it turns out that Alak is the man behind the coup and he turns on and kills Chaofa. He then flees Siam into Burma where he summons and readies his troops to invade Siam and kill the King and his children.

With Anna's help, the king manages to hide his children and his wives in a safe place. Then he goes with the few soldiers he has to face Alak. Siamese soldiers place high explosives on a wooden bridge high above a canyon floor, as Alak and his army approaches. The King orders his "army" to stay back and rides to the bridge with only two soldiers. Alak, in front of his army, confronts the King on the bridge.

Anna and Louis then orchestrate a brilliant deception from their hiding place in the forest: Louis uses his horn to replicate the sound of a bugle charge, as Anna "attacks" the area with harmless fireworks. The ploy works as the Burmese, believing the King has brought British soldiers, retreat in a panic. Alak attempts to recall them, but his efforts prove to be futile. Alak stands alone, but the King refuses to kill him, saying that Alak should have to live with his shame. As the King turns to ride back to Siam, Alak picks up a gun and aims at the King, but the explosives are detonated, blowing the bridge to pieces, and Alak along with it.

At the end of the movie, the King has one last dance with Anna, and realizes that it is conceivable for one man to be pleased by only one woman. Anna returns to England with Louis. The King's son takes over, and abolishes slavery.

The Current Controversy

The Thai government did not allow the film makers to film in Thailand. After completion of the film, the Thai authorities did not permit the film to be distributed in Thailand due to scenes that could be construed as disrespectful towards King Mongkut. The film makers resubmitted the movie to Thai censors. The Thai authorities maintained the ban; The Nation's opinion piece opined that some Thai people questioned the state of the democracy due to the film ban; the paper also reported that Americans enjoyed watching the film.

That the film was banned in Thailand came as no surprise to anyone in the audience. Whether or not the Thai government should have banned the film was the focus of some discussion amongst the audience, with the consensus view being that they should not. As with Peter Wright and ‘Spycatcher’, all Margaret Thatcher did by trying to ban the book was to create more interest, and increase the sales. Had the Thai government simply ignored Anna and the King it would have been just another movie that would have come and gone.

In reality, of course, the Thai government’s ban was unsuccessful. Within days of its official release date, DVD rental shops in Thailand had copies of Anna and the King on the shelves, along with copies of Anna and the King of Siam and The King and I. Seeing the movie for themselves allowed Thai people to make up their own minds as to whether or not the were ‘scenes that could be construed as disrespectful to the King.’ As there has been no great public outcry in the newspapers or on TV, nor street protests demanding the destruction of the DVDs, it would seem that not many Thai people shared the opinion of their government on this matter.