NOTE: This review was written under a previous rating system. Some of the older reviews may express opinions and judgment calls that are not in line with our current standards.1956
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
“Rogers and Hammerstein” is one of those strongly sentimental phrases, not just for those who are old enough to remember the age of “innocent” musicals, but for people who, even if they never lived in those simpler, more principled societies, somehow manage to miss them. There is nothing wrong with sentiment, or nostalgia, or enjoying glimpses back into times and places we never knew (even if they have been a little romanticized). Unfortunately, while Rogers and Hammerstein may very well be the best ones out there to fill that song and dance void in us, even their best doesn’t seem to be good enough on the more important points.
One of the difficulties about films like The King and I is that they are not merely presenting a different era from ours, but a different culture—one that actually existed (more or less). In other cultures, it seems, it was customary for men to go about without any clothes on above the waist, and for women to wear almost as little. Yes, I know, that’s what this culture is like, but my point is that, if immodesty is wrong in this day and place, it was wrong in that. And it isn’t as if we are supposed to ignore the bare flesh in the movie. The characters themselves react to the immodesty of the Siamese men with mild surprise, and to that of the Siamese women with either shock or positive delight, depending on the gender of the beholder.
There seems to be a great deal of hypocrisy, however, with regard to the sexual elements in the story. Anna, the Englishwoman, is quite disturbed by the Siamese ladies’ lack of proper undergarments, and yet she smoothly defends her own bare shoulders and mostly-bared bosom when the husband of those ladies questions her modesty. The reasoning behind both of her positions is that custom reigns over all. On the other hand, the king declares his hereditary disapproval of the idea of a woman dancing “in arms of man not her husband”, and then goes on to dance in the arms of a woman not his wife. The focus the movie places on his decision to put his hands about her waist draws attention not just to the act, which was inappropriate, but to the growing romantic tension between Anna and the king.
Romantic tension is never something I am entirely comfortable with, but it was especially unsettling in The King and I, because, unlike in other movies, there is no proper way to resolve it (unless, of course, you kill off one of the characters involved). Anna is a nominally Christian, English school teacher who actually doesn’t get on very well with the king, who is himself a Buddhist and the master of a sizable harem. To be sure, polygamy is presented as being at least inferior to monogamy, but in a strange way it is actually furthered, albeit in a roundabout way and in a different form. The king’s many wives are sufficient for his physical desires, but apparently not one of them is “equal to his special needs”—that is, able to be his helpmeet. That wifely duty is left to Anna, his unmarried three-in-one: his secretary, encourager and unsolicited but successful advisor.
Anna’s alternately forceful and subtle influence usually brings respect, and results. From the king’s command that his children “never let [him] hear of not believing school teacher” to his own child’s command not to bow to the king1, and his concubine’s more insidious surprise performance of a Siamese adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin—in these things and more, Anna’s political accomplishments would appear to place her in a position of greater influence than the king himself. In matters of religion, however, she makes no progress at all.
Of course, the king’s idea that “all that matters about man is that he try his utmost best” is one that in every age has had a devoted following even within the church, and it would unfortunately be surprising to hear it corrected by Anna, who had already shown that she had a poor foundation (if any) in Christian philosophy. The dualistic view of reality that teaches a paradoxical sort of harmonious hostility between “faith” and “science” gets quite a bit of screen time. I would like to be able to summarize the movie’s statements on this subject, but the quotes are more powerful left at least mostly intact.
“Men of faith and men of science, by contradicting each other, always manage to arrive at [the] same conclusion.”And then,
“I think your Moses shall have been a fool… Here it stands written by him [in the Bible] that the world was created in six days. Now you know and I know, that it took many ages to create [the] world… Now how am I ever to learn [the] truth, if different English books state different things?”Recap: the king challenges the claims of Moses, and by extension, of the Bible. Anna starts off strong by wrecking the Christian concept of truth with her very wrong separation of the authority of science from that of faith2. She talks about the Bible in terms of men’s explanation, rather than God’s revelation, and ends by suggesting that it’s all the same to her, whether the Bible is right or wrong.
“…Your majesty,” says Anna, “the Bible was not written by men of science but by men of faith. It was their explanation of the miracle of creation, which is the same miracle whether it took six days or many centuries.”
“I still think your Moses shall have been a fool.”
“As you wish, your majesty.”
More seriously, Anna is also involved in religious syncretism to a very high degree, and Rogers and Hammerstein are, of course, at least as earnest about belief-blending as she is. It is not so terrible to have Buddhists praying to their false god in a movie that takes place in a Buddhist country—though even that got a little out of hand; either that, or a lot out of proportion. In just the Uncle Tom’s Cabin segment (and not even counting the almost constant references to false deity in that one part, let alone the rest of the movie), the phrase “Praise to Buddha” is chanted joyously nine times. Meanwhile, the allegedly Christian dignitaries and their wives, by not walking out of the room—by applauding at the end—are participating vicariously in pagan worship. But even in that, there is still a distinction, however artificial, between the Buddhists who are praising demons, and the “Christians” who gladly leave them to it. Rogers and Hammerstein don’t stop at that, however. The king takes Anna into the temple of Buddha, stands her before his idol, and tells her to bow. And she does it—and we along with her, if we take any pleasure in that scene. Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.3
When I was little, The King and I was, I think, my favorite musical. That is a confession, I’m afraid. I’d like to be able to rate this movie even just one notch higher, for my own sake as much as anyone else’s; not because I still enjoy it (just one rating higher still wouldn’t let me watch it again), but because I still grieve over my folly in having enjoyed it so well in years past4. Looking back at the times I sat through the temple scene and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I have to admit that, if the characters were in the wrong—sinning—by doing the same thing, I was, too.
The stuff that goes on in The King and I isn’t defiling… so long as you aren’t enjoying the movie; and if we can’t enjoy the movie, there is very little reason, if any, to watch it. I am on the lookout for a good musical, and I hope to find one, but The King and I isn’t it. But it’s not really such a great loss. The movie doesn’t end well, anyway.
1 2 Samuel 15:4-6
2 The important fact, of which Anna seems to be entirely ignorant, is that science and the Bible never contradict one another; they can’t, since both belong to God. The people who study science can be wrong, and people who study the Bible can be wrong, but the Bible cannot.
3 1 John 5:21
4 You know, letting other people know about your past failings isn’t all that enjoyable, but neither is being thought an unsympathetic soul. Maybe some people recognized the serious problems in The King and I the first time they saw it; and I’m glad for them if they did. If other people saw the movie and didn’t see the problems, my history’s no better.