Anna and the King Articles - Page 1

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  1. Fact & Fanciful Fiction
  2. History with a Twist
  3. Getting to know you

Fact & Fanciful Fiction:

Hollywood plans to have another go at Anna Leonowens' account of King Mongkut's court have reopened debate.

Date: 8th November 1998
Publication: The Nation (Thailand)
Section: Sunday Focus
Writer: Manote Tripathi

IT is very doubtful whether that prim Victorian governess understood, much less paid any credence to, the concept of reincarnation. But Anna Leonowens, or rather her account of life at the court of King Rama IV in the late 19th century, has been ''reborn'' several times. And yet another rebirth is in the offing; a remake of her story which 20th Century Fox wants to shoot on location in Thailand. Laurence Blender's draft script for Anna and the King was rejected by the National Film Board on Oct 15 on the grounds that it was factually inaccurate and potentially insulting to the Royal family. An appeal was lodged and Paothong Thongchua, a lecturer on SoutheastAsian art history and textiles at Thammasat University, was given carte blanche to rewrite the script. Tomorrow the Board meets to consider his revised version. So what's all the fuss about? Well, the main bone of contention is how the film will portray King Mongkut (Rama IV), one of the most respected monarchs in modern Thai history.

And the Board has good reason to be cautious. Many Thais feel that a bad precedent was set by two previous Hollywood treatments of Leonowens' story. In an article published in the April, 1957, edition of The Journal of the Siam Society, historian Alexander B Griswold notes: ''King Mongkut is hardly known in the West except in the grotesque caricature popularised by Rex Harrison in Anna and the King and by Yul Brynner in The King and I''.

Yul Brynner won an Oscar for his role in that musical comedy (based on a Broadway musical in which he played the same part) but the film so offended Thais that it was banned here. ''[However] Hollywood and Broadway are only partly to blame,'' Griswold argues, ''They have thrown in some ill-chosen humour and some antics that are a shock to anyone who knows the courteous manners of Siamese ladies and gentlemen -- but these additions are more peccadilloes. The real fault lies in the two books they ultimately spring from -- The English Governess at the Court of Siam and The Romance of the Harem -- both written by Mrs Anna Leonowens.'' Although Griswold does praise Leonowens for her ''lively'' prose, ''sharp eye for landscape'' and interest in all aspects of Siamese life -- and even tolerates the ''profusion of small errors'' and ''muddled topography'' in the book -- he remarks that she never really mastered the Thai language and that her best passages on Buddhism were ''slyly plagiarised'' from other writers. Then he really lets rip: ''Hovering on the fringes of reality, often escaping into make-believe, she had an acute sense of melodrama and absolutely no sense of proportion ... If her self-portrait is flattering, her portrait of the King is quite the reverse; and it is all the more misleading because it is made to look like an impartial and carefully-balanced assessment of a complex personality ... I cannot say how far she was the victim of malicious gossip or misunderstanding, and how far she herself originated the accusations [about the King's character faults].''

In her preface to The English Governess, Leonowens writes: ''In the following pages I have tried to give a full and faithful account of the scenes and the characters that were gradually unfolded to me as I began to understand the language, and by all other means to attain a clearer insight into the secret life of the court.''

Asked for his reaction to this passage, Wutdichai Moolasilpa, a historian at Srinakarinwirot University, said, ''Well, if her books contain the truth, that begs the question: why is her version of events not backed up in Singapore newspapers of the time? Or in Dr Dan Beach Bradley's Bangkok Recorder? That seems strange to be. It's very likely that what Anna wrote didn't necessarily happen.''

To support his point, Wutdichai picked out a scene in Chapter XII of The English Governess in which Leonowens describes a dungeon where a concubine has been locked up (''Floor it has none, nor ceiling, for, with the Meinam [Chao Phya River] so near, neither boards nor plaster can keep out the ooze'').

''That has proven to be non-existent,'' says Wutdichai, ''It would have been impossible to build an underground cell at the Grand Palace, because the land is so muddy; water would have leaked into the cell.''

Paothong, main Thai consultant on the Fox film, bemoaned the fact that Blender had relied on Leonowens' books as the sole source for his draft script.

''I told him [Blender] that it wouldn't be appropriate to make a film from his script. But after four revisions, he and I are satisfied with the outcome. It's been turned into a whole new story which couldn't possibly damage anyone mentioned in the text.''

According to Paothong, Blender's version opened with King Chulalongkorn (Rama V; whom Leonowens had taught when he was still a young prince) paying a visit on his old tutor in London. The King drives up to Leonowens' house in a black Daimler which is flying the Union Jack. He is unaccompanied. Parking the car, he walks to the door and knocks.

Paothong says his first reaction on reading this was one of shock. ''The King wouldn't have gone around alone; there'd be an entourage. And he wouldn't have knocked on the door himself. Nor would the car be flying the Union Jack only; the [Thai] Royal standard would have been alongside it. Anyway that meeting didn't take place at her house, but at a fine hotel in London.''

(Earlier, I'd asked Wutdichai if he thought that Leonowens had deliberately fabricated details. In his reply, he mentioned that same meeting between Leonowens and King Chulalongkorn: ''After King Rama V visited Anna in London, there was a lot of conjecture as to what the two had discussed. Since then many historians have tried, in vain, to find out what exactly he talked about. But rumour has it that he asked her why she had written such things. Anna is supposed to have replied that she had done it simply because she needed the money.'')

In another scene in Blender's draft which disturbed Paothong, King Mongkut is sitting in a bathtub in the Inner Court receiving a massage. Later he performs tai chi in the palace garden.

''Blender didn't know that Siamese kings didn't practise tai chi because that's a Chinese martial art; nor did he know that bathtubs weren't in common use during the Fourth Reign.'' So, for the tai chi Paothong substituted ram phatchaa, a Siamese ritual involving dance steps which has associations with the Royal family and Buddhism.

Other scenes featuring the King were drastically rewritten too. In the original, he was shown beckoning one of his sons with the honorific jao (you); this was corrected, in the interests of authenticity, to look jaa (dear child).

At another point in the draft script, the King was depicted playing khlee (a Siamese version of polo). Pointing out that King Mongkut had never played khlee in his life, Paothong altered this scene to show Phra Pinklao, the King's brother, playing the game while the King looked on.

Other minor alterations included changing the name of one of the King's consorts from Im to Ueng, her correct name.

The final version has now been submitted to the National Film Board. A beaming Paothong says the fact that he had complete control over the revisions was a golden opportunity to clear up, once and for all, the misunderstandings caused by errors in Leonowens' books.

''I love my country. And I think it would be a self-defeating move for Thailand if the production crew had to move to Malaysia or Bali [because of inability to get approval from the Board]. Then we would lose all control over the script.''

On Wednesday, a similar view was expressed by Pitak Intaravithayanant, the PM's Office minister responsible for tourism. ''Having them film it here will mean we can have a thorough look at the script and urge them to cooperate in changing unsuitable parts,'' he said.

Paothong says the script is as close to the truth as he could make it. ''My job is done. All I can do now is to hope, and pray, that Blender will use the fourth, revised version -- no matter what happens.''

History with a Twist

1862 (March 15): Anna Leonowens arrives in Siam from Singapore on board the steamer Chao Phya. She is accompanied by her son (''Boy''), her ''Persian teacher'' (Moonshee) and ''her gay Hindostanee nurse'' Beebe .

1867 (July 5): Anna Leonowens departs from Bangkok on board the same steamer.

1868 (Oct 1): King Rama IV passes away.

1870: The English Governess at the Siamese Court being Recollections Of Six Years [sic] In The Royal Palace At Bangkok, a book by Anna Harriette Leonowens, is published in London.

1873: The Romance of the Harem, a book by Anna Leonowens, is published in Boston. Alexander B Griswold notes: ''She [Leonowens] was already far away from Siam when she came to write The Romance of the Harem, and her store of pertinent facts was running low. She relied more heavily on plagiarism, transposed and doctored up to look like eyewitness accounts or direct quotations from reliable observers ... the method she used sparingly in the first book is carried so far in the second that it gives itself away.''

1943: Anna and the King of Siam, a book by Margaret Landon, is published in New York. Griswold notes: ''Mrs Landon reduced them [Leonowens' two books] to a single volume and more coherent form ... She refuses to vouch for the accuracy of Anna's account; it is, she says, a romance with a historical setting, not a history; it is 'probably seventy-five per cent fact and twenty-five per cent ficti on based on fact.' ''

1946: Anna and the King of Siam, a movie starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison (in his Hollywood debut), is released. Directed by John Cromwell. Screenplay by Talbot Jennings and Sally Benson. Based on Landon's book about Leonowens (who is renamed Anna L Owens in the movie). Won Oscars for cinematography (Arthur Miller) and art direction/set decoration.

1952: Siamese Harem Life, a reissue of The Romance of the Harem, is published in London. Griswold finds it ''even more disconcerting'' than the stage and screen musical comedies and notes that it is ''illustrated with drawings that are a fantasy of every seraglio from Turkey to China and with an introduction by Miss Freya Stark containing the following description of Anna among the Court ladies: 'Harassed and indomitable, she loved the women in their royal slavery and trained a new and happier generation of children to carry light into the future: and few people can have wielded a stronger influence in that corner of Asia.''

The King and I, a musical comedy starring Yul Brynner is staged on Broadway. Writing about this Rodgers and Hammerstein production (based on Landon's book), Griswold notes: ''In the musical comedy and the film [with Kerr/Brynner] the truth loses out completely, and King Mongkut presents the astonishing appearance of Rousseau's Noble Savage with a bow to Gilbert and Sullivan. These trifles are intended more to entertain than to instruct, but it is disconcerting to find them advertised as if they were documentaries.''

1956: The King and I, a Hollywood musical comedy based on the stage play and starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner, is released. Directed by Walter Lang. Screenplay by Ernest Lehman. Won Oscars for best actor (Brynner), art direction/set decoration, costumes, and scoring.

1998: 20th Century Fox announce plans to film Anna and the King starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun Fat.

Getting to know you

Date: 9th November 1998
Publication: Bangkok post (Thailand)
Section: Outlook

FILM:Will a Hollywood film crew be allowed into Thailand to film a remake of The King and I - banned here since 1956? The National Film Board meets again today to ponder the question. Outlook asked a few people what they thought about it.

For the past few weeks, Twentieth Century Fox'splanned film, Anna and the King - a remake of the classic movie, The King and I - has stirred a debate on the role of the Thai monarchy in the illusory world of celluloid. The studio's first application to shoot a film in this country recently got the thumbs down from the National Film Board. In its report, the NFB said the film portrays the institution of the monarchy in an unfavourable light. The story was written purely for entertainment and makes a mockery of the monarch, Rama IV, as the main protagonist, the board said.

If allowed to go ahead, the production would seriously distort Thailand's history. The NFB further reasoned that even if the on-site production could be regulated, the film editing will be done in the United States, where Fox's headquarters is, and will be beyond the Thai officials' control, with potentially damaging consequences.

The film has Hong Kong actor Chow Yun Fat slated to play King Rama IV, and Jodie Foster as Anna Leonowens, the English widow who came to Thailand to teach members of the Thai royal family in the 19th century. The film is based on American Margaret Landon's book, which in turn relied on material from the English governess' memoirs.

The story was earlier made into two highly-acclaimed Hollywood movies and several hit Broadway musicals. Anna and the King of Siam was released in 1946 and starred Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne. This version was shown in Thailand.

The King and I (see picture) starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr was, and continues to be, banned in this country since its first release in 1956. The new production will not be musical and will portray the talent and vision of King Rama IV. The cost and other details of the production are not yet available. Thais have long been accustomed to standing up in cinemas as soon as they hear the King's anthem being played, and seeing portraits of His Majesty on the screen, working on royal projects and greeting his subjects. But whether they want to see their King portrayed in a Hollywood film remains to be seen.

The NFB is due to meet today to decide whether or not the film will be allowed to be shot in this country. Outlook asked a few people to shared their opinions on how the King should be depicted in film, and if he should be depicted at all.

ANAN PANYARACHUN former Prime Minister

The trouble I have with Margaret Landon's book or with movies or musical plays that were adapted from the book, is there are many historical inaccuracies. Starting with the fact that Anna was not even a governess. She was merely employed as a teacher to teach English to the children of King Mongkut (Rama IV). She had no role whatsoever in the making of the history of the Kingdom of Siam, particularly during that period. In the book, however, Anna was portrayed as very, very important to the history of Thailand. She even influenced King Rama V, who came to the throne later, to end slavery. That is not a historical fact. She also compiled bits and pieces of gossip from the palace and wrote up a story about a young woman in the palace who committed wrong and was sentenced to death by burning at stake.

It is true that in our history there have been some brutalities or misdeeds. But burning at the stake was never part of our history. It was actually a Western practice during the Crusades. I saw the original movie with Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne. I saw the musical production by Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, too. In fact, about a year or two ago, when I went to New York to attend a meeting, I also saw the latest production. I enjoyed both the movie and the musical plays. But you have to understand that I spent some time abroad. I was used to the idea of musical plays which are mostly fictitious. So my mind was prepared for that kind of adventure. I viewed The King and I as a musical parody. The theme was interesting. The music was first class and the acting was superb.

But most Thais could not separate the musical parody from the history of their own country, particularly that part of history relating to one of the most important kings in the Chakri Dynasty. We know how much we love and revere our monarchy. King Mongkut spent time in the monkhood. He was a learned man, a fatherly figure. He was somebody that we could look up to for having opened up Thailand to the modern world. Most Thais view him as a historical figure who played a very significant role in introducing new things to Thai society and in modernising the country. It will be extremely difficult for them to understand that the production (about the king) is merely a musical parody.

The question that arose in my mind is could this story be adapted to pacify the feelings or concerns of the Thai people? I have my own doubts because it is not just the script that bothers me but the whole theme. The plot glorifies Anna and her perceived role by the author, her influence over the court, especially the young crown prince who later became King Rama V.

My contention is that Anna never had such a role. The historical fact is that she had a very minute role. She was just an English teacher. I doubt if she ever had an audience with the King. It is, therefore, the plot that must be changed. But if you kill the plot, then it is no longer Anna and the King of Siam as it was meant to be. If there is some way that you have a bold announcement or subtitle at the start of the film saying that this story is not based on the history of Thailand, that it was fiction perhaps based on bits and pieces of history, then you would know from the beginning and would prepare yourself to read it as fiction. That might go a long way to pacifying the Thais.

Although I think most foreigners who see the film or play would not be swayed by the historical inaccuracies, there are two things that you have to bear in mind. Those who see it may say that this is not modern-day Thailand. But there may be lingering doubts in their mind that this is what happened in Thailand over 100 years ago. Here is the difficulty. The truth is, it never happened in Thailand.

SULAK SIVARAKSA social critic, twice charged and acquitted of lese majeste

The King and I is just a historical romance, so why the fuss? I don't think the story is disrespectful toward the monarchy. It simply shows that a sense of humour is a natural trait of every human being. The present king himself is quite liberal about it: he made a joke to the producer in Hollywood during his visit to the States in the sixties.

The main problem has to do with the way history is taught: it has consistently been geared toward building nationalism and giving high, often blind, praise to the establishment. I understand the effect well, having myself been raised in a conservative environment. The first time I saw the show, I was pretty upset myself.

By the way, most of our history textbooks are not factual. For example, the part on the development of the constitution and the parliament do not mention how Pridi Banomyong helped protect the institution of the monarchy. That, I will say, is horrid. But fussing about a romance? I don't see the logic.

There is a certain element in the society - the arch-dictator type - who want to claim legitimacy by presenting themselves as very loyal to the King. But by being over-protective, saying that the institution is untouchable, they have accordingly shut out the King from the majority of the people. They should let people speak openly. Their reactionary approach may only encourage underground communications - faxes and emails - which are even more disrespectful.

The present law on lese majeste poses a heavy threat. The terms of punishment were increased to three to fifteen years' imprisonment (before it was 0 to 3 years' imprisonment) following the students' massacre in 1976. That means if you were found guilty, you'd be jailed no matter what. Compared to the other case I am going through - that I obstructed the state's Yadana gas pipeline project - the maximum punishment is six months' imprisonment with the possibility of a reprimand.

WILLIAM WARREN long-time American expatriate writer on Thailand

I don't think people in America think the story is true; more like a fairytale story. But I feel it's very misleading about Thai history. I wrote an article a long time ago on who Anna Leonowens really was (an excerpt will appear in Outlook on Wednesday).

In all, I think it would be wrong for the Thai government to officially offer help with the making of the movie. At the same time, it would also be wrong if they tried to stop it from being made here. There should be freedom of expression. People have enough intelligence to judge. They are aware that historical movies are mostly not true anyhow. But the producers should make it clear, from the beginning of the film, that this is a romance and not based on a true story."


Twentieth Century Fox has already contacted me to appear in its Anna and the King project, but they haven't specified what my role would be. Over the past few years I've been turning down film-makers' proposals a lot because I've been too busy with my theatre projects. But if the Thai government approves the new film, I might accept their proposal.

I haven't seen the script yet, so I can't comment on whether or not the Thai government should approve it or not. However, in the movie business what you finally see on the screen does not only come from the script. It is all to do with the way the material is presented. The film's director plays a very important role.

One of my students saw the latest Broadway production, with Lou Diamond Phillips starring in it. He told me this version was pretty insulting to Thai institutions. One new scene made fun of monks, even though the production used the same script as the old Yul Brynner version. This is a good example of how a director's choice of presentation and interpretation can make all the difference.

In my opinion, it's a good idea to allow 20th Century Fox to shoot a new version here in Thailand. In this way the Thai government can exert some control over the details. I actually appeared in The King and I in 1980, but it was an off-Broadway production. I played a dancer in a short scene, but it was not an all-star production. From my experience of this small role, I think the old script portrayed the Thai monarchy as a very significant and influential institution in Thailand. However, I can't say how accurate the script was from a historical point of view as I do not know much about the period.

There's nothing unusual about authors, Anna Leonowens included, writing stories based on their own points of view. So it's no surprise that most film and theatre productions of The King and I are from a Westerners' viewpoint. After all, the producers are usually Westerners. If we Thais want to see an historically correct version of The King and I, whatever that may be, then Thailand should produce its own version.

THONG-THONG CHANDRARANGSU historian and expert on royal ceremonies

Foreigners will never understand the Thai people's reverance towards their king. If you notice, in the TV soap operas, monarchs (Editor's note: from the present dynasty) have never been portrayed. Thais have difficulty seeing their beloved king as a fictitious character.

I saw the Yul Brynner version in London. I enjoyed it as a musical comedy because I realised it was a form of entertainment, nothing to be taken seriously. Even His Majesty the King said he saw it in the United States. But some very sensitive locals may get upset. Just imagine this scenario: the production crew is busy shooting the film upcountry and some provincial folk see Chow Yun Fat acting as their king, how do you think they would feel?

There are quite a few historical inaccuracies in the story. I doubt if Mom Tab-tim was a real person. (Editor's note: In the story, Mom Tab-tim was Rama IV's favourite concubine who was burnt at the stake for her infidelity.) As a matter of fact, King Rama IV issued laws that allowed his concubines, except those who bore his children, to leave the royal court and remarry. He was very humane and far-sighted. He even invited Christian missionaries to carry out their teachings at Wat Bovornives.


I haven't seen the film Anna and the King of Siam starring Rex Harrison. It was shown here decades ago. So I think the content of the non-musical [version of the book] must be alright. I watched the musical version with Yul Brynner on video. There is little doubt the movie admires the King of Siam, his foresight and modernisation policy. But some of the manners portrayed and other details in the film would offend some Thai people, particularly those sensitive about the way our monarchs are depicted.

The actor tried to make the king look great. But that was not the way Thai people saw it. They thought it improper. The greatness of the king in Thai people's minds is different from Hollywood's interpretation. When I watched The King and I, I saw their king not ours. I don't think it's crucial for Hollywood to shoot a remake of Anna and the King of Siam in Thailand. The crew would not be allowed to shoot in the royal palace anyway. The sets would have to be built, and it will be cheaper to build them in Hollywood.


What the book and other adaptations have right about the history of Siam is the fact that King Rama IV wanted to westernise his own court. He, therefore, hired Anna to educate his children about the ways of the Western world, which was powerful and more advanced in terms of science and technology. However, the book is not only factual, but also laden with attitude. It represents the views of certain Westerners who believed they were more superior and civilised, a view further enhanced by playwrights, movie producers, directors, actors and actresses involved in later adaptations and productions.

In the story, Anna is portrayed as a heroine who came to the East to educate supposedly babarian people - a white woman's burden sort of thing. How did we, on the receiving end, feel [when the film was first released]? I believe we had mixed feelings. On the one hand, we felt inferior and wanted to embrace everything Western. On the other hand, we believed we were on a higher ground in certain areas, such as Buddhist philosophy and culture. I think this mixture of feelings led to the original film being banned.

The irony is that most elite Thais, I believe, have seen it. We don't like the West looking upon us as barbarians, or the way King Mongkut was portrayed, but we like the music and songs. Thai contestants at Miss Universe pageants have been known to sing songs from The King and I, including former Miss Universe Apasara [Hongsakul]. What's even more ironic is while those wanting to remake The King and I have been denied permission to film in Thailand, another Hollywood movie, The Beach, has been approved. In an attempt to attract foreign money, and perhaps publicity from the lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio, we will allow Phi Phi island to be destroyed. I think both cases are stupid. If anything, they reflect the superficiality of the Thai elite.

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