If someone asked me to write a musical about the King of Siam, I'd probably write a song called "I'm the King of Siam, I am". Fortunately for the world, it was Rodgers and Hammerstein who wrote the music for 1956's The King and I
, a beautiful film with great performances. Its cultural clumsiness does not age well yet even now it's hard not to love Deborah Kerr, elegantly and assertively negotiating with an obstinately patriarchal society. And, oh, the costumes, the sets--it's all splendid, I can't resist melting.
The costumes, both Siamese and English, are beautiful, exaggerated versions of their real life counterparts. Kerr, as Anna, wears a ridiculously wide crinoline, about 30% bigger than women actually wore in England at the time--and she wears it in every
scene. The fact that Kerr carries it off with dignity alone speaks to her incredible talent. The King, his harem, and children are always covered with jewels.
Yul Brynner as the king cuts a fantastic figure, it's a shame that all the Siamese characters are portrayed like children who Anna must tactfully manage for their own good. The costumes, for being exaggerated, are accurate enough, but the film flaunts misconceptions of Buddhism and portrays most of the Siamese women as pathetically controlled by superstition and the King needing to be guided on nearly every point of etiquette. It is sort of endearing in Brynner's hands that he's actually trying, enough so that the climactic dance sequence is breathtaking, not just for Kerr's gorgeous gown.
The fact that it's immediately followed by a confrontation about the injustice of slavery is really stimulating, particularly after the beautiful and strange Siamese ballet version of Uncle Tom's Cabin
a few scenes earlier.
One could look at the whole film as a sort of dream version of Western culture, actually, more than a fantasised version of Siamese culture. By adopting Siamese costumes, names, shapes, and superficial aspects of Siamese culture, the confrontations about slavery, science, religion, and feminism almost seem to exist without any specific cultural connexion. I could almost imagine Anna waking from this dream discovering she's leading a feminist rally in London.