1999 - Meanwhile: The King and I -- and my ancestor

By Philip Bowring

Bangkok: Hollywood and history seldom make comfortable bedfellows. So it is not surprising that Thailand has thrown up roadblocks to a 20th Century Fox effort to shoot here Anna and the King, a re-make of The King and I. The 1956 movie starring Yul Brynner that was screen version of the 1951 Rogers and Hammerstein musical which enjoyed a successful Broadway revival two years ago.

The Thais always objected to the musical's portrayal of their revered mid-19th century King Mongkut, and attempts by Fox to re-write the script to improve the presentation of the King have failed to satisfy the Thais.

Some here feel that the new movie would right some of the wrongs of the old one. The trouble is that the starting point of the Hollywood romance is so far from historical reality that the story might be better told about a fictional country, not a Siam at the cusp of the modern era.

The Rogers and Hammerstein musical was itself based on Anna and the King of Siam, a fanciful but immensely popular work by Margaret Landon published in 1944 which has sold two million copies. It is usually categorized under Fiction. Landon's book in turn was based on two books by of the original heroine of the tale, Anna Leonowens, a young British widow employed by King Mongkut to teach English to his many children. She subsequently wrote The English Governess at the Siamese Court and The Romance of the Harem. They sold well enough but their value as historical documents is debateable, to say the least.

The King Mongkut of the King and I is not evil. In some ways he appears as a sympathetic person. But the overall impression given is of an exotic, ruthless, only semi-civilised figure in need of a large dose of western values. Splendour, concubines and cruelty are there in abundance. No-nonsense, very British Anna meanwhile is made to appear as wise, brave and beautiful, and also as a key figure at court -- which was very far from reality.

It is worth comparing the Landon/Hollywood version of King Mongkut with that of one my own forbears, Sir John Bowring. He would have had a better claim than almost any westerner to have written a book entitled "The King and I". He corresponded (in English) with King Mongkut regularly between 1854 and the King's death in 1868.

Bowring was all purpose Victorian figure: utilitarian philosopher, radical parliamentarian, passionate advocate of free trade, prolific author who became a controversial governor of Hongkong and started a war with China. Bowring met Mongkut in 1855 when he visited Bangkok to negotiate a treaty between Britain and Siam which became a model for a series of treaties with western countries.

Far from being a semi-civilised oriental despot, Mongkut was a learned, liberal and enlightened man. He did not ascend the throne as Rama IV of the Chakri dynasty till he was aged 47 and had spent many years studying English, western science and world affairs as well as being well versed in religions in addition to his own.

Bowring, himself a believer in both progress and education, was struck by Mongkut's learning and wisdom, and by his desire to overcome vested conservative pressures to modernise his country and keep it free of western colonialism. He described Mongkut as "one of the noblest and most enlightended patriots the oriental world has ever seen". In a 1855 letter urging the Royal Asiatic Society in London to make him an honorary member, Bowring praised "Mongkut's erudition and the encouragement he gives by example to literary and scientific enquiry... His younger brother, the Second King, speaks and writes the English language with wonderful correctness and is proficient in philosophical arts especially in their application to machinery and navigation."

The King helped Bowring in writing a two volume book on his country, The Kingdom and People of Siam, published in 1857. Despite Bowring's own links to British imperialism, the trust between the two was such that in 1867 the King appointed him ambassador plenipotentiary in Europe to negotiate on Siam's behalf with all European countries. Mongkut wrote that Bowring "has an affectionate regard for all races and languages and desires all mankind to be on the best terms .."

Bowring's own views were too radical for many in the west. Though himself an author of Christian hymns, Bowring was a sharp critic of the western Christian missionaries in Siam. They were given free rein by the liberal Mongkut but despite tireless efforts made almost no converts. Bowring blamed this on their dogmatism and unwillingness to compromise with Siamese ways. They inveighed against local customs and portrayed Siam as the backward if exotic place with which Hollywood was later to identify. He declined to condemn polygamy writing to Mongkut that he should "not be judged by western but by eastern usages" and concluding: "I wish your majesty much happiness in your many descendants".

But it was the missionary / Leonowens / Landon / Hammerstein / Hollywood version of Mongkut which was to prevail in the outside world not the learned but now forgotten Dr Bowring's view of a fellow liberal spirit. For him, Mongkut combined learning with an enquiring mind, practical goals for his country, and devotion to his many descendants -- not least his successor, King Chulalongkorn, greatest of all the Chakri monarchs.


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