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value as historical documents is debateable, to say the least.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
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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