Won Oscar for Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black and White; Best Cinematography (Arthur C. Miller), and received Oscar Nominations for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Gale Sondergaard), Best Music Score (Bernard Herrmann), and Best Screenplay.
The story of Anna Leonowens and the King of Siam is the product of reinvention, occurring over several decades, through various creative endeavors that collectively aimed to spin a compelling yarn for maximum entertainment - and obfuscate once embarrassing truths. As the included episode of "Biography" details, the real Anna sought to eliminate her mixed heritage - part South Asian, part lower-class British - by becoming a gifted school teacher, before her transplantation to Siam, where her affection for children and the oppressed led to her notable influence on the king, and his son; the latter ultimately furthered his father's desire to bring Siam into the modern world through strengthened relations with the international community, and transformed Siam into the nation of Thailand.
For fans of "The King and I" - the enduring Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that propelled Yul Brynner to the international stage - the first film version of Anna Leonowens' tenure as appointed teacher to the court of Siam, during Europe's colonial apex, will be a bit of a shock; far darker in tone, the film is also reflective of post-war America's desire to infuse democratic sensibilities in nations once ruled by absolute monarchs, despots, and fascists: the filmic Anna speaks more of the American ideals being fought during the contemporary Civil War, and little else of the imperial leanings of Colonial Britain.
As detailed in "Biography," Anna's own life was even more colourful than the film, and in addition to separating fiction from fact, the doc uses interviews with historians, biographers, and descendants - including Boris Karloff's daughter - to trace her noble desire to assist the disenfranchised, the oppressed, and care for her own extended family when tragedy struck.
As a product of Hollywood screenwriting, many dramatic twists and shocking events were inventions taken from a series of speculative works: Margaret Landon's fictional biography, taken from Leonowens' writings, that inspired the Broadway musical; and the creatively embellished autobiographical writings of Leonowens, written years before she became the first foreign woman correspondent in Russia, and moved to Canada and helped push for women's right to vote.
For film fans, Fox has used a very nice print, and the transfer shows off Arthur Miller's gorgeous cinematography, with the pivotal banquet and dance scenes major highlights. Fox has also started to default the audio settings for their pre-stereo films to the original mono tracks in their recent wave of classic DVDs, leaving it to viewers to select the pseudo-stereo remixes, if desired. (A high-end audio system may not get a workout from a mono mix, but the care that went into crafting the original sound mixes is returned to its deservedly prominent position.)
Fox has also included a vintage newsreel of the premiere - celebrating Rex Harrison's first American film - and a pre-release trailer - pretty heavy on Linda Darnell's victimization - lacking any formal titles, and consisting of dialogue extracts and montages set to Bernard Herrmann's booming score.
Also of note in the "Biography" doc are nods to the short-lived, 13 episode 1972 TV series that starred a tired Yul Brynner and youthful Samantha Eggar; the 1999 animated feature, and an interview with Jodie Foster, who appeared with Chow Yun-Fat in "Anna and the King," derived from Leonowens' own writings, and also released in 1999.
© 2005 Mark R. Hasan