May 3, 2010

Annas and the Kings (part 1)

I thought that comparing the three movies based on teacher Anna Leonowens' life would be very simple…but no, but no. I started a little investigation about Anna like 3 weeks ago, but I ended reading her diaries and trying to know more about her life. It was all so interesting.  And how could I say anything about the movies, without knowing what was created in Hollywood and what came from Anna's own diaries? And what could I say about the portraits that six actors made of Anna and the King without knowing the real ones?
So I’m gonna make a first post about the real Anna and her diaries —linking some situations with the movies—, and a second with the movies mini-reviews.

The Annas: the real, and the ones played by Irene Dunne(1946) , Deborah Kerr (1956) & Jodie Foster (1999)

I must start saying that Anna’s life, teachings and her impact in the political and social changes (like the abolition of slavery) that were introduced in Siam (now Thailand) are still a controversial subject. She wrote two diaries about her life in Siam, but it seems that she liked to make the stories more interesting than they actually were and she even changed some details of her own life. And the story changed even more with the novel by Margaret Landon (in which were based the first two movies).

A beautiful melody from "The King and I".

So, if you have seen any of the films, you probably have some doubts. Were the King and Anna in love? Were the slaves situations real? In which context the King died? What really happened with her son Louis? etcetera, etcetera, etcetera (as Yul Brynner loved to say). Well, here are some facts about this famous English teacher:

· Her name was Anna Harriette Crawford Leonowens. 
· Her first child, Thomas, died when he was only one year. 
· Then she had a girl, Avis, and a boy, Louis (when she went to Siam with Louis, Avis was studying in England). 
· Her husband, Thomas Leonowens died of apoplexy in 1859, at the age of 31.
· She lived in Siam between March-1862 & July-1867.
· This means that when she met King Mongkut, he was 57 years old and she was 30.
· This also means that Ana wasn't in Siam when King Mongkut died.
· She taught English to 39 wives and concubines of the King and their 82 children.
· She wrote two books: The English Governess at the Siamese Court and The Romance of the Harem (click on the titles to read the books).
· There was a novel based on these books, Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon.
· Some of her stories about concubines being tortured seem to be based just in gossips to some experts.
· The three movies based on her life were banned in Thailand because historical inaccuracies.
· She did discuss “Uncle Tom’s cabin” by Harriet Stowe —which had an anti-slavery message— with prince Chulalongkorn. 
· The King Mongkut died in 1868, when his successor, prince Chulalongkorn was 15 years old.
· Louis Leonowens died in 1919 during the global influenza pandemic.
· And most important: there wasn't any kind of romantic link between Anna and the King.

This list is very interesting, but I still don't know what scenes that were on the movies were incredible situations described by Anna herself, things that according to the English teacher really happened someday in Siam, a century and  half ago. So let's talk about Anna’s diaries and the things she included about her life in Siam, the King and his wives and children. 

Things included in “The English Governess…:

1. Many details from the movies are from this first book:
Anna describes all the splendor of the palace in great detail; she wrote several chapters about the everyday life of people at the palace and also about the History of Siam.The way she arrives with her boy to Siam, how the bare-chested Siamese people impressed them, how the people at the palace referred to her as “sir” (the reason for this is not explained in the book), the first time she met the King (wasn't her first day in Siam), how interested were the wives and concubines to know about her dress and her husband, how she fought for her rights and faced authorities several times, the white elephant adoration (it did exist), the day she was invited to presence a Buddhist service (this loosely appears in the second movie), the conversations she had with the King about religion and some political matters…all that is in the book.

The Kings: the real, and the ones played by Rex Harrison, Yul Brynner & Yun-Fat Chow. 
2. The King Mongkut  
Of course, she also describes the King.  

“In person he was of middle stature, slightly built, of regular features and fair complexion. In early life he lost most of his teeth, but he had had them replaced with a set made from apan-wood,—a secret that he kept very sensitively to the day of his death.”(246)

Along the book, Anna says that the King had some positive sides, but also some dark sides.  She says he loved his children, that he could be very kind with her and Louis, and “he was more systematically educated and more capacious devourer of books and news, than perhaps any man of equal rank in our day” (p. 97). She explains that he was very prepared and during his reign he accomplished many important things like several commercial treaties with other countries.
But she also describes some occasions in which the King threatened her, and she even said that once he was so violent that she thought her life was at risk (p. 273). She says that “as husband and kinsman his character assumes a most revolting aspect. Envious, revengeful, subtle, he was as fickle and petulant as he was suspicious and cruel.” (p. 244)
She also talks about the problem with her petition of a house outside the palace, how the authority first gave her a horrible cabin just to make her desist and how all this affected her emotionally (we will see which of the actresses captured better her vulnerability):

“You shall live in palace”, he roared—‘you shall live in palace! (…) My boy began to cry; tears filled my own eyes…” (p. 65)

From her descriptions, you can notice some of the characteristic gestures of the King that appear in the movies, like the way he asks questions very rapidly.

"Ranged on the carpet were many prostrate, mute, and motionless forms, over whose heads to step was a temptation as drolly natural as it was dangerous. His Majesty spied us quickly, and advanced abruptly, petulantly screaming, "Who? who? who?"  (p. 57)


3. Anna's wittiness and her funny side; the kind of conversations she maintained with the King:

Anna and her age: "I demurely replied ‘One hundred and fifty years old'"
The next dialog —that to me seemed to be invented in Hollywood—was in the book too:

“Suddenly his Majesty, having cogitated sufficiently in his peculiar manner, with one long final stride halted in front of us, and, pointing straight at me with my sex's distaste for so serious question, asked: ‘How old shall you be?’
Scarcely able to repress a smile for so serious question, I demurely replied ‘One hundred and fifty years old'.
Had I made myself much younger, he might have ridiculed or assailed me; but now he stood surprised and embarrassed for a few moments, then resumed his queer march; and at last, beginning to perceive the jest, coughed, laughed, coughed again, and in high, sharp key asked, ‘In what year were you born?’
Instantly I struck a mental balance, and answered, as gravely as I could “In 1788”.
 At this point the expression of his Majesty's face was indescribably comical. Captain B slipped behind a pillar to laugh; but the king only coughed, with a significant emphasis that startled me, and addressed a few words to his prostrate courtiers, who smiled at the carpet,—all except the prime minister, who turned to look at me. But his Majesty was not to be baffled so: again he marched with vigor, and then returned to the attack with Elan.
     “How many years shall you be married?”
     “For several years, your Majesty.”
      He fell into a brown study; then suddenly rushed at me, and demanded triumphantly—
     “Ha! How many grandchildren shall you now have? Ha! ha! How many? How many? Ha! ha! ha!”
 Of course we all laughed with him; but the general hilarity admitted of a variety of constructions.” (p. 57-58)

After this the King actually took her hand and dragged her (with Louis holding her skirt) and presented his wives and children, just like the first two movies show. 

A very emotive scene described by Anna in her diaries.
4. The children and the death of a little princess.
She's was very fond of the royal children, especially prince Chulalonkorn and princess Fâ-ying. She says:  

“to this young prince, Chowfa Chulalonkorn, I was strongly attached. He often deplored with me the cruelty with which the slaves were treated, and, young as he was, did much to inculcate kindness toward them among his immediate attendants. He was a conscientious lad, of pensive habit and gentle temper…” (p. 284)

And in a very emotive chapter dedicated to the death of the little princess, Anna describes her as “sweet and bright” and eager to learn. She explains that cholera attacked the palace and that the King called for her. We can see how much King trusted in Anna by a letter she transcribes: 

"My dear Mam, — Our well-beloved daughter, your favorite pupil, is attacked with cholera, and has earnest desire to see you, and is heard much to make frequent repetition of your name. I beg that you will favor her wish. I fear her illness is mortal, as there has been three deaths since morning. She is best beloved of my
" I am your afflicted friend,
" S. S. P. P. Maha Mongkut."

Her death —that was included in the first and in the last movie—is described in such heartbreaking way:

“An attendant hurried me to the king, who, reading the heavy tidings in my silence, covered his face with his hands and wept passionately. Strange and terrible were the tears of such a man, welling up from a heart from which all natural affections had seemed to be expelled, to make room for his own exacting, engrossing conceit of self.
Bitterly he bewailed his darling, calling her by such tender, touching epithets as the lips of loving Christian mothers use. What could I say? What could I do but weep with him, and then steal quietly away and leave the king to the Father?” (p. 119)

5. Why and how she left Siam.
At the end (like 4 chapters after Fâ-ying dies), Anna decided to leave Siam because she was ill, and she thought she “was no longer able to comply with the pitiless exactions of the king.” (p. 282). The last goodbye is very emotional (and I really don't understand why none of the movies used this as the end), as she wrote:

“The king himself, who had been silent and sullen until the morning of my departure, relented when the time came to say good bye. He embraced Boy with cordial kindness, and gave him a silver buckle, and a bag containing a hundred dollars to buy sweetmeats on the way. Then turning to me, he said (as if forgetting himself):
" Mam! You much beloved by our common people, and all inhabitants of palace and royal children. Everyone is in affliction of your departure; and even that opium-eating secretary, P'hra-Alack, is very low down in his heart because you will go. It shall be because you must be a good and true lady. I am often angry on you, and lose my temper, though I have large respect for you. But nevertheless you ought to know you are difficult woman, and more difficult than generality. But you will forget, and come back to my service, for I have more confidence on you every day. Good bye! ‘ I could not reply; my eyes filled with tears.” (p. 283)

Anna wasn't in Siam when the King died.
6. The King's death.
Like I said, the King died a year after Anna left Siam (some people is so gonna link these facts). So in one of the chapters (which is not the last in the book) she describes in past tense what happened the day the King died. Is it said the he called to his side his nearest relatives. After saying goodbye to them, he spoke with some authorities and then “solemnly imposed upon them the care of his eldest son, the Chowfa Chulalonkorn, and of his kingdom” (p. 230).

“Then turning his gaze upon a small image of his adored teacher [Buddha, not Anna ppl!], he seemed for some time absorbed in awful contemplation. ‘Such is life'. Those were actually the last words of this most remarkable Buddhist king.”

Only the last movie doesn't show Anna besides the King death bed. 
In the second book, “Romance of the harem” there are two relevant parts for the movies.

(Isn't this horrible? Actress Linda Darnell really died in a fire.)
7. The death of concubine Tuptim
She describes her as “very beautiful by nature”, but adds that she looked unhappy. In the palace Tuptim wasn’t very popular among the women because the King defended her and she was kind of disobedient. Anna says that they met several times, but she looked like a girl, so she didn’t know what to talk about. Tuptim asked Anna to teach her how to write a name, Khoon Phra Balat, in English. One day, Tuptim gave her a piece of paper with the same name written. A year after that she disappeared from palace and went to a monastery. After she was found, she was arrested. Anna tried to help Tuptim, and assisted to the trial. She describe how Tuptim looked this way:
“Her hair was cut close to her head, and her eyebrows had been shaved off. Her cheeks were hollow and sunken. Her eyes were cast down. Her hands were manacled, and her bare little feet could hardly drag along the heavy chains that were fastened to her ankles. Her scarf was tied tightly over her bosom, and under it her close-fitting vest was buttoned up to the throat. Her whole form was still childlike, but she held herself erect, and her manner was self-possessed. When she spoke, her voice was clear and vibrating, her accent firm and unflinching. (p. 26)
Tuptim tried to defend Balat, explaining how she got to the monastery, and how he didn't recognize her. But the judges didn't believe her version. Balat was brought, beaten and tortured and Tuptim was condemned to receive 30 blows. After watching the first, Anna reacted this way:
“When the first blow descended on the girl's bare and delicate shoulders, I felt as if bound and lacerated myself, and losing all control over my actions, forgetting that I was a stranger and a foreigner there, and as powerless as the weakest of the oppressed around me, I sprang forward, and heard my voice commanding the executioners to desist, as they valued their lives. The Amazons at once dropped their uplifted bamboos, and 'Why so?' asked the judge. 'At least till I can plead for Tuptim before his Majesty,' I replied. 'So be it,' said the wretch; 'go your way; we will wait your return.'  (p. 32-33)

Anna says that when she begged to the King for Tumptim’s life he laughed in her face –which she found “revolting”—and then he said that her petition was granted and Tuptim would go to work in a rice-mill. But after this conversation, a judge talked with the King and gave him details of the trial, and the King —angry— changed his mind. 
Tuptim and Balat were condemned to be exposed and tortured for the improvement of the public morals. Anna wrote:  
“To do justice to the king, I must here add that, having been educated a priest, he had been taught to regard the crime of which Tuptim and Balat were accused as the most deadly sin that could be committed by man” (p. 36)
Anna describes all the torture process, and how much dignity Tuptim displayed. Tuptim is tortured, but she maintained her version. Seeing Tuptim suffer was too much for Anna, so she fainted . When she recovered, she was told that Tuptim and the priest were condemned to death by fire. And that's what finally happened (just the first movie showed this).
After that, Tuptim’s version was proven right (!!!!). Anna saw the King a month after, and he said:
“I have much sorrow, mam, much sorrow, and respect for your judgment; but our laws are severe for such the crime. But now I shall cause monument to be erected to the memory of Balat and Tuptim." (p.41)

8. The slave.
In another chapter, Anna tells the story of a slave woman with a baby that was chained in the palace garden, and by her intervention, she's freed.

No wonder why Hollywood loves the story of Anna Leonowens. As you can see, many things that we see in the movies are from Anna's very own books, and the were described in very vivid words and much detail. What I couldn't find in her diaries was the banquet with foreign authorities, the King's adoration for the word "etcetera", the whole thing that appeared in the third movie about a traitor Prince and Anna helping the King to defeat the enemy, and of course, her love for the King.  

In the next post, my mini reviews for the three movies. 

{ Things got hotter and hotter with every movie Hollywood released. 


  1. woooow sí q te metiste en una graaan investigación! Qué interesanteeee! me encantó leer estooo! Hace mucho me recomendaron la de Deborah Kerr y como yo era tan ingenua pues pensé en verla (pero no la vi) y ahora ni de loca la veo jaja porque para mí sólo existe Dunnie :) saluditos!!

  2. Creo que exageré un poco, pero de verdad los diarios de Anna estaban muy bien escritos y te transportaban al pasado...Y bueno, respecto al musical, bueno es eso, y las canciones son lindas :)

  3. woooow sí q te metiste en una graaan investigación! Qué interesanteeee! me encantó leer estooo! Hace mucho me recomendaron la de Deborah Kerr y como yo era tan ingenua pues pensé en verla (pero no la vi) y ahora ni de loca la veo jaja porque para mí sólo existe Dunnie :) saluditos!!

  4. Creo que exageré un poco, pero de verdad los diarios de Anna estaban muy bien escritos y te transportaban al pasado...Y bueno, respecto al musical, bueno es eso, y las canciones son lindas :)



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