Anna and the King of Siam (1946) is the first big screen adaptation to borrow from the personal journals and public account of British school teacher, Anna Leonowens and her experiences in the far East. After the death of her beloved husband, Anna (Irene Dunne) departed England in 1862 with her young son in tow to become the educator of the King of Siam’s many children.
However, upon arrival, Anna discovers that King Mongkut (Rex Harrison) is very much a renaissance man trapped in heritage thinking. He refuses to acknowledge Anna’s request for a house, expects that she will bow and grovel as his servant, and demands, above all else that the protocol of suppliant be strictly observed. The headstrong Anna, of course, has other ideas.
Although their initial meeting is marred by a considerable clash of wills, eventually the two begin to recognize a genuine affection and respect for one another.
The king is in marvel of Anna’s forthright nature in the face of his totalitarianism and realizes that his way may not always be right. She, in absence of having a man to love, discovers a fallible side beneath the king’s gruff façade. Together they launch into a formidable quest to bring western culture and change to Siam. However, this revolution will be neither easy nor straight forward.
Director, John Cromwell does his very best to ensure an integrity in what are essentially cardboard caricatures who perhaps defy any three-dimensional understanding. In point of fact, Anna Leonowens probably overestimated her influence on Siam and its monarch in her journals. Hence, the whole tale is thrown off balance by a very traditionalist and imperialist perspective that reduces Mongkut to parody from the start.
As a Siamese king, Rex Harrison is hardly ideal – yet he manages to make much of the role, transforming what might otherwise have been a very dismal characterization into a challenging bit of reflection. Irene Dunne is an effervescent Anna – though in her, one sees perhaps too much of the screwball heiress from The Awful Truth and Theodora Goes Wild, and, less of the stalwart schoolmarm that was, in fact, the real Anna Leonowens.
Fox’s DVD transfer is impressive. Blacks are black. Whites are white. Contrast levels are superbly rendered. A light speckling of dirt and scratches is present but kept to a bare minimum. Digital anomalies are a non-issue. The audio is mono but nicely balanced. Extras on this disc include an audio commentary and a Biography Special on the real Anna Leonowens.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)