For some time now, it has become painfully obvious to yours truly that the major Hollywood studios have virtually little to zero interest in releasing deep catalog titles to Blu-ray in any sort of comprehensive or organized fashion. While it is nevertheless true that some studios have had a better track record in this regard than others, most would agree that the golden panacea of releasing everything to a new format (as was generally the case during the long retired VHS era) is gone, and unlikely to return. Dwindling profits have only been partly to blame as is the shrinkage of home video apparatuses at Warner, Fox and Universal. Paramount has all but abandoned the notion of ‘home’ video; handing over the rights to their back catalog to Warner. Under Grover Crisp’s inspired leadership, Sony Home Entertainment has undeniably had the most consistent and solid output of preserving Columbia Pictures cultural heritage. But even their record is not without a blemish or two.
This overall slackening of corporate interest in catalog titles has been somewhat resolved by the participation of third party distributors such as Twilight Time, Shout! Factory, Olive Media and Criterion. But these companies merely ‘rent’ titles. They do not ‘remaster’ them for public consumption, leaving the majors – who own the rights – with their custodial responsibilities to perform costly restorations. With regards to catalog releases in absentia on hi-def, the real culprit has been a decided lack of properly archived and preserved materials available to do proper HD 4K digital scans. Some studio archives are in more dire need of preservation than others. I am certain every passionate film collector out there would adore a sudden flourish of deep catalog releases given the utmost consideration and clean up in hi-def. Alas, restoration – genuinely and generously applied – takes time and money, folks; commodities most studios, presently run by bean counters who are only looking at ways to fatten their bottom lines in a immediate present, have seen no good reason, much less feasibility, to pursue. Which begs the question: what does this mean for the fate of current Blu-ray – and – more importantly, for the future of its bigger brother: 4K ultra hi-def, set to launch sometime later this year? Hmmm. Even less titles coming to home video, most in repackaged reissues of stuff we’ve already seen, while deep catalog titles once more get short shrift and ultimately, are cast aside.
One overlooked gem (and there are many circling the rim of this abyss), deserving immediate consideration in 1080p is Andy Tennant’s Anna and the King (1999); a remake twice removed from its source material. With honorable mention to the Rex Harrison/Irene Dunne classic ‘of Siam’ from 1946, and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicalized version (rechristened The King and I) made exactly a decade later, Tennant’s re-envisioning of this oft told, and even more often romanticized tale of an upper-crust British schoolmarm, come to the exotic culture clash of Siam (present day Thailand) best embodies the richness of the period, as well as that imperfect truth of history itself. To date, it remains the only version to cast an actual Asian as the formidable Phra Bat Somdet Phra Poramenthra Maha Mongkut Phra Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua; more manageably abbreviated in English-speaking countries as King Mongkut. The aforementioned earlier adaptations of Anna and the King are decidedly byproducts of their own time. Each is told with an Imperialist slant (as was Margaret Landon’s memorable biography on Anna Leonowens, and Leonowens own novelized accounts of her exploits on which all of the aforementioned movies are loosely based). But the earlier versions were made primarily to satisfy a Caucasian audience already weaned on the skewed European perspective of foreign cultures. As fine as their respective performances remain, both Rex Harrison and Yul Brynner (Mongkut in the 1956 variation) are cribbing from a prospectus of stereotypes that render Mongkut a rather crude potentate whose heart is inevitably softened, his attitudes reformed towards progressivism by the interventions of a pixie-fied educator.
Setting aside the fact the real Anna Leonowens was hardly as physically attractive or youthful as depicted by the elegant Irene Dunne or regal Deborah Kerr, the real Anna was also not the instigator, nor even the driving force for reformation in Siam; but one of many tools King Mongkut sought to utilize in advancing his nation’s time-honored principles into the dawn of a new century; a means to broker favor with the Europeans, naïvely as an equal, but also on equal terms, by bringing modernity to Siam, ensuring its economic, as well as its political stability. Tennant’s film is, in fact, the only one to even suggest as much; also, to illustrate the tenuous condition of Siam’s social strata and its politicized warring amongst rival factions, threatening Mongkut’s reign. We bear witness to palace intrigues and the plotting of corrupt generals. There are beheadings; bodies hanged from banyan trees, murders taking place in the dead of night, and the complicity of British mercantile investors, presently operating rubber plantations in Siam, with devious intensions to help overthrow Mongkut’s regime in favor of another they might more liberally exploit. Such revelations are, decidedly, much closer to the truth of what Siam was in the mid-1800s. They also shed a refreshing light of perspective on Mongkut’s necessity to be emotionally shut off and outwardly stern. After all, who could he trust in this quagmire of schemers, usurpers, backstabbers and thieves?
The answer is, of course, Anna Leonowens; once again on loan in the Steve Meerson/Peter Krikes screenplay, as the benevolent arbitrator of forthright solidity and pert responsibility; her relative autonomy (she is neither a politico nor a statesman with invested interests) able to fly in the face of Mongkut’s more outward apprehensiveness. Fundamentally, Mongkut and Anna are the same people; passionate in their desire to evolve as individuals, but learned enough to refrain from sharing these moments of self-discovery – with each other, at first – but also with those who would not hesitate to do them harm. To the film’s credit, this trepidation never equates to abject refusal to accept the necessary changing with the times. In previous versions, Anna’s interloping was misperceived as the impetus to drag a tantrum-prone Mongkut, kicking and shouting, into the next century. In this version, however, Mongkut is far more enterprising and emotionally reserved. In the embodiment of actor, Chow Yun-fat, he is perhaps the finest example of this thinking man; representing Mongkut as an independently-minded philosopher, knowing exactly where to draw the proverbial lines in the sand, and, better still, exactly when to cross the threshold with bold moves that will advance not only his own causes, but also elevate the welfare of his peoples. It’s a refreshing twist on an old story we only thought we knew, and one for which Yun-fat was seemingly born to play.
Of course, none of it would work without the proper Anna. Herein, Tennant is extremely blessed to have Jodie Foster as his more immediately recognizable star to North American audiences. Still much too young, and far too attractive to actually be the real Leonowens, Foster satisfies our expectations, gleaned from the two prior movies, for a resplendent and stunningly handsome ‘love interest’ without actually becoming precisely this in the movie. Although there remain several opportunities in Anna and the King for the old ‘Shall We Dance’ magic to rear its romanticized head (there’s even a lavishly appointed ball in which the king and his consort share a waltz), the Meerson/Krikes screenplay never entirely walks to the dead end of that plank, even if the film inevitably must finish with a bittersweet conclusion. Yes, an understanding develops between these two contrary personalities in the old ‘east meets west’ flavored scenario that has so often translated into bankable box office. But the restraint with which these two co-stars play their burgeoning infatuations results in a far richer, more panged acknowledgement that such a relationship could never quite work, and, not only because of the social biases and racial inequity set up as roadblocks between them.
Jodie Foster is a superior and engaging Anna; exactly the sort of consort fit for a king. For here is an actress unafraid to plumb the depths of Anna’s courtly resolve – not simply in her steadfastness to make the journey to this tropical oasis, far removed from the cultural mores of her own country – but to thrive and contribute to the edicts of its lord and master, perhaps not in as forthright or monumental a way as her predecessors, but with pride of ownership as a progressively-minded female, making strides and cutting her swath – however narrow – through this tangled socio-political quicksand, stepping ever so lightly around the landmines that persist to make her nascent friendship with the King the subject of dense gossip, thickly laid out by and for addlepated minds. It remains a supremely joyful and utterly refreshing perspective too, to see how Mongkut’s influence affects and alters this Anna’s seemingly dogged inflexibility. Previously, that growth of character had been all one-sided; Anna evolving the King’s implacable outlook, using her pliable feminine wiles and intellect to bring his social conscience up to her speed. Herein, we get a more astute and realistic counterbalance and exchange of ideas; a genuine meeting of these minds stirred to scholarly debate, often to the point of frustration, usually to the edge of distraction, but ultimately, meant to enrich and revitalize both perspectives, evolve and progress in their moral fiber and character.
For years, I have had my own issues with the late Roger Ebert’s critical assessment of the ‘joylessness’ of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. While opinion will vary as to what constitutes great cinema art, on this score I will venture an opinion that Mr. Ebert clearly knows very little; equally as glib in his review of Anna and the King, suggesting that ‘behind every sadist is a masochist, cringing to taste his own medicine.’ It’s a little too simplistic to see either movie in such colorless terms, or perhaps, more to the point, coloring the opinion of the latter with one’s own biases toward the former. Ebert does however, point out some of the inherent flaws in the property as a love story, effortlessly averted under Tennant’s skillful direction: chiefly, that here is a man who, apart from his non-Christian predilections for having multiple wives, many children and countless concubines, also has an innocent – Tuptim (Bai Ling) – the one woman whose heart does not worship at his throne – and her devoted lover, Khun Phra Balat (Sean Ghazi) put to death in a gruesome public beheading.
How could any woman weaned on the relative humanitarian principles of ‘guilty until proven innocent’ defend such an act, or the man who would commit it merely to perpetuate his own authoritarian right to rule? To his credit, director, Andy Tennant makes an effort to suggest the King has very little choice in the matter; a question of his honor and authority is at stake and essentially, under these trying times of political upheaval, it must be preserved. And Chow Yun-fat and Jodie Foster equally illustrate that the decision to put to death the girl and her beloved is met by a mutual conflict of interest, and not merely from within (she flies into a tear-stained rage, smashing furniture and tea cups/he kneels before the fine statuary of his palace prayer room Buddha to convalesce and, so we are left to speculate, ask for divine forgiveness for his soul).
Anna and the King commences in the grand fashion of an epic a la David Lean. It does, in fact, have a very Lean-esque quality, from its gorgeous main titles set against tapestries and underscored by the sumptuous strains of composers, George Fenton and Robert Kraft, right through to its meticulous palace recreations, built from scratch with impeccable designs by Production Designer, Luciana Arrighi. The other great asset afforded the production is Caleb Deschanel’s lush and vibrant cinematography – simply ravishing from start to finish. The story is bookended by a romanticized voiceover delivered by Mongkut’s heir apparent, King Chulalongkorn (Ramli Hassan). “She was the first English woman I had ever met. And it seemed to me she knew more about the world than anyone. But it was a world Siam was afraid would consume them. The monsoon winds had whispered her arrival like a coming storm. Some welcomed the rain, but others feared a raging flood. Still she came, unaware of the suspicion that preceded her. But it wasn't until years later, that I began to appreciate how brave she was, and how alone she must have felt…an English woman. The first I had ever met.” We meet our heroine, Anna Leonowens as she disembarks from a British steamer, newly widowed and accompanied by her young son, Louis (Tom Felton) and East Indian servants, Moonshee (Mano Maniam) and Beebe (Shanthini Venugopal). Their trek by rickshaw to the King’s palace reveals Siam’s thriving marketplace, also, its woeful – if colorful – living conditions; again, a peerless example of Arrighi’s design prowess and extraordinarily detailed.
Anna is optimistic about leaving her past behind. She naïvely entertains the narrow-minded concept British colonization has effectively made her a free citizen of this globalized community, excluding, of course, even the notion that these conquered nations might, in fact, possess not only the desire, but also the initiative and wherewithal to govern for themselves. Anna and Louis’ introduction to Siam is met with great excitement; optimism turned to dreck when Anna learns the King has virtually mislaid his promise to provide her with a brick residence adjacent the palace walls for her new home. Anna’s defiant resolve pleases Mongkut, at least, insofar as it may be channeled into the scientific education of his many children. Although bitterly disappointed at being ensconced as ‘a guest’ inside the palace, Anna slowly begins to realize the King is hardly the potentate she expected to find.
Mongkut wants to modernize Siam in order to protect her autonomy from the threat of colonialism. The King’s inner court circle is, alas, populated equally by loyalists, including his younger brother, Prince Chowfa (Kay Siu Lim) and the Kralahome – or Prime Minister (Syed Alwi) and traitors loyal to General Alak (Randall Duk Kim). Buoyed by a misguided alliance with the East India Company’s unscrupulous investor, Sir Mycroft Kincaid (Bill Stewart), who promises England’s support in a new government once Mongkut is overthrown, Alak begins to conquer the countryside, slaughtering rebellious factions loyal to the crown, and even murdering several British colonists to further promote the notion to outside interests that Mongkut’s kingdom is both corrupt and bloodthirsty.
To counteract this negative publicity, Mongkut begins ambitious plans to hurry along Siam’s cultural expansion, placing Anna at the forefront of preparations for an elegant party at the palace to welcome Britain’s visiting emissaries and lay to rest any such claims he is a willful and uncompromising barbarian. In the meantime, Prince Chowfa begins to suspect Alak of treason; also Kincaid of being complicit in the plot to overthrow his brother. Keeping to himself these suspicions, the Prince searches for the truth. The country is precariously perched on the cusp of war with its neighbors. But Mongkut’s once warrior-like precision on matters of state seems to have been blunted by his alliance with Anna. The two are frequently seen together in a healthy exchange of ideas; Mongkut becoming increasing interested in the western approach to male/female love; the concept of one man for only one woman increasingly garnering his interests.
More precedence is broken at the ball causing idle minds to wander, as the King engages Anna, ravishingly transformed into something of the moment’s fairytale princess, to accompany him on the dance floor. In tandem, members of both the Siamese court and distinguished assemblage of honored British gentry are either disgusted or pleasantly amused by this turn of events. Mycroft Kincaid takes it upon himself to pompously challenge this courtly display of social graces and etiquette, suggesting to the visiting dignitaries that the portrait being painted herein is hardly reflective of the suffrage the Siamese people living outside the palace walls must daily endure. The King is civil-tongued as he challenges Kincaid on an intellectual level. But again, the moment is brought to a hushed when Anna rises in the King’s defense to suggest that the British have lauded their supremacy at the point of a gun over nations considered lesser than their own for much too long. She challenges Kincaid to explain how this show of force, deemed necessary as a part of colonization, is any different than the military resolve the King must exercise in order to maintain Siam’s tenuous civility on a daily basis and protect its people from encroaching Burmese forces that would seek to destroy and conquer her.
The King is grateful for Anna’s intervention. Moreover, he has come to realize how indispensable she has become to other facets in his daily life. Making a commitment to providing Anna with a home of her own, adjacent the palace walls, the relationship between King and commoner continues to ferment into an unusual romance. In her lessons to the children, Anna becomes increasingly devoted to Princess Fa-Ying (Melissa Campbell), an effervescent spirit taken ill by cholera. Summoned to the girl’s bedchamber, Anna arrives just in time to witness Fa-Ying’s death in her father’s arms. The two mourn her loss together. Meanwhile, Lady Tuptim becomes increasingly discontented with her lot in life, eventually confiding her love for Khun Phra Balat to Anna, who is instrumental in briefly reuniting them in the dead of night inside the palace walls.
This romantic pas deux leads to unexpected repercussions as Tuptim elects to run away with Balat. She is hunted down like an animal and brought to the palace; put on trial where she is caned. Unable to bear the sight, Anna desperately plead for the King to spare his favorite concubine from the court’s judgment of execution. Alas, with this outburst Anna has inadvertently sealed Tuptim’s fate. The King cannot show clemency now that would appear to have been goaded by her outside influence, much less that of a foreigner, without being misperceived as being a weak and ineffectual ruler. As such, Tuptim and Balat are publicly beheaded and Anna, unable to justify the act or accept her responsibility in it, prepares to leave Siam at once.
Her departure could not have come at a worse time. For Siam is now under siege from what appears to be a British-funded coup d'état fortified with Burmese soldiers. Mongkut sends Prince Chowfa and General Alak with a small regiment to investigate these rumors. Although Mongkut has complete faith in both men, Chowfa has never warmed to Alak, but accompanies him into the jungles, discovering too late he is actually the one behind these Burmese-orchestrated attacks. Alak poisons the King’s regiment. In his attempted escape, Chowfa is hunted down and butchered by Alak, who now rides into Burma to ready his troops for an all-out invasion of Siam. Word of the proposed palace coup reaches Mongkut. Since the King's armies have ventured too far from the palace to engage these rebels, Mongkut announces that a white elephant has been spotted in the jungles; a pretext for him to flee the palace with his children and wives in tow while biding time for his armies to return. The King’s plan is to take his family to the monastery where he studied in his youth before ascending the throne. But only half way to their destination, the King’s entourage encounters Alak’s approaching warriors. Mongkut gives the order for Anna and the children to proceed on to the monastery while he and his small faction of soldiers prepare a nearby wooden footbridge with deadly explosives to stall Alak’s forces.
Afterward, the King orders his guards to retreat, seemingly alone at the bridge when Alak arrives. The General is suspicious but still disbelieving Mongkut has enough of an army to defeat his own. In the meantime, Anna and Louis orchestrate a minor deception, setting off fireworks in the hills overhead. Louis also blows a bugle charge on his horn to suggest the British forces have arrived in the King’s defense. Spooked by these noises Alak’s Burmese forces retreat in panic, leaving him to confront Mongkut alone on the footbridge. Alak is prepared to fight to the death, but Mongkut challenges him to live and remain the exiled coward, destined to hang his head in shame. As the King turns his back, Alak draws a piston from his concealed robes. But one of the King’s guards is ready, detonating the explosives beneath the bridge and sending Alak to his death in a hellish ball of flame. A short time later, the King and his family are restored to the palace. Asked by Mongkut why she chose to return, Anna tearfully acknowledges, “Because I could not imagine a Siam without you.” Alas, the King’s children will have to grapple with a Siam minus its most ardent progressive, as Anna prepares to leave for good. As the King and Anna share a silent dance together, quietly witnessed by the young prince atop a balcony we hear the sage voice of the adult King Chulalongkorn in his bittersweet epitaph. “It is always surprising how small a part of life is taken up by meaningful moments. Most often they are over before they start although they cast a light on the future and make the person who originated them unforgettable. Anna had shined such a light on Siam.”
Anna and the King concludes on this unrequited note of lost opportunities for these principals. But it never cheats the audience of its expectation for a truly satisfying romance. Almost all of the great passions in both American literature and American movies are set up in such a way: the man tells the woman he loves her. She reciprocates his affections. Then the pair, through destiny, fate or just plain damn silliness and stubbornness, elects to go their separate ways. In Anna and the King, the march of time and cultural divides conspire to place immovable objects before this man and this woman, destined never to be more to each other than they are at this brief wrinkle in time. Again, it is a poignant and fitting end to what was always a mostly troubled alliance between the East India-born Brit and her exotic Asian Lochinvar.
Again, deferring to Roger Ebert’s review of the film, I cannot help but incur a modicum or ire for any man who would equate Chow Yun-fat’s characterization of King Mongkut as ‘charming’; then, in the same sentence suggest the King to be an “egotistical sexual monster” charming in much the same way as either “Hitler” and “of course…Hannibal Lecter”. Ebert’s review is capped off by a glib assessment of the movie’s epitaph; credits affecting how King Chulalongkorn, cribbing from Anna’s expert tutelage, led his people nobly into the 20th century as a democracy, Ebert dismisses this claim by adding “No mention is made of Bangkok's role as a world center of sex tourism, which also carries on traditions established by the ‘good’ king.”
Rarely do I take umbrage to another critic’s assessments. Movie reviews are, after all, largely the stuff of opinion puff pieces. Everyone has an opinion. Mine decidedly differs significantly from Mr. Ebert’s! But in his later years, at least in retrospect, it became something of a blood sport with Roger Ebert to crucify movies of such immensity, simply on the basis that they did not live up to his kind of expectation and satisfy his own personal tastes. I see a good many films – both past and present - that do not directly conform or nourish my own predilections as to what constitutes popular entertainment. Most of the time, I don’t bother to write about them. Why waste all that energy on a negative review? But generally, if a picture is solidly crafted, expertly played and invested with the wherewithal and craftsmanship meant never to talk down to its audience, I generally find something relevant and positive to say about it, even if I cannot abide its narrative story-telling. Does Anna and the King entertain? Decidedly, it does. Is it better than the average movie being peddled to the masses today? I would argue, absolutely. Does it deserve to be criticized? Some – but I’ll leave that to others who dislike the movie enough to commit their sour grapes to paper. Vitriol? None.
Fox Home Video has done an adequate job of releasing Anna and the King to DVD. Now, if we could only convince the studio to do a new 1080p scan and release it to Blu-ray. I sincerely won’t hold my breath on this one. Overall, there’s nothing egregiously wrong with this disc. Colors are vibrant and solid and the image, apart from a few brief flashes of edge enhancement, is relatively stable and colorful. Flesh tones are quite natural and contrast is solidly represented. Film grain seems to have been mildly subdued with a smattering of DNR, but we don’t get that atrociously ugly scrubbed and waxy look anyone who owns more than a handful of vintage Fox titles on home video is, regrettably, all too familiar with. For standard definition, this one looks about as good as it can, and it sounds fairly smart too; the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio having unexpected inspirations of sonic resilience, particularly the blowing up of the bridge, but also the Fenton/Kraft underscore. Extras are jam-packed onto this disc, beginning with a comprehensive commentary from Andy Tennant, who is clearly passionate about the movie and its subject matter. We’re also afforded five immersive featurettes that effectively cover the creation of Anna and the King’s momentous undertaking. You’ll be even more impressed with the film once you’ve had the opportunity to delve into these extras. Bottom line: highly recommended. Very highly. Now, Fox…pretty please…a new Blu-ray of this for 2015!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)