Rogers and Hammerstein were masters at taking stories and turning them into musical memories. The King and I was their saga exploring Anna Leonowens's 19th century adventures in educating the King of Siam on the ways of the modern world.
It is a geographic gem on two levels. First it deals with historic Siam, now Thailand. The musical makes Siam a mystical place. Second, it deals with issues important to understanding the role of colonialism in world society..
Its plot In short: Anna is employed as a teacher at the court of the King of Siam in the 1860s. She has been brought in from England to modernize the educational processes at the palace so that the British can be impressed that the Siamese are not barbarians. She and the King spar over the issues involved, including the rebellion of two lovers at court. The musical is filled with engaging and memorable songs like: "Hello Young Lovers", "Shall We Dance", and "Getting to Know You".
For the younger viewer, the simple geographic lessons are those of a different culture and a warm physical environment. Siam [Thailand] is a warm place. Just the dress of the King speaks to this. The dress of the remaining non-western cast and the social rules and customs explored in the musical will strike the younger viewer. That the British are a threat to a character they should generally come to like--the King--, should create a moment of wonderment for these viewers because the British are viewed as so friendly.
At a deeper level, The King and I is a lesson in colonial relationships. Siam curiously was one of the few non-European places to avoid direct colonial control. While seizure was avoided, domination by the colonial powers was not. The show is testimony to the pressures placed upon the King by the British.
Through the story we can see how the powerful industrial countries imposed values and cultural change while supposedly just pursuing economic and political goals. This is a lesson our own society, and our students, are presented with every day in terms of American life. The King felt compelled to change. His self-concept was damaged and the door to change opened. The young prince was more influenced by the West than the King. He embraced the concepts because his teacher favored them. Anna educates him to change, while it kills the King. The young prince has less personal investment in his sense of kingship then his father does.
American myths are imposed upon Siam. Helping Lincoln is a positive idea for the King. He can send an elephant to help Lincoln fight the Civil War. He can assist the outsiders. Only the audience and Anna appreciate the foolish look of his gift. The use of Uncle Tom's Cabin as a vehicle to change Siam and its palace culture illustrates the power of media. It is used to illuminate the internal tensions of Siam. The young lovers are not in tune with the traditional ways and power relationships. Love demands change so that true love can triumph. Love can be seen as a theatrical ploy or cover for a larger statement on the desire for freedom in Third World peoples. Love comes first in a movie, but then I what respect and the right to vote.
Turning to the physical geography, the musical has its weaknesses. The focus is upon indoor settings. For an vivid outdoor setting, Jodee Foster's Anna and the King presents a slight revision of the story, but moves beyond the stage to the river and rainforest. The views are spectacular, particularly near the end of the film. No songs, but more scenery.
The musical and the newer film have both been banned in Thailand. The Thai government has been concerned about the historical inaccuracies of the film. These seem to center around the non-existence of the love affair between Anna and the King, and the general image of their beloved King in those stories. In the end, Anna is a true figure, and the modernization of Thailand began during this time.
The King and I is a wonderful tale. It has songs that have thrilled millions. Underneath, there is a dark side that is clear in the film if you are looking for it.
Updated from: Meartz, Paul D. 2001. Geography in Media: The King and I. Dakota Alliance XI (4): September-October 2001: 7.