There are many versions of this much-loved tale, the best-known probably the 1956 movie adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's hit 1951 musical play of the same name. It tells the story of a young British widow, Anna Leonowens, who travels with her son Louis to Siam in 1862 to work as a governess to King Mongkut's many children. After many quarrels the two fall in love, and along the way Anna influences the king towards a less despotic, more civilized, mode of governance.
What accounts for the enduring popularity of this tale?
In part, it's certainly the pageantry of the production and mythic lure of the exotic location, enhanced by songs that have become an indelible part of western popular music: "Whenever I Feel Afraid", "Getting to Know You", "Shall We Dance?", and many more. (I don't recall seeing this movie as a child, but when I finally did view it as an adult, I was surprised to find I knew many of the songs by heart.) Music, dancing, gorgeous Siamese costumes: it's a mysterious and romantic world brought to the stage to delight and excite the western imagination.
Then too, the story reiterates an enduring theme in the western imaginary: the transformation of a barbarous kingdom into a civilized democracy. Utilizing a common Hollywood plot device, two protagonists bring the struggle between eastern darkness and western light to life, but "The King and I" differs from the standard presentation by having a woman stand for the west and a man for the east. This was a fairly radical twist even in the 1950s, for in western imagery the fairer sex is almost always placed alongside non-whites on the side of irrationality, emotion, femininity, and the like; there to be ranged against the white male virtues of rationality, science, and civilization. Thus a familiar tale is represented in a new guise: "same same, but different", as they say in Thailand today.
Then there's the fact that this is a romance, albeit one that is doomed from the start. In the story's terms, the gulf between Anna and Mongkut is too wide to be bridged: she, a Christian, a monogamist, a Briton, he, a Buddhist, a polygamist, an Oriental. Stepping outside the story, I would argue that the central tenet of the tale - the reversal of the racial divide - renders the love impossible. A white man might take a native woman for a lover or even a wife, but a white woman and a native man? Never. Even to suggest so is to walk close to the edge of the forbidden, flirting with the fears of miscegenation that have led to unspeakable horrors, The Holocaust and lynchings in the American south being but two obvious examples. (In a rather ironic twist, one of the stories-within-the-musical is the narration, by the slave Tuptim, of "The Small House Of Uncle Thomas" ("Uncle Tom's Cabin") as a veiled protest against her own enslavement by the evil Mongkut. In Tuptim's rendition, the free access of white men to black slave women and the supposed unbridled lust of black men for white women that lurks throughout Stowe's powerful anti-slavery tale remains unspoken.)
Perhaps the crowning touch that is that this musical is supposed to be based on a true story, and we seem to be suckers for real life stories. The immediate inspiration was Margaret Landon's "Anna and the King of Siam" (1943), a book sometimes called a novel, but in fact a distillation of two books by the real-life Anna, "The English Governess at the Siamese Court: Being the Recollection of Six Years at the Royal Palace in Bangkok" (1870), and "The Romance of the Harem" (1873), (later issued as "Siamese Harem Life"). Anna wrote the first soon after her return from five (not six) years in Siam, where she was English teacher (not governess) to the king's many wives and children. Her fanciful memoirs were a sensation, and Anna, a skilled self-promoter, immediately set about writing the second, which was equally successful.
Anna claimed that her books were true, but it's clear that she took substantial liberties with her tale. For example, the disturbing tale of Tuptim being burned alive with her lover outside of Anna's house at the king's orders - enraged that the slave had attempted to leave his harem - cannot be substantiated by any contemporary source, Siamese or western, and is taken in scholarly circles to be a fiction dreamed up by Anna to dramatize what she characterized as the king's barbaric rages. Anna lifted whole sections of description - of the king's coronation and young prince Chulalongkorn's tonsure ceremony, for example - from more reputable sources, and repeated fantastic tales of eastern barbarism - servants bricked alive into palace gates, for example - as if they were events she had actually witnessed. Anna's books are entertaining and her accounts have grains of truth, but she clearly embellished freely in order to make her books more readable, and in this she was very successful.
Landon condensed the personal stories in Anna's books and left out the long descriptive passages about Siamese life and culture, setting in motion the still-thriving industry of embellishing Anna's tale with half-truths and plain lies: it was she, not Anna, who first introduced the suggestion of romance between the governess and the king. Landon's book too was a bestseller, first coming to the silver screen in 1946 in a dramatic adaptation: "Anna and the King" starred Irene Dunne as Anna and Rex Harrison in "yellow face" as Mongkut. This version had no singing but was big on romance, and had Anna staying in the kingdom after the king's death, helping young king Chulalongkorn plot the course of the kingdom.
The story caught the attention of Gertrude Lawrence, who wanted it turned into a vehicle for her return to the musical stage; though Cole Porter turned the project down, Rodgers and Hammerstein were happy to oblige. Rex Harrison turned down the musical version of the role he had played, and Noel Coward too declined, so it fell to a relatively unknown actor, Yul Brynner, to take on what became, for him, a career-defining role. He played Mongkut on stage, in the movie - for which he won an Oscar - and even, late in his career and in failing health, on a short-lived 1972 TV series.
There have been other versions as well. The musical came back to the Broadway stage in 1996 with Lou Diamond Phillips as Mongkut. In 2000 an animated cartoon came to the big screen: no romance between Anna and the (apparently monogamous) king here. Rather, love blooms between the young prince Chulalongkorn and a servant girl, and is forbidden by the king (a rather thin premise if you know much about Siam, for royal men may take any woman they please as lovers). This movie features the cartoon-requisite wisecracking monkey and dancing elephant. But perhaps the most notorious modern retelling was the 1999 movie "Anna and the King". It didn't do well at the box office, but for my money Jodie Foster's pinched and crabby Anna was much closer to the real thing than we have seen previously, and Chow Yun-Fat - who at least is Asian, another improvement over earlier renditions - brought a subtle majesty to the role that is truer to life, and sadly missing, from Brynner's capering and hysterical portrayal.
I know that many love Brynner's performance, but let's face some cold hard facts: the real king was 47 when he was crowned, and had been a Buddhist monk for 27 years; by the time Anna appeared on the scene he was over 60. A formidable intellectual, he had excelled at his Pali studies and had taught himself English, French, and Latin while still a monk; he was interested in western science and technology and corresponded reguarly with European royalty. Mongkut is one of Thailand's best-loved kings, and credited with setting his kingdom on the road to modernization. To suggest he had done so, and had learned about compassion, civilization, and governance, because of his glancing acquaintance with a poorly educated Eurasian woman who was born in India and brought up in enlisted men's barracks is laughable at best, and, from a Thai persepective, insulting in the extreme.
That's the main reason the books and movies are banned in Thailand.
Internet Movie Database
See also Anna Leonowens, Mongkut (also known as Rama IV), and Chulalongkorn