“There is no barbarian worse than a weak king.”
Indeed, the title characters are at the core of this film, and they richly embody their roles. As Bosley Crowther wrote in his laudatory review for The New York Times, “The king is the heart of this story, and Mr. Brynner makes him vigorous and big. But Miss Kerr matches him boldly.” The colorful cinematography, sets, and costumes are a huge plus, too; the movie is sumptuous to look at, and of course the score is an absolute winner. The “Shall We Dance” sequence still delights instantly, thanks to a confluence of all these factors.
Much more problematic is the storyline itself, with its explicitly Orientalist and infantilizing (i.e., “I’ll help fix you and your culture”) approach to Anna’s visit. The recent Tony-winning revival of the musical apparently worked hard to overcome these inherent challenges, and succeeded — but modern-day viewers of this older adaptation will want to prepare themselves for numerous uncomfortable tensions. On the one hand, it tells a staunchly feminist tale of an independent woman boldly succeeding in a sexist patriarchy; on the other hand, Siamese culture is presented as deeply “Othered” and inherently problematic, and it’s difficult to see Anna as anything other than a “White savior” coming in to rescue this nation and its people single-handedly. With that said, should this version of The King and I still be seen? Yes, I believe so — there’s enough merit in the production itself to warrant a viewing, and modern film fanatics will hopefully be able to put its orientation (pun intended) into historical context.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments: