Thursday, August 29, 2013

Anna Leonowens and Maha Mongkut

[This classic T N McCoy blog was originally published March, 2005]

Released by Fox in 1999, Jodie Foster’s movie Anna and the King is a re-telling of the teaching-adventure story of Anna Leonowens. The story, by now a familiar one, is about a 19th century English woman traveling to Siam to teach the monarch’s children.

The storyline is based on the 1946 movie Anna and the King of Siam, starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison (where Anna was presented as Anna L. Owens,) and 1956 movie musical, The King of I, starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. The latter was based on the successful 1951 Broadway musical of the same name.

The Broadway Musical was based on the 1946 movie, Anna and the King of Siam, which in turn was based on the book ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM (1944) by Margaret Landon, who wrote it as a modern update of Mrs. Leonowens’ full story from the 19th century.  [As an interesting sidenote, Mrs. Leonowens was the maternal aunt of Boris Karloff.]

The basis for Miss Langdon’s work was published in 1870: THE ENGLISH GOVERNESS AT THE SIAMESE COURT And in 1872: THE ROMANCE OF THE HAREM. Both were written by Anna H. Leonowens. The illustrations were based on photographs given to Mrs. Leonowens by the King of Siam, His Majesty Somdetch P’hra Paramendr Maha Mongkut---imagine having to say that ten or twelve times a day.

Yes, a bit confusing. Well, just think of the story in chronological order: in 1862, Mrs. Anna Crawford Leonowens (1834-1914) was hired to teach the King’s children in Siam; then her book THE ENGLISH GOVERNESS…” (1870); her book THE ROMANCE OF THE HAREM (1872); Margaret Langdon’s book ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM (1944); the movie Anna and the King of Siam (1946); the Broadway play The King and I (1951); the movie, The King and I (1956); and now the movie Anna and the King (1999.)

Going back again, Mrs. Leonowens (who had already decided to accept) was officially invited by a letter from the King, February 26, 1862:

“Madam: We are in good pleasure, and satisfaction in heart, that you are in willingness to undertake the education of our beloved royal children. And we hope that in doing your education on us and on our children (whom English call inhabitants of benighted land) you will do your best endeavor for knowledge of English language, science, and literature, and for conversion to Christianity; as the followers of Buddha are mostly aware of the powerfulness of truth and virtue, as well as the followers of Christ, and are desirous to have facility of English language and literature, more than new religions.
“We beg to invite you to our royal palace to do your best endeavorment upon us and our children. We shall expect to see you here on return of Siamese steamer Chow Phya.
“We have written to Mr. William Adamson, and to our consul at Singapore, to authorize to do best arrangement for you and ourselves.
“Believe me
“Your faithfully,
(Signed) “S.S.P.P. Maha Mongkut”

Somehow, my mind hears these words in the voice and style of Yul Brynner. Indeed, it is a puzzlement.