December 8, 1999
"Anna And The King" Continues Myth, Whitworth Professor Says
Hollywood's latest version of Anna and the King, due to be released Dec. 17, is certain to perpetuate myths that plagued earlier productions, according to Whitworth College English Professor Pamela Parker, who grew up in Thailand and has studied the movie's title character, Anna Leonowens.
Several books, theatre productions and movies - most notably the 1956 movie classic, The King and I, starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr - have been released about Leonowens' supposedly "civilizing" influence on King Mongkut of Siam (now Thailand) when she served as governess to his children in the 1860s. All of the versions, however, are derived from Leonowens' autobiographical, and sometimes fictionalized, writings.
"In any production or reproduction of Leonowens' story, she is the heroine going to Thailand with a white woman's burden to tame the barbarians, and the fact is that the Thai are anything but barbarians," says Parker, whose parents were medical missionaries in Thailand from 1959 to 1967. "No matter how sensitive they try to be with this latest version, they will place Leonowens as a central figure in Thai history, which is culturally demeaning and historically inaccurate."
The Thai government objected strongly to the portrayal of King Mongkut in the 1956 classic and banned the movie from being shown in Thailand. And the Thai film board sought so much control over the script for the latest film, which stars Jodie Foster, that 20th Century Fox ultimately decided to shoot the movie in Malaysia.
All of the Broadway and Hollywood productions are based on Margaret Landon's glowing 1946 biography of Leonowens. And Landon took her inspiration largely from two books Leonowens herself wrote in the 1870s, shortly after leaving Siam. The two books, Romance of the Harem and English Governess in the Siamese Court, are part autobiography, part travelogue and part feminist propaganda. They're also part pure fiction, Parker says.
Scholars have begun to question the accuracy of Leonowens' personal history as portrayed in her own books and in Landon's biography. It has been established that Leonowens inflated the military rank of her father and her husband, and some scholars believe she may also have concealed the fact that she was born in India of a Eurasian mother. While evidence of her nationality and ethnicity is murky, Parker says, it is clear that her claims of British parentage and citizenship assigned her an elevated social position in England and its colonies at the time.
"Leonowens' story rests on her self-portrait as an upstanding Christian lady who could alter another culture by sheer force of her Britishness, her class and her femininity," Parker says. "There's little doubt in my mind that she gave herself a more prominent place in society and in history than she actually was due."
Parker is writing a book on 19th-century women social activists and took an interest in Leonowens' feminist critique of the Siamese court and its treatment of women. In criticizing the Thai culture for oppressing women, Parker says, Leonowens made a case to her mostly western audience for greater freedom for women everywhere. She also represents an important link between 19th-century feminism and cultural imperialism, Parker adds.
"What's both fascinating and disturbing about her is the extent to which Leonowens shaped her own story," Parker says. "She's a terrible historian but a great story-teller. Her stories have been powerful enough to distort perceptions of Thai culture and her role in Thai history for more than a century. With the help of Hollywood, those distorted perceptions keep getting reinforced until they're easily confused with the truth."
Pamela Parker, assistant professor of English, Whitworth College, (509) 777-4204 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Greg Orwig, director of communications, Whitworth College, (509) 777-4580 or email@example.com.