Lying around daydreaming about movies the other day (as I tend to do), I began to think about The King and I, a movie I last saw at the Maureen O’Hara Classic Film Festival last month, and just how much I love one particular sequence in the movie. In a film that I think is chock full of quality numbers, the scene in which the servants of the king stage a Siamese version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin may be one of the most beautiful scenes ever put on film. Its use of traditional Siamese (Thai) garments, music, and dance to tell the classic story of slaves in the American Civil War is not only a clever idea within the context of the movie, but is also immensely symbolic and serves to highlight recurring themes in both stories about tolerance, equality, and freedom.
Rodgers and Hammerstein never shied away from controversial themes in their work. South Pacific, the musical that directly preceded The King and I on Broadway, dealt with many of the same issues–including interracial relationships and the importance of tolerance–ones that would become very important politically in the coming decades. Though The King and I is less direct than South Pacific in its addressing of social issues, Rodgers and Hammerstein get their message across just the same through graceful innuendo about the love between Anna and the King, more than hinting that it may be a bigger emotion they feel for each other than just friendship. Take this famous scene for example:
The King and Anna start out friendly, then around the 3:00 mark, it starts to border on romance. By 4:10, all bets are off.
It is no surprise, then, that Rodgers and Hammerstein would choose to incorporate Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the controversial anti-slavery book by Harriet Beecher Stowe, into this play. The book is viewed as crucial in shifting views of slavery in the American South, and likewise in the play, the production of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin ballet threatens the power of the king, ultimately diminishing his power against the slave Tuptim.
The symbolism of this number is far-reaching and multi-layered. The relationship to the slavery embedded in the story of The King and I is evident, and its relation to the overarching social awareness of Rodgers and Hammerstein has already been addressed. But I think it is fitting that the movie was made in the era that it was. In 1956, segregation had just been outlawed, and anger was rampant throughout the country. This scene shows tolerance and love on a global scale, as though Rodgers and Hammerstein were speaking directly to the American public and telling them us all that we should learn a lesson from what we’re seeing.