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The film opens with a written prologue explaining that in the early 1860s, a young Englishwoman accepted a post teaching English to the children of the King of Siam, leading to a "necessary but almost terrifying adventure into that strange and still half-barbaric country." Siam's King Mongkut, also known as Rama IV, ruled from 1851 to 1868. As depicted in the film, he studied Western culture and greatly expanded his nation's trade and diplomatic relations with the Western countries. On March 15, 1862, British governess Anna Leonowens arrived in Bangkok, with her son Louis, to teach English in King Mongkut's court. She left Siam on July 5, 1867, a little more than a year before the King's death. After returning to England, Leonowens moved to the United States and published two books about her experiences in Siam: The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and The Romance of the Harem (1872). Louis did not die in a riding accident, as depicted in the film, but returned to Siam in 1882 and became a cavalry officer. Mongkut's son, Chulalongkorn (Rama V), who ruled from 1868 to 1910, continued to modernize his country by abolishing slavery, reorganizing the government and developing the infrastructure. In 1939, the country's name was changed to Thailand.
Author Margaret Landon, who lived in Siam from 1927-1937, drew material from Leonowens' books and personal correspondence in writing Anna and the King of Siam. In her author's note, Landon wrote, "The method of presentation was determined by the form of the incidents as recorded by Anna Leonowens herself....If I were asked to give the fabric content of the book I should say that it is 'seventy-five per cent fact, and twenty-five per cent fiction based on fact.'"
An March 8, 1945 memo from studio production chief Darryl F. Zanuck to producer Louis D. Lighton reveals the following information: Zanuck originally wanted William Powell for the role of the King. He attempted to borrow Dorothy McGuire from David O. Selznick, but their negotiations broke down when Selznick attempted to add a number of "petty" conditions to their contract. Zanuck mentioned that Jean Arthur and Myrna Loy were eager to play the role of Anna, and that Olivia de Havilland had asked Ernst Lubitsch to intercede with Zanuck on her behalf. In any event, Zanuck assured Lighton, casting the role of Anna would not be a problem: "If David comes off his high horse we will use McGuire; if not, we will have practically the pick of the industry for this role. I forgot to mention Irene Dunne, although in my opinion she is too old for it."
Elia Kazan was originally considered to direct the film, but Zanuck wrote, "If we get into difficulties with Kazan, John M. Stahl is eager to do this picture, and it would not surprise me to have Ernst Lubitsch ask to direct it himself, providing his health permits." A September 13, 1945 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that Charles Boyer had been cast in the role of the King but was forced to withdraw from the production due to other commitments, and that McGuire had indeed been cast as Anna. According to a November 6, 1945 news item in Hollywood Reporter, Faye Marlowe, Gerald Perreau, Jean O'Donnell and Julie Carter were tested for roles in the film, but their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. Studio publicity materials contained in the file on the film at the AMPAS Library add Jeanne Lafayette to the cast, but her appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. A June 13, 1945 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that the film would be shot in Technicolor.
In the film, Anna quotes U.S. President Abraham Lincoln as having said, "True progress must bear some relation to man's character. It must have its roots in his heart." This quotation does not appear in any of Lincoln's major speeches or writings, however, and its authenticity is doubtful. According to information in the Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection, located at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, Zanuck said in a September 6, 1945 memo to Lighton and director John Cromwell, "If we cannot find a great Lincoln quote we should write one. The best Wilson quote in the picture Wilson [see below] was written by Lamar Trotti and no one ever questioned it." According to Landon's book, King Mongkut and Lincoln actually did exchange letters, but this correspondence occurred before Anna came to Siam. The first finished version of the film ran two hours and forty-one minutes. Zanuck had the film re-edited, and three reels of footage were eliminated.
An article in Time dated March 24, 1947 described the first screening of the film in Thailand, noting that the royal family allowed the film to be shown in its entirety, despite the fact that "leading Siamese critics and historians had taken pains to point out that it was more than 75% inaccurate (refined King Monkgut, for example, had certainly never burned a wife)." The film received Academy Awards for Best Art Direction (Black and White) and Best Cinematography (Black and White). It was nominated for Academy Awards in the following categories: Best Supporting Actress (Gale Sondergaard), Best Screenplay and Best Music (Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture). Anna and the King of Siam was the first film English actor Rex Harrison made in the United States and Cromwell's first directing assignment for Twentieth Century-Fox. Harrison and Irene Dunne repeated their roles on the Lux Radio Theatre on January 20, 1947. Anna and the King of Siam was again broadcast on Lux Radio Theatre on May 30, 1949, with Dunne and James Mason. The Hallmark Playhouse radio program broadcast Anna and the King of Siam on September 15, 1949, featuring Deborah Kerr.
In 1950, British actress Gertrude Lawrence obtained the rights to Landon's book and asked Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, II to develop it as a musical. Modern sources assert that this was the only time Rodgers and Hammerstein ever created a show for the talents of a specific performer. The musical, The King and I, opened on Broadway on March 29, 1951. Rodgers and Hammerstein asked Harrison to repeat his role onstage, but he declined the offer, and Yul Brynner was cast as the King, a role with which he would be identified for the rest of his life. The King and I was released by Twentieth Century-Fox as a musical film in 1956, starring Brynner and Deborah Kerr. The story later resurfaced as a CBS television series, Anna and the King, which starred Brynner and Samantha Eggar and ran from 17 September-December 31, 1972. In 1999, Fox 2000 Pictures released a non-musical version of the story entitled Anna and the King, starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat and directed by Andy Tennant.