The film was a critical and commercial success, and was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning five, including Best Actor for Brynner.
Strong-willed, widowed schoolteacher Anna Leonowens arrives in Bangkok from Wales with her young son Louis after being summoned to tutor the many children of King Mongkut. The two are introduced to the intimidating Kralahome, King Mongkut's confidante and Siam's prime minister. The Kralahome explains he has come to escort them to the Royal Palace where they will live – a violation of Anna's contract, which calls for them to live in a separate house outside the walls of the palace. Despite her threat to leave, Anna reluctantly disembarks with Louis and the Kralahome.
Once inside the Royal Palace, Anna demands to see King Mongkut and is allowed by the Kralahome to enter the Throne Room. A pleased Mongkut ignores her objections as he introduces her to his numerous wives – who include head wife Lady Thiang and a graceful girl from Burma named Tuptim. King Mongkut then presents the fifteen children she will tutor, aside from the other sixty-seven - among them his eldest son and heir Prince Chulalongkorn. Anna agrees to stay and tutor the King's children, prompting formality to break down. Later that night, Lady Thiang and the other wives assist Anna in unpacking, and when an old photograph of her late husband Tom is discovered, the wives start to deride the unhappy Tuptim because she is in love with another man named Lun Tha, the same man who brought her to Siam.
Anna refuses to give up on the house and teaches the children about the virtues of home life to King Mongkut's irritation, who contemplates how he craves truth and wonders why the world has become so complicated with different cultures saying different things. Meanwhile, Anna starts to form a relationship with the children as getting to know people is her favorite thing to teach. The lesson, however, creates disorder when the children refuse to believe in the existence of snow, which they have never seen. The King enters a chaotic schoolroom and, upon noticing Tuptim has a copy of the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, engages in a slightly heated conversation with Anna about slavery – an institution embraced by all his people.
That night, Anna is summoned to the King's private chambers where he says that after reading the Bible, he believes that the world was not created in six days, but after many centuries. The King disregards her explanation and orders her to take a letter to President Abraham Lincoln, in which he will send male elephants to America to help with the Civil War, forcing her to sit on the floor due to an ancient custom that no one's head should be higher than his. She is left to finish the letter herself when she tries to explain that the elephants will not last long if only male elephants are sent. Anna goes outside, only to come across Lun Tha and learn that he has been meeting Tuptim in secret. He asks her to arrange a rendezvous and she refuses out of fear but eventually relents after remembering her past with her husband. The lovers meet under the cover of darkness and Lun Tha promises he will one day return to Siam and they will escape together.
The next day, King Mongkut becomes troubled by reports of spreading British imperialism and bursts into the schoolroom after hearing Anna's pupils persist in singing "Home Sweet Home." Anna stands her ground, threatening to leave Siam despite pleas from the children. King Mongkut asserts that Anna is his servant only to see her repudiate the term and leave the room. Lady Thiang visits Anna later that night and explains Mongkut is apprehensive over rumors that the British regard him as a barbaric leader, intending to turn Siam into a protectorate. Anna is shocked by the accusations but is reluctant to give him advice after their argument. Lady Thiang convinces her that the King is deserving of support and convinces Anna to go to the King. Anna learns the King is also anxious for reconciliation and learns that the British are sending an envoy to evaluate the situation in Bangkok. Upon learning that the envoy consists of Ambassador Sir John Hay and her old lover Sir Edward Ramsay, Anna persuades the King to receive them in European style by hosting a banquet with European food and music – after which it is announced that the envoy is arriving in one week. The King promises to give Anna a house of her own in return for her help.
On the night of the banquet, Sir Edward reminisces with Anna about old times in an attempt to bring her back to British society. The king however walks in on them dancing and irritably reminds them that dancing is for after dinner. After impressing the guests with his intellectual observations, the king presents Tuptim's version of Uncle Tom's Cabin – which is presented as a traditional Siamese ballet. However, the King and the Kralahome are not impressed as the play involves the issue of slavery and shows the slaveholding King dead after drowning in the river. By the time Sir John calls for the play's author, Tuptim has left the room to run away with Lun Tha.
After the guests have departed, Anna talks with the king and is presented with one of his rings in appreciation of her efforts. He then explains he is not pleased with Tuptim and reveals she is missing. Anna however parries his inquiry by explaining she is unhappy because she is just another woman in his eyes. The King retorts that men are entitled to a plenitude of wives although women must remain faithful. Anna explains the reality of one man loving only one woman and recalls her first dance before teaching the King how to dance the polka, but the touching moment is shattered when the Kralahome bursts into the room with news that Tuptim has been captured. For her dishonor, the King prepares to whip her despite Anna's pleas. She implies that he is a barbarian with no heart and that she will stay to watch the King's actions. The King then crumples, puts his hand over his heart and runs out of the room. The Kralahome blames Anna for ruining him and now he can never be the king he was before. Tuptim meanwhile is led away in tears when she learns that Lun Tha is dead, his body discovered in the river. This causes Anna to return the ring, sever all ties as a governess and leave on the next boat from Siam.
On the night of her departure, Anna is prepared to leave Siam with Louis when Lady Thiang says that the King is dying. He refuses to eat or sleep, isolating himself from everyone since the night of the banquet. Lady Thiang gives Anna an unfinished letter from the King that states his deep gratitude and respect for her, despite his harsh differences with her. This prompts her to go to his bedside in tears moments before their ship departs for Britain. The King gives Anna his ring, insisting that she wear it as she has always spoken the truth to him, persuading her and Louis to stay. King Mongkut then passes his title to Prince Chulalongkorn, who then issues a proclamation that brings an end to slavery and states that all subjects will no longer bow down to him. Satisfied that he is leaving his kingdom in capable hands, the King quietly dies with only Anna and the Kralahome present to mourn his passing.Overture – Played by the 20th Century-Fox Orchestra
I Whistle a Happy Tune – Sung by Deborah Kerr (dubbed by Marni Nixon) and Rex Thompson
The March of the Siamese Children – Played by the 20th Century-Fox Orchestra
Hello, Young Lovers – Sung by Deborah Kerr (dubbed by Marni Nixon)
A Puzzlement – Sung by Yul Brynner
Getting to Know You – Sung by Deborah Kerr (dubbed by Marni Nixon) and Chorus
We Kiss in a Shadow – Sung by Carlos Rivas (dubbed by Reuben Fuentes) and Rita Moreno (dubbed by Leona Gordon)
Something Wonderful – Sung by Terry Saunders
Finale, Act I – Sung by Yul Brynner and Chorus
Entr'acte – Played by the 20th Century-Fox Orchestra
The Small House of Uncle Thomas (Ballet) – Narrated by Rita Moreno, Sung and Danced by Chorus and Dancers
Song of the King – Sung by Yul Brynner
Shall We Dance? – Sung and Danced by Deborah Kerr (dubbed by Marni Nixon) and Yul Brynner
Finale (Something Wonderful) – Sung by Chorus
The musical was written for Gertrude Lawrence, and her appearance in the film was contractually guaranteed. However, she was diagnosed with cancer while playing the role on Broadway and died during the run. Dinah Shore, a singer as well as an actress, was considered for the role of Anna in the movie. Maureen O'Hara, who had a pleasant soprano voice, was originally cast, but Richard Rodgers did not agree to the casting. It was Yul Brynner who pressed for Deborah Kerr to play the role. Marni Nixon provided Kerr's singing for the film. Nixon and Kerr worked side-by-side in the recording studio for songs which combined speaking and singing. Nixon would also dub Kerr's singing the following year, for the film An Affair to Remember.
Donald Bogle's biography of Dorothy Dandridge claims that Dandridge was offered the role of Tuptim in partial fulfillment of her three-picture contract with 20th Century-Fox, but that Dandridge allowed Otto Preminger (her former director and then-lover) to talk her out of it because it was not the lead role. Rumors also circulated that Dandridge, as an African American, did not want to play a slave. Rita Moreno, who was under contract to Fox, was invited merely for a test, but impressed the producers enough to be selected for the part. Moreno later stated in an interview that France Nuyen was also up for the part, and Moreno believed Nuyen would get it, but since Nuyen was not a contract player with the studio, she was not cast.
Reprising their Broadway stage roles, Saunders played Thiang, Adiarte was Chulalongkorn and Benson was the Kralahome, and dancers Yuriko and de Lappe also reprised their stage roles. Alan Mowbray appeared in the new role of the British Ambassador, while Sir Edward Ramsey (demoted to the Ambassador's aide) was played by Geoffrey Toone. The cinematography was by Leon Shamroy, the art direction by John DeCuir and Lyle R. Wheeler and the costume design by Irene Sharaff. The choreography used for the film was the choreography developed by Jerome Robbins for the original stage production.
Three songs from the original stage production were recorded for, and appeared on, the film's soundtrack, but were not filmed and do not appear in the motion picture: "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?", "I Have Dreamed" and "My Lord and Master". "I Have Dreamed" and another song that was not used in the film, "Western People Funny", survive in the released film only as orchestral underscoring. In the film, the first half of the "Song of the King" was turned into ordinary spoken dialogue, with only some of the words sung, minus the king's opening lyrics, but it survives as it was actually written on the soundtrack album.
A special 50th Anniversary edition was released in 2006, which promised to restore the lost numbers, but it included only the audio for "Shall I Tell You?" This would seem to indicate that no footage exists of these numbers. An off-screen choral reprise of "Something Wonderful" was added to serve as the film's finale; the stage version ends with musical underscoring, but no singing. None of the other reprises of the songs were retained in the film version.
The film was one of the only two films shot in the then-new 55 mm CinemaScope 55 format, the other being Carousel, which was released several months earlier. Although the promotion for the film made much of it being shot in CinemaScope 55, it was only released in the standard 35 mm CinemaScope format, with 4-channel stereo instead of the 6-channel stereo originally promised. CinemaScope 55 was never used or promoted again after this production, and Fox would later invest in Todd-AO and adopt its 65/70mm process, after changing it to the more conventional 24 frames/second, and contracting with Mitchell Camera for all-new FC ("Fox Camera") and BFC ("Blimped Fox Camera") cameras, and with Bausch & Lomb for all-new "Super Baltar" lenses. Numerous features were made in the Fox-revised Todd-AO process.
In 1961, it was re-released for the first time in a 70 mm format, under Fox's "Grandeur 70" trademark. For this release, the six-channel version of the stereo soundtrack was finally used. In 1966, it was re-released again, this time in Cinemascope, before being sold to television in 1967.
The film was a big success upon release, both critically and financially. Some reviewers did criticize the film due to its changes in dialogue from the Broadway production, as well as the omission of some songs.
The King and I was banned in Thailand, and remains banned, due to its representation of King Mongkut of Siam; as is the case with most other adaptations of Anna and the King.
The film soundtrack album was first released on Capitol Records. It restored three songs recorded for the film but not included in the final release print: "My Lord and Master", "I Have Dreamed", and "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?". Added to the original LP and CD releases of the film was a seven-minute overture not heard at the beginning of the film. The album was first issued only in mono in 1956, but, as with the Rodgers and Hammerstein films Oklahoma (1955) and Carousel (1956), the sound on the film had been recorded in what was then state-of-the-art stereo, which made it possible, with the advent of stereo on records, for Capitol to release a stereo version of the soundtrack album in 1958. As with Oklahoma! and Carousel, the record grooves of that time made it necessary for part of the album to be omitted in the stereo version, so half of "Getting To Know You" was cut in that edition, which included the instrumental section, and the other half of the children singing the other half of the song in the different key of music. All of the songs were arranged by Gus Levene.
The film soundtrack album of The King and I was issued on CD first by Capitol and then by Angel Records. The first two editions of the CD were exact duplicates of the LP, but in 2001, as with the Oklahoma! and Carousel soundtracks, Angel issued a new, expanded edition of the album, which not only featured all the songs (including the ballet "The Small House of Uncle Thomas"), but some of the film's incidental music, as well as the original main title music. The Overture heard on the LP version and on the first two editions of the CD was included as a bonus track.
The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won five.Best Actor in a Leading Role – Yul Brynner
Best Art Direction - Set Decoration, Color – John DeCuir, Lyle R. Wheeler, Walter M. Scott, Paul S. Fox
Best Costume Design, Color – Irene Sharaff
Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture – Alfred Newman and Ken Darby
Sound Recording – Carlton W. Faulkner; 20th Century Fox Sound Department
Best Picture of the Year – Charles Brackett
Best Actress in a Leading Role – Deborah Kerr
Best Director – Walter Lang
Best Cinematography, Color – Leon Shamroy
Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy
Best Actress – Deborah Kerr
Best Film Promoting International Understanding
Best Motion Picture Actor – Comedy/Musical – Yul Brynner
AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions - #31
AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains:
Anna Leonowens - Nominated (Hero)
AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs:
"Getting to Know You" - Nominated
"Shall We Dance?" - #54
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
"Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera." - Nominated
AFI's 100 Years of Musicals - #11
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) - Nominated