Based on a true story, an English widow teaches the children of Siam's King Mongkut in the 1860s, helping them learn European ways.
Anna Owens (Irene Dunne) and her son Louis (Richard Lyon) arrive in Bangkok in 1862 to tutor the King's children. She objects to personal questions and expects to live in her own house. Kralahome (Lee J. Cobb) says the King is busy. She finds their room is in the harem, and she goes before King Mongkut (Rex Harrison) without crawling. He has 67 children. She reminds him that he promised her a house. Anna is taken to a house but rejects it and stays in the palace. She teaches the children. Lady Thiang (Gale Sondergaard) knows English and translates. Anna teaches proverbs and songs about promises and home.
Kralahome tells Mongkut that they lost Cambodia. The King tells Kralahome to give Anna a house. She likes it but plans to leave. Kralahome tells her that Mongkut wants to be scientific and help his country be modern. Anna stays. She corrects the prince (Tito Renaldo) about the Earth being round. Louis says the prince fought with him because he was ashamed to have been corrected by a woman. The King summons Anna at night and asks her about Moses and creation in six days. Anna tells the King about Lady Tuptim (Linda Darnell) chaining her slave, who wants to buy her freedom. Anna says that the law protects all, and the King asks about Victoria and Lincoln. He writes to Lincoln offering elephants. Tuptim shows Anna the gift she got for freeing her slave, but she is angry that Anna told the King. Anna reads to the King a letter from Lincoln.
Mongkut asks Anna to dress the women like Europeans to show that he is not a barbarian. She says they need undergarments. Anna suggests that the King invite consuls to come from other countries. The King hosts a banquet for European guests. Afterward he thanks Anna with a gift. Anna realizes that she has no students, and Thiang tells her that Tuptim ran away with a young priest. Anna tries to stop them from whipping her. Anna goes to the King and calls him a barbarian. The priest and Tuptim are burned at the stake.
Anna says goodbye to the children, and they read a letter asking her to stay. Thiang tells Anna her story with paintings of trees and says her son needs her. Anna collapses. Kralahome sees that Anna is recovering and reads a message from the King honoring her. The prince comes to Anna and embraces her. The King asks Anna for advice. She cries for the children.
Anna is teaching the children again and advising the King. The British open a consulate in 1865, the French in 1867, and the USA in 1870. Kralahome tells Anna that the King is ill, and the King says he is dying. The King says that Anna spoke the truth to him and made the children better. He expresses his gratitude and dies. Kralahome asks Anna to stay and help the prince. As the new king he announces that his subjects are to stand up before him so that everyone can respect each other and work together.
This historical drama explores how European advances
radically affected Asian cultures in the 19th century. Thailand
banned the film because they believed it did not fairly represent
their king who opened their country to western culture.