Yul Brynner: 3 Career-Defining Performances

With his deep and commanding voice, steely gaze, and signature shaved head, the screen image of Yul Brynner is perhaps one of the most recognizable ones to come out of Old Hollywood. Synonymous with his role as King Mongkut of Siam in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical The King and I, both on stage and on screen, Brynner was one of the first Russian American film stars, rising to prominence in the late 1950s. Though he was often typecast, his subsequent career spanned decades and included everything from Biblical Epics to classic Westerns.

Though he was fond of telling outlandish stories about his upbringing, even going so far as to say his birth name was Taidje Khan and that he was born on the far-eastern Russian island of Sakhalin, the truth is that the actor was born Yuliy Borisovich Briner on July 11, 1920 in Vladivostok, a city in the far east of Russia. In addition to being Swiss-German and Russian, Brynner was also Buryat, belonging to one of the largest indigenous groups in Siberia. Brynner and his family left Russia shortly after the formation of the Soviet Union and he spent part of his childhood in China and then in France, where he began singing and playing the guitar on stage, and eventually joined a French circus troupe. He first arrived in the United States of America in the 1940s, during which time he studied acting with Michael Chekov, nephew of playwright Anton Chekov, and began learning English while performing on Broadway. Though he made his film debut in 1949 with The Port of New York, the actor’s true breakthrough came when he starred alongside Deborah Kerr in the 1956 film adaptation of The King and I, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Actor. He had previously won a Tony Award for the role when he originated it on Broadway a few years prior. Other prominent roles include General Sergei Bounine in Anastasia and the Gunslinger (a killer android) in the cult sci-fi film, Westworld. Aside from his work as an actor, Brynner was also a TV director and photographer.

More often than not, Yul Brynner’s perceived exotic looks – according to his obituary in the New York Times, he once failed a screen test at Universal for being “too oriental” – led him to play numerous characters of Middle Eastern descent, a kind of white-washing that was far more normalized in old Hollywood than it is today. He even played a Japanese character in 1964’s Flight from Ashiya. Nevertheless, his role in The King and I seemed to eclipse all others in the minds of the public and is arguably the defining role of his life. In this Guide from The Film Magazine, we’ll present The King and I and two other roles that were vitally important in establishing Yul Brynner as a monumental screen presence.

1. The King and I (1956)

In the 1956 film adaptation of the Roger and Hammerstein stage musical of the same name, Yul Brynner starred in The King and I as King Mongkut, the real-life Thia monarch who ruled Siam (now Thailand) from 1851 to 1868. Both the film and musical were based on the highly fictionalized memoirs of Anna Leonowens, who served at one time as a teacher for the King’s children. In the film, Anna, played by Deborah Kerr, sails to Bangkok from England with her son Louis (Rex Thompson), following the death of her husband. She soon meets King Mongkut, who is loud and aggressive, insisting that Anna not only teach his children, but also all of his wives. He is also deeply ambitious and thirsty for knowledge. Though they get off to a rocky start, Anna and The King soon develop a strong friendship built on trust and respect as she helps guide him in his quest to bring his country in line with the modern world.

As The King, Brynner is bombastic and energetic, often standing with his hands on his hips, shoulders back, his bare chest exposed and pushed out in a show of dominance. This display of masculinity and strength, along with his chiselled looks and tanned skin, was as much a part of his screen image as his shaved head was. That signature look originated with The King and I, and became his calling card. With this role, his baritone voice is slightly higher pitched and he speaks with an Asian accent that often veers into parody, even if it is not intended to. Brynner is lighter and funnier in this role than he is in many of his other roles, where he is usually much more serious and intimidating.

In retrospect, it is difficult to separate Brynner’s performance from the overall racially insensitive elements of The King and I. At its core, it is predominately a story of white saviorism that plays into racial stereotypes in a way that would most likely feel extremely dated and cringe-inducing to modern audiences. However, Brynner’s fondness for the role is evident on screen, and he plays The King with heart and dignity. Like the rest of the lavish and colorful musical, it is hard not to be taken in by it.

For decades, Brynner simply was The King. And, with that identity inseparable from his own, he achieved a level of recognition only a select few actors have enjoyed. Brynner would return to ‘The King and I’ several times throughout his career, right up until the day he died in 1985. By that time, he had played the role on stage for 4,625 performances.

2. The Ten Commandments (1956)

In the same year that The King and I was released, Yul Brynner also starred in The Ten Commandments as the arrogant and cruel Prince Rameses II, for which he won a National Board of Review award for Best Actor. The film, a remake of director Cecil B. DeMille’s 1929 silent epic of the same name, dramatizes the biblical story of Moses, a Prince of Egypt who discovers he is the son of a Hebrew slave and is prophesied to lead his people out of bondage and into the promised land, while his adopted brother Rameses ascends to the throne as Pharoah of Egypt and seeks to thwart Moses’s attempts to claim freedom at every turn.

As Rameses, Brynner exudes sex appeal. Often adorned in colorful jewels and gold armlets, his kilt-like shendyt pulled tight against his taunt chest, the actor seems born to wear the traditional garb of ancient Egypt. His physicality is both threatening and alluring, as he struts around with pomp and circumstance, a performance to mask deep-seated insecurities about his ability to rule. Cold and calculated, his gaze always narrowed, the actor slips seamlessly into the role of the arrogant and jealous Prince. His scenes with Anne Baxter, who plays his eventual wife, Nefretiri, are particularly striking, as he somehow finds the perfect balance between sexual desire and fear.

The Ten Commandments is not only one of the most financially successful films ever made, but it is also largely considered to be one of the best. It is epic and melodramatic in a way few films are allowed to be these days, and Brynner, with his obvious stage training, is right at home. He clearly relishes the chance to be larger than life and, most importantly, his villainous turn as Rameses is a huge contrast to his performance in The King and I.

3. The Magnificent Seven (1960)

While he found himself starring in several other biblical epics following The Ten Commandments, Yul Brynner also spent a lot of time starring in Westerns. In The Magnificent Seven, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai, Brynner stars as a gunslinger named Chris who is hired by farmers from a rural Mexican village to protect them from a group of raiders, led by Chief Calvera (Eli Wallach). Chris assembles a group of seven gunmen who travel to the village and quickly grow to care deeply for its inhabitants, leading them to defend it with their lives.

We first meet Chris and drifter Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen) as they offer to drive a hearse containing the body of a Native American to a gravesite for burial, despite the possibility of violence from the racist townsfolk. Seemingly unbothered by this, Chris takes the reins and manages to smoke at least three cigars on their journey uphill. This act of bravery establishes Chris as our hero, the kind of guy who might operate outside the law but tries to do the right thing regardless of what is seen as proper or correct.

Brynner’s Chris is easily the most honorable of all the characters in this guide. As a gunfighter, he is stoic and level-headed, his gaze direct and detached from beneath his black cowboy hat. Interestingly enough, Brynner’s all black get-up calls to mind the seemingly identical ensemble he sports in 1971’s Westworld. In The Magnificent Seven, Brynner is your quintessential gunslinger and his performance helped to define that archetype in cinema. His confidence and capability is something we lean on towards the end of the film.

The Magnificent Seven is often considered to be one of the greatest Westerns ever made and is clearly the blueprint for dozens of films that came after it. Its influence on the genre is indisputable and Yul Brynner’s performance as the quintessential gunslinger helped to define that archetype in cinema.

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The films of Yul Brynner have endured in our minds for decades, solidifying him as one of Hollywood’s most popular and lauded stars. Whether he was playing foreign leaders or antiheros, Brynner brought a sense of gravitas to all his roles, leaning on his theatricality and physical prowess. Not only does Yul Brynner have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, there is even a statue of him in Yul Brynner Park in his birthplace of Vladivostok. Though he is best known for his work in The King and I, Brynner’s filmography is decorated with a wide range of roles. Not only do these three select performances define Brynner’s career, they also serve as defining moments in American cinema.

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