Director Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music for 20th Century Fox is an opulent and lavish production. The 1965 movie musical, written by Ernest Lehman, is melodic and cinematic. At the start of its nearly three hours, with sweeping aerial photography in famous opening shots, it falls and centers upon a solitary figure in harmony with nature.
The movie, adapted from the Broadway stage production, is Maria’s story. Portrayed by Julie Andrews with plain, plucky charm and a beautiful singing voice, Maria Rainer gives a singular voice to Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein’s music and lyrics, which contrast the plot’s looming conflict.
“Salzburg, Austria in the last golden days of the 1930s” is how Oscar’s Best Picture winner for 1965 describes the unnamed Nazi prelude in subtitle, eerily agnostic on a fascist takeover of Austria. The young, freethinking novitiate nun exudes wholeness with the world just as the world constricts around her. The picture moves from extreme exteriors to extreme interiors as the music stops. It is replaced with the sound of a whistle, blown by a single father, Captain George von Trapp (gallant Christopher Plummer) who substitutes shows of discipline for expressions of love when parenting his motherless children.
Enter headstrong Maria, on assignment as a governess from a mother superior at the abbey. Maria is the captain’s equal and she acts in defiance of the master of the house.
After an initiation, the film’s first matter for parental guidance and governance is emergent sexual tension displayed in a charming rain dance between the older child, Liesl (Charmian Carr), and her suitor, Rolf (Daniel Truhitte), which dovetails with the main plot conflict, even as the song’s lyrics are a recipe for lifelong mental health therapy (“Sixteen Going on Seventeen”). This colorful movie was made, to paraphrase the film, in the last days of Hollywood’s golden age, before scripts turned dark and malevolent, before casting scorned the wholesome and good-looking and before the culture widely went bankrupt.
The story of an independent Catholic girl and the stern widower with whom she falls in love juxtaposes with Nazi Germany, and, as with other pre-Nazi depictions such as The Mortal Storm (1940) and Arise, My Love (1944), combines enchantment with impending doom. As much as The Sound of Music is both an artistic and commercial success, and it is solidly both, it is in retrospect easier to see how it endures primarily as a piece of fondly remembered musical cheer involving a governess skipping and singing in the Alps.
In fact, screenwriter Ernest Lehman originally recruited director William Wyler (Roman Holiday, The Big Country, Funny Girl) a German-born artist who sought to enunciate the anti-totalitarian theme, when Lehman’s West Side Story director, Robert Wise, was otherwise engaged. Wyler scouted locations and eventually exited over creative differences, saying “I just can’t bear to make a picture about all those nice Nazis.”
The Sound of Music does have a Nazi problem. The movie, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, minimizes moral judgment of fascism. First, the baroness character (Eleanor Parker) and her friend, Max (Richard Haydn), explicitly appease the Nazis. In Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s original play, this is the reason the captain breaks up with the Viennese aristocrat, and the play’s songs underscore the plot point. The tunes are cut for the film. Here, the Nazi sympathizer is benign, offering a mea culpa after scheming against Maria. Worse, the baroness is the voice of egoism, urging the captain: “Do try to love yourself.” Second, the film’s voice of reason opposing the Nazis, the captain, enacts Christian forgiveness for a Nazi—worse, a Nazi that hunts his family. Third, while the captain forgives, the Nazi rejects the act of Christianity, endangering the entire family. The captain’s presumably deadly mistake is never addressed, let alone repudiated, by the movie, which ends with Von Trapp’s family fleeing into the mountains. The upshot: the only real conflict in The Sound of Music (after Maria’s wedding to the captain) is left essentially unresolved; an existential, universal evil goes fundamentally unchallenged.
This is disturbing for several reasons. It means that escaping evil is possible without naming, confronting and ending what makes it evil, the opposite of the plot-theme of Casablanca. The Nazis are outsmarted, as against denounced, in The Sound of Music. By contrast, consider Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), which is unforgiving of National Socialism, released in the same era. The Sound of Music conveys that Nazis may be bad, but it implies that Nazis may also deserve forgiveness—and that cooperating, cavorting and conspiring with Nazis is morally defensible (it is not). One might say that this movie is a musical, not a drama like those other films, and it’s a different genre. But this makes the point more pointed; taken as a whole, The Sound of Music‘s theme is that music matters only as an aesthetic salve or temporary diversion; it has nothing to do with real life, let alone high ideals. The opposite, as masterfully depicted in Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and South Pacific, both of which name, confront and defeat evil, and do so with music, is true.
The muddled morality is contradicted by the poetic and ingenious words and music in The Sound of Music.
“My Favorite Things” celebrates finding the good, which Maria later does after being rejected by the captain. “Do-Re-Mi” teaches a lesson in music to the children as they hop and frolic in nature and relish in the manmade, such as bicycles and a carriage, to a tune which imparts hierarchical knowledge as they experience the world for the first time. Music is crucially meaningful, not temporarily beneficial, in The Sound of Music. By the end of the first hour, the captain is at last in harmony with his children, reprising the title tune and infusing its initial theme of solitude with solidarity, as he reawakens to the value of family, his family, does his own mea culpa, and pleads with Maria, whom he has fired, to stay on. The yodeling song cements this bond, with “Edelweiss” performed with solemnity as the children explicitly choose to embrace their father’s seriousness one by one, displaying both loyalty and ability to their tutor, Maria.
The Austrian folk dance between the captain and Maria is beautifully framed, shot and choreographed as it expresses the movie’s playful, romantic sense of life—he tells her: “I’m sure you’ll make a very fine nun”—before the baroness desecrates what’s holy in the secular, sexual sense between man and woman just before intermission. The last shot of Maria exiting the Von Trapps’ manor mirrors her earlier entrance into the captain’s home. As the poster art suggests, the music is lilting, light and cheerful, countering the harsh, dark and funereal sensibility of the swastika and its philosophy. The Sound of Music is as striking and enduring as it is in expressing gaiety because, and only because, it contrasts with the heavy, serious political theme. This is elementary in each design detail of every scene.
Maria’s story is framed as her search for meaning in life, through an affiliation with the Catholic Church. As in The Painted Veil, the Church’s maternal nun figure (Peggy Wood) possesses an enlightened view of Catholicism. “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” is a song of life lived in the moment, here on earth, whatever its ecclesiastical implications. The reverend mother all but advises Maria to fight for a man, fight for love and fight for herself. It is a song of self-assertion. The Sound of Music is a Cinderella story—the tale of a prince and a country girl, an aristocrat and his servant—pitting baroness against governess. While the baroness seeks the worst of man and turns the other cheek, away from her knowledge of the captain’s true love and from the Nazis, the governess seeks the best of man and refuses not to see the truth, whether challenging the captain when she thinks he’s wrong or standing by him when she knows he’s right.
What the reverend mother has to say about this part of the plot is important, too. Hers is a comparatively secular blessing consistent with the movie’s heroic nuns who act to physically stop the Nazis. Suggesting that Maria should actively look to her own life as the standard of value, she asks: “And have you?” Maria’s contemplative, absolutist, and egoistic, answer—”I think I have. I know I have.”—precedes her wedding, reprising the nuns’ song about solving “a problem like Maria”, who is neither a will of a wisp nor a clown. Wedding bells ring, transitioning to a bell ringing as the agents of total government control march into Austria, with affable appeaser Max imploring the captain that “the thing to do these days is to get along with everybody” before the captain rips the Nazi flag and the family takes refuge behind gravestones at the mercy of a nun who is foremost kind old woman.
Julie Andrews as would-be Sister Maria deserves singing credit, of course, though the film’s success owes equally to its commanding hero, portrayed by sunburnt, daring and handsome Christopher Plummer, who plays Captain Von Trapp as what today’s intellectuals might call an “extremist” for liberty and individualism. After all, he thinks forbidden thoughts and abandons his country and his vast property for an act on principle: a life for his family in liberty, not tyranny. The sound of music is, in this sense, subservient to the reality of philosophy.
Fifty years later, most remember only the music.
The Sound of Music is popular, I suspect, because it is close to sublime but also because it is mixed, romanticizing religion and minimizing Nazi Germany, pushing audiences not to think seriously about philosophy, while elevating the good. Like Life is Beautiful (1997), as against Bob Fosse’s dark, decadent Cabaret (1972), this light, entertaining and partially serious musical epic featuring wonderful songs of life commits a small yet crucial error in its depiction of goodness; it portrays the good and the innocent as merely separate from, rather than superior to, the evil and the monstrous.
That the hills are alive, to borrow the title song’s iconic line, is contingent upon whether one is free to live. As much as there is to enjoy in The Sound of Music‘s melodious splendor—and the movie musical is spectacular—in what amounts to a wholesome family’s secular triumph, it mitigates an essential moral contrast and condemnation, leaving me pondering whether William Wyler’s more serious version might have made something good even better.