50 Years Later: The Sound of Music’s Unrecognized Greatness
It’s one of the most successful musicals of all time, so why does being a Sound of Music fan sometimes feel so lonely?
In a randomly-selected group, it probably wouldn’t. Whenever Sound of Music reappears in the zeitgeist, thanks to Carrie Underwood or Lady Gaga, it goes viral, and not all of that buzz can be ironic. But among people who write and think about movies, this particular Rodgers & Hammerstein classic isn’t often written or thought about. You’ll hear joking references to the songs, and thirty-somethings may brag about how much they disliked it when they saw it in middle school, but there are few serious, sustained treatments of it either positive or negative. Roger Ebert claimed that he never even saw it.
Christopher Plummer, Captain von Trapp himself, has not helped. He’s often been catty about the movie, at worst dismissive and at best slightly baffled that so many people like it. But Plummer’s opinions didn’t take shape in a vacuum. He’s of the same generation as Richard Burton, Richard Harris, and Laurence Harvey: Angry Young Men who, if they still spoke in the Received Pronunciation of their fathers, did so to better articulate their rage. When the British thespians of this vintage weren’t reveling in the tragedies of Shakespeare, they wanted nothing more than to sink their teeth into opuses of domestic discontent. They were born to critique the current, not to eulogize the past, and even though The Sound of Music is not all raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, it is easy to understand why it was not Plummer’s idea of an important role.
And yet it was an important role, and far too important a movie to blithely ignore. It was the first movie to surpass Gone with the Wind‘s 26-year record for unadjusted box office revenue, and it held the top position until it was supplanted in 1971 by—Gone With the Wind, in its third re-release. It still sits at #3 on the all-time domestic gross list adjusted for inflation. When Sound of Music came out as a movie, Richard Rodgers was already an EGOT – the first and for a long time only person to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony, but it won five Oscars from 10 nominations at the 38th Academy Awards and helped to cement his legacy. The stage version of the show had already added an extra Tony and Grammy to his case. Oscar Hammerstein, Rodgers’s lyricist on Oklahoma!, South Pacific, The King and I, and other hit musicals, passed away before he could share in the success of their last show.
But Sound of Music isn’t just wildly successful. It’s also a great story smartly written, powerfully performed, and beautifully depicted. It is a culmination of weighty themes at the apex of a consistent body of work. In South Pacific and The King and I, Rodgers and Hammerstein and their film adapters had brought detailed reality to highly particular historical settings: Siam at the high tide of western imperialism and the brink of modernization; island Asia during wartime as the old powers moved out and the Americans moved in. The people in these worlds were just as colorful, and their romances were willfully, wonderfully mismatched. If Anna Leonowens’s story, which is the foundation for The King and I, has been accused of a certain amount of condescending ethnocentrism, the same cannot easily be said of James Michener’s Pulitzer-winning field observations on race and identity that provide the basis for South Pacific.
For me, Sound of Music‘s world and romance are even more smartly-chosen and even more fully realized. Name another movie about the Anschluss, Germany’s bloodless takeover of Austria in 1938. Most World War II stories up to that time, and most since, took place during the war, not before it, and took the Nazi control of Europe as a given. Naturally, most of the ones made by American production companies adopted an American point of view. It needs hardly be said that most of them starred male, WASPish protagonists. Sound of Music was different in every way. It was the story of Maria (Julie Andrews), a Catholic Austrian woman (with a British accent, granted) who found herself pitted against the Nazis during their ascendancy. To survey the situation in Europe in 1938 must have been like looking up at a mountain. The final shot of Sound of Music is famously fictionalized—the real von Trapps did not climb over the Alps to escape—but I think it suggests emotional truths. To become a refugee, to leave one’s home forever, is an uncommonly daunting and heroic kind of journey.
That closing shot serves as a neat bookend to the famous opening shot, a slow aerial zoom over a serene town, clear lake, and green hillside. Maria is a mature leader of a large flock at the end of the movie, but at the outset she is the inverse: youthful, alone, and wayward, as the nuns at her convent remind her and each other. Like many heroes on many journeys before and since, Maria receives guidance from a wise elder who sees in her failure to conform not a lack of character, but a different and powerful kind of character.
It is easy to forget that the next part of the film, a pretty montage of Salzburg sights and streetcars set to the rousing “I Have Confidence,” was not in the original play, but it was written by Rodgers especially for the screen adaptation. The on-location shooting is a highlight of Robert Wise‘s direction and Ted McCord’s cinematography, especially these glimpses of urban life, which are more difficult to capture than the rural Hawai’ian backdrops of South Pacific. Much later in the movie, building facades are draped in the Swastika flag, but Wise allows us to revel in the idea of old Austria before bringing to the fore the politics that threaten to wipe it away.
Politics exist throughout the Ernest Lehman’s script, but for most of the duration they are subtly coded and play out on the small scale, in the von Trapp family villa. The Captain keeps his official duties, and his love life, separate from his home life or just on the edge of it, on the veranda where his fiancee and friend Max talk coyly about the news of the day. Neither of these worldly characters spends much time under the roof of the home, which is the realm of Maria and the children, but politics do creep in in creative and critical ways. The oldest daughter, Liesl, has a beau who finds the Nazis appealing. The Captain, in the film’s emotional turning point, sings “Edelweiss,” a traditional song that represents what he feels about Austria—and reveals that he does feel. Plummer reportedly darkened and intensified the Captain’s personality beyond what was written, and the commensurate softening he achieves in the “Edelweiss” scene shows the wisdom of the casting. Among Plummer’s British New Wave peers, perhaps only Peter O’Toole also would have had the range needed to make the Captain’s arc believable.
The yodeling song, “The Lonely Goatherd,” uses marionettes to mirror Maria and the Captain’s evolving relationship. The goatherd could represent Maria, since he begins his performance on a hill and catches the attention of a stern prince not unlike the Captain. He could also represent the Captain, as wins the favor of a lady who is nudged on by her mother just as Maria is encouraged by her abbess. The puppet show also works as another nod to the film’s setting. Comedian John Hodgman, an avowed fan of the movie and (in my mind) arbiter of all things good in culture, has observed that the marionettes have an eerie, Old World look (“haunted devil things” were his exact words.) They aren’t exactly the Krampus, but they do look unmistakably antique and European. The Sound of Music is largely Anglicized, particularly in its casting, but it finds room for continental touches on occasion.
Another movie could be made about the real Trapp Family Singers, their concert tours, their lives in the United States; Sound of Music takes them only up to the eve of war, changing the chronology of their formation and curtailing the scope of their career to better sync with the story’s historical beats. This is not a documentary or a work of gritty realism or a signpost on the road to the New American Cinema that would transform Hollywood within five years. It is a costume drama, a period romance, a home-front war movie, a smash musical, and an exceedingly great classic film—one of the very last and very best of the old school. The American Film Institute recognized it on both of its lists of the 100 best American films, initially placing it at 55 before raising it 15 places to a spot in the top half of the prestigious roster.
The Sound of Music needs no defense. It is loved and respected. It deserves, though, more consideration than cinephiles seem to give it. I love it more on each viewing.
The Sound of Music vs. Mrs. Miniver
Another Best Picture-winning home front film with a non-American female lead, Mrs. Miniver is fun and effective propaganda. Downton Abbey “borrowed” one of the movie’s subplots during its first season. Sound of Music wins the matchup, but if you haven’t seen Mrs. Miniver, do.
The Sound of Music vs. South Pacific
South Pacific reminds me of my time in Asia, where you still meet expatriates from all over the world, some of whom would admit, even though the idea is politically incorrect, that they are entranced by the exoticism and mystery of the Orient. I appreciate a lot of what this musical does visually and narratively, but Sound of Music‘s achievements surpass it.
The Sound of Music vs. The King and I
It should be no surprise by now that I’m voting for The Sound of Music, which is at number 5 on my Flickchart, but I also enjoy The King and I quite a bit. Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr are two of classic cinema’s greatest badasses. Their dynamic is not unlike the Captain and Maria’s, if you can get past some cringe-inducing ethnocentrism.