FILM MARATHON: Movie Musicals #13: The Sound of Music [1965]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: G | Runtime: 174 minutes | Release Date: March 2nd, 1965 (USA)
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Director(s): Robert Wise
Writer(s): Ernest Lehman / Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse (stage musical book) /
Maria von Trapp (book The Story of the Trapp Family Singers)

“They were strawberries! It’s been so cold lately they turned blue!”

My enjoyment of Oscar-winning musical The Sound of Music can best be described as the product of subjective expectation. I finally saw it around the age of twelve or thirteen after hearing of its greatness for years only to be left staring at the television with a quizzical look that said, “That’s it?” Despite the music’s appeal—Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II‘s final collaboration with the latter passing away nine months following its Broadway debut—it seemed to add up to an overlong story about the thawing of a military father who lost the capacity to love. I honestly don’t remember Nazis playing a role at all, but perhaps that’s merely the memory of indifference and youth caring little about anything but “Do-Re-Mi” and “My Favorite Things”. Two decades removed, however, I see things clearer.

That’s not to say I now believe Robert Wise‘s film is a masterpiece—only that I accept the almost universal appeal it’s earned through the years. Wise himself originally passed on the piece calling it “too saccharine” before William Wyler was brought in for pre-production by enlisting star Julie Andrews while she filmed Mary Poppins and to scouting locations with the Maria von Trapp (young Louisa depicts her in the film). Wyler eventually left to shoot The Collector instead and Wise came back to earn an Oscar for Best Director. Was it the original play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse that he thought too sugary sweet? Perhaps Ernest Lehman‘s screenplay changed his mind? I have no idea. I do wonder, though, because while the film possesses its fair share of optimism, there was definitely room for more.

What struck me this second viewing was how unclichéd its clichés were handled. I’m going to forego spoiler warnings considering the film is almost half a century old to explain what I mean. The young woman at the center—Andrews’ Maria—is an adult orphan residing within an Austrian convent who’s ready to willingly give herself over to God. Obviously far from nun material with her penchant for singing, tardiness, and the many pleasures our world has to offer outside the sanctuary’s walls, however, Mother Abbess (Peggy Wood) helpfully pushes Maria out the door rather than stereotypically show the church as a stern disciplinarian. These nuns see Maria’s unhappiness and explain to her how her love for God doesn’t have to evaporate if she were to leave. When have the Catholics ever shown such leniency and level-mindedness?

A second instance comes at a rather crucial point to what becomes a love triangle after Maria is sent to the von Trapp family residence to governess its retired naval Captain patriarch’s (Christopher Plummer) seven children. Her compassion and empathy towards raising kids is in stark contrast with the Captain’s militaristic sense of discipline with whistle calls and marching orders in lieu of playtime, but a sojourn to Vienna to scoop up his potential fiancé the Baroness (Eleanor Parker) and friend Max (Richard Haydn) allows Maria the freedom to open the house back up to the music and laughter that has been absent since Mrs. von Trapp passed. It only takes one glimpse of his children upon return to remember what love is and accordingly begin to see Maria in a new, romantic light.

As a result the Baroness (whose motives towards the Captain are always presented as more aligned to convenience and social standing than true love per se) carefully plants the seed of indiscretion in Maria’s mind to guilt her into going back to God. It’s a conniving maneuver that puts her directly into the line of fire as the children—who finally found someone they didn’t have to berate and annoy (they burned through twelve governesses before Maria stuck)—were back on the prowl for their father’s attention through mischief. A huge blow-up is therefore set once Maria returns with love in her heart, but the Baroness tearfully concedes victory with head held high instead of showing her claws in a raucous exit. It’s a brilliantly written and performed moment of surprising selflessness.

The real kicker, however, comes at the film’s end when the boy (Daniel Truhitte‘s Rolfe) earmarked to be eldest daughter Liesl’s (Charmian Carr) love finds himself at a crossroads of loyalty. By this point the often alluded to looming advancement of Nazi Germany into Austria is complete and Rolfe the telegram carrier has evolved into Third Reich Rolfe. Had The Sound of Music been made today—based on true story or not (I’ve read this iteration is far from reality anyway)—Rolfe would have put down his gun aimed at the von Trapp family during their escape to Switzerland, declared his love for Liesl, tore off his swastika, and joined them for a happily ever after. Instead he chooses the uniform and respect of Hitler over the girl whose love was sealed with a kiss months earlier.

There are stakes where a fluff musical from today would probably have none. There’s love, family, survival, and war with bittersweet moments often erring on the side of authenticity rather than clever prose. And for that I applaud the film. My kind words may in fact be aimed at Lindsay and Crouse for writing the stage book, but I’ve never seen it to compare and contrast where their story ends and Lehman’s begins. I have to believe the film adds something more, though, if only because it was shot on location in Austria for us to see the hills Andrews’ sings about and the struggle for nationalism Plummer’s heartfelt rendition of “Edelweiss” provides (dubbed by Bill Lee). The locale becomes a character with its old buildings and greenery to which the theatre simply cannot compare.

Not without issues (I wonder if Carr’s Liesl is played with too much naïve juvenility since she appears younger than her siblings at times), I have to admit I was rarely bored by its length or tone. The marionette sequence (although enjoyable) could have been excised and the wedding of the Captain and Maria does play like a conclusion before shifting to even more awaiting drama, but I can look past these quibbles. I was humming some of the tunes afterwards and recalling the wonderfully composed and choreographed dance between Carr and Truhitte while singing “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” with a smile—there really are some beautiful moments throughout. Is it the best musical I’ve seen or one I’d like to revisit in the near future? No. But it may be worth its accolades after all.

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