Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Movie Review: The Sound of Music

Directed by Robert Wise. 1965.

I had never seen The Sound of Music but I entertained a passing and unfriendly familiarity with a number of its tunes for what seems like my whole life. It seems that either in reproduction or parody one will invariably hear something of The Hills Are Alive no matter how assiduously one avoids the Rogers and Hammerstein classic. I wondered, though, what manner of musical could possibly string together such candied tunes as My Favorite Things, Maria, and Climb Every Mountain. What legitimate drama could support Sixteen Going on Seventeen? To my undiminished surprise, The Sound of Music manages to pull it all together, if only just, and pitched a little too romantic for me.

More surprising, though, is that the script pulls it off with a solid intellectual footing. I don't mean with the well known romance between Julie Andrews' pure, perky novitiate Maria and Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), the widower who runs his big Austrian family like a military brigade. That romance is all well and good, if lengthily prepared and predictably carried out in the plot, but it is the cultural context that perked my interest. It's not by itself interesting that the von Trapps live in the specter of a nascent Nazism. That political group, their era, and its crimes have been exploited on film for decades in every conceivable genre. In action movies they're acceptable automata to be remorselessly mowed down by the good guys and in dramas they're the staple spokespersons for hatred. Comedies use them as fodder for gags about mustaches and bloviating dictators. Little of this is revealing, though, but of all places who thought The Sound of Music would reveal to us something significant about evil?

J. R. R. Tolkien wrote in 1941 to his son that, "You have to understand the good in things to detect the real evil."* Instead of showing us more evil, The Sound of Music shows us the good. Yes, the frolicsome scenes of song and dance are idealized, but there is a purity and authenticity to them which seems all the more beautiful and frail a flower under the threat of the Nazi boot. We've scene the physical violence of Nazism in countless films, but precious few have shown us the cultural destruction, and fewer, if any, the violence done to the Germanic traditions subsumed into the Nazi maw. How much more crass and cruel does the violence of Nazism look when it attempts to stamp out and subvert the gentle values of its little brother. The von Trapps don't suffer terribly, but their culture of convents, the peace of their hillsides, the way they made clothes for their children, all of that is shattered.

The film's chief contrast, though, is that between the forced political organization of the Nazis and the freely flowing kindness of song which Maria brings into the family and which brings them together. She teaches the children to sing of the hills and flowers, of goatherds and the simple pleasures of life as Captain von Trapp is hounded by members of the rising Nazis to fly the party flag instead of his native Austrian colors. At a fancy gala in which Captain von Trapp entertains some visiting German dignitaries, his seven children put on a charming little musical routine which Maria taught them and by which they say good night. When the Captain commends the innocent voices of his children as what is best in the nation, a guest protests in favor of German virtues, to which the Captain replies that, "some of us prefer Austrian voices raised in song to ugly German threats."

We find a pleasing symmetry too between the political and personal, for just as Nazism is a perversion of the Germanic spirit which is foisted upon the Captain, so his own stern authoritarianism with which he governs his children is a deviation from his character. While the film wisely steers clear of further explication about the obvious politics, Captain von Trapp learned his coldness after the death of his wife. To this theme of learned autocracy, both personal and political, the theme of musical love and peace forms a counterpoint, especially von Trapp's own Edelweiss. This gentle folk dance captures the Captain's love for his now fragile fatherland, and it is also the song with which he awakens from his stern slumber and warms once more to his children, and, of course, to Maria.

So well does Edelweiss captures these themes–the fall of his homeland and the rebirth of his family–that I wish the movie ended with it as a more bittersweet note. Alas the final scene of the plucky von Trapps climbing a mountain to the tune of, you guessed it, Climb Every Mountain, is a little too hammy and chipper. I can't really begrudge the movie a hopeful ending though, and the sight of the family taking their traditions together into the future, if not in their homeland, is rewarding enough.

*To his son Michael, 9 June, 1941. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. Houghton Mifflin. 2000. p. 54

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