The Sound of Music: The Last Drop of Golden Sun

“Only grown-up men are scared of women.”
Patrick Coffin

The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music marked the culmination of creativity by the team that wrote Oklahoma!CarouselSouth Pacific, and The King and I. It also marked the end of an era. In a sense, it was released at the pre-dawn of the Sixties—not the numeric decade we call the “1960s,” but the cultural one, the Age of Aquarius, LSD, Woodstock and the Kent State shootings.

The musical was already a smash hit on Broadway and London’s West End years before director Robert Wise agreed to helm the big screen version. It was shot in 1964 on sound stages in Century City, California, and on location in and around Salzburg, Austria. The musical on which it is based was the last project by Oscar Hammerstein II who, after a career of co-writing an astounding 850 songs, died of cancer shortly after the show’s 1959 Broadway debut. His last creation was the ballad “Edelweis”.

The first half of the (numeric) 1960s was marked by relative stability and what might be called American cultural gentility. The assassination in 1963 of President John Kennedy was a world-rocking exception to the rule, providing as it did a kind of dark prophecy of the social vicissitudes that would roil the country in the decade to come.

Movie content provides a lens through which to see the shift from communitarian concord to anti-authoritarian animus—not that all traditions and authorities were respected before 1965 and not that the post-1965 world had no gentility. And by movie content I don’t just mean what the movies “are about.” I mean what they presuppose and how they were critically rewarded as artifacts of show business. Here’s a snapshot of the movies that won Academy Awards for Best Film in the

1960s, before and after The Sound of Music:

1960: The Apartment
1961: West Side Story
1962: Lawrence of Arabia
1963: Tom Jones
1964: My Fair Lady
1965: The Sound of Music
1966: Man For All Seasons
1967: The Heat of the Night
1968: Oliver!
1969: Midnight Cowboy

Four out of ten musicals got the Best Picture Oscar—unthinkable in any decade since (with the exception of Chicago, in 2002). The year 1967 saw the first mainstream softcore porn film, the made-in-Sweden-born-in-the-USA I Am Curious (Yellow) that features, incongruously enough, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. That same year, the first nude musical debuted on Broadway, Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.

The next year, 1968, saw the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, galloping protests on college campuses, the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr, and Robert Kennedy, the student uprisings in France, and the wide rejection of the ancient Christian sexual ethic (Humanae Vitae). No wonder historian Paul Johnson called it “the year of America’s suicide attempt.”

The year after that, 1969, fully nudity made its debut in Playboy. By 1972, a major Hollywood star (a certain Marlon Brando) acted out a sodomy scene in Bernardo Bertolucci’s tiresome Last Tango In Paris. The new modus operandi in Hollywood was to push hard on that envelope and to let the prudes worry about the consequences.

Looking back, The Sound of Music was, to cite one of its lyrics, a last drop of a golden sun that was about to set on an age of innocence. The year of its release marked the end of the Second Vatican Council, during which time the Catholic world (anticipated in a gauzy kind of way in the film itself) was roiled by tectonic shifts within its walls. Old certainties faded, new uncertainties brightened. The only available constant was change.

Just as the events of the film (based on the autobiography The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria von Trapp) occur during the pause prior to the Nazi Anschluss of Austria, the film itself appeared immediately prior to a different but no less ominous form of Anschluss: the cultural annexation by the tie-dyed, peace-sign waving salesmen of the sexual revolution and all its pomps and all its works, like “free” “love,” drug experimentation, sticking it to The Man—all the Dionysian excesses spawned in the second half of the 1960s.

Blissfully unaware of the cultural explosions just around the corner, The Sound of Music was not a herald of things to come, but the double-bolting of a door against an Americana of yesteryear.

In 1966, a nominal Catholic named Jack Valenti became president of the Motion Picture Association of America (M.P.A.A.) and promptly shuttered the doors of the so-called Breen Office, formerly called the Hays Production Code. The Code was essentially a list of Don’ts and Be Carefuls that oversaw Hollywood movie content from the early 1930s, devoutly backed by the Catholic Legion of Decency—the work of which, it should be noted, was lauded by Pius XI in his 1936 encyclical Vigilanti Cura. On November 1, 1968, Mr. Valenti inaugurated the MPAA Ratings system. Originally, this meant G (family fare), M, R, all the way to X, which was changed in 1990 to NC-17 (typically pornography dolled up as art).

Adjusted for inflation, The Sound of Music is the third highest box office earner in history. In adapting the stage play, director Wise exploited the fact that a camera can go places a proscenium stage can’t by framing the entire saga between two open air bookends: the sweeping mountain vistas that frame our first look at Maria (Julie Andrews) and, at the end, the family’s flight from the brown-shirted henchmen.

It’s tempting to describe Maria as the story’s main character since we meet her first and see an awful lot of her in the movie’s 174 minutes. All the posters for play and movie show a larger-than-life Maria smiling maternally before a glorious Alps backdrop. Captain Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) seems, if anything, to be the antagonist. From the first, they clash on every level, especially the musical. While the hills may be alive with the sound of her vivacious voice, at home in the valley the Captain has imposed a strict No Music zone.

The Captain, however, the one who undergoes the greatest “character arc,” and learns the most along the way, is the true hero. Maria is what mythologist Joseph Campbell would call a Catalyst Hero, one who changes the hero while remaining more or less the same. What is Maria at the end but a more mature version of herself as a postulant? Captain von Trapp, by contrast, is brought to a personal crisis and is inwardly transformed through persistent exposure to her persistent and patient service to his seven young children.

This is a film made for BluRay. Filmed in a new process of cinematography called Todd-AO 70 mm by director of photography Ted McCord, audiences can still enjoy an unusually lush, vivid movie experience. The studios weren’t nervous to make movies long enough to require an intermission—perfect, in the case of The Sound of Music, for kids’ restroom breaks.

It’s interesting. Most viewers don’t think twice about why the film (following the play) was given the title The Sound of Music. As titles go, it strikes one as a handy enough tag with which to label a story where so many characters suddenly break out into song, and that’s about it.

I argue for something deeper. What is Captain Von Trapp’s greatest external problem? What to do about the advancing Nazis. As a naval officer, and hence a warrior, he is well equipped to face the war.

But what is his greatest internal problem, and is he equally equipped to face it? It is the fact that the loss of his first wife brought it with an inability to give and receive love. The Captain is emotionally constipated, a shell of his formerly warm, evidently musical, self. He shuns real intimacy, and everyone knows it: the hausfrau, the children, Maria, and even his would-be fiancée, the Baroness Elsa Schrader (Eleanor Parker, in an under-appreciated performance).

But von Trapp doesn’t seem to know he doesn’t know. The sound of music, as it were, in his world has been replaced by the piercing seaman’s whistle; rhythm, by military marches.

The magic moment comes seconds after a furious von Trapp fires Maria after she arrives with the children donned in clothing made from the house drapes and dripping wet from falling in the lake. His fury is stopped short by a sweet a cappella chorus wafting down from the estate window. Against the Captain’s wishes, Maria has been do-ray-mee-ing with the children who sound—he must admit, despite himself—angelic to his ears.

By the time he reaches the parlour in which the children sing for the Baroness and Uncle Max (Richard Haydn), von Trapp is caught in the trap set—inadvertently?—by Maria. Finally joining his children in song, haltingly at first—and then volunteering to sing “Edelweiss” with eldest daughter Liesl (Charmian Carr)—something in the wounded heart of Georg von Trapp is mended.

At long last it, it is through the sound of music that he finds his footing enough to experience joy, to love, and to be loved by his family.

The struggle to trust happiness and to recover from the loss of a loved one are themes that are deftly treated in two other classic films: Tender Mercies (1984, directed by Bruce Beresford) starring Best Actor Academy Award winner Robert Duvall; and the sleeper In America (2001, co-written and directed by Jim Sheridan). Both of these films will be the subjects of future Cinephiles. Until next month, keep the popcorn hot.

This article was first published for Catholic World Report