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Friday Five: 5 (More) Fantastic Fictions with a Female Focus

Film 101: The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965)

Sound of MusicFilm # 2: The Sound of Music

Have I seen it before? Yes, I saw about half when I was 12. I must have seen the rest at some point, because I remembered bits of the ending.

Method of viewing: Home, DVD. We had pork loin medallions for dinner while we watched; they were delicious.

What happens: (Spoilers) An enthusiastic novice nun gets landed as a governess for seven wild children, the progeny of a severe and distant WWI hero who’s never been the same since his wife died (presumably of exhaustion). Maria the novice flagrantly ignores all Captain von Trapp’s rules and teaches the children how to have fun and, most importantly, sing. Despite being in the middle of a low-key wooing (of the Baroness, a rich Viennese woman who really deserves better), von Trapp falls in love with Maria. The Baroness, who wants none of this shit, (and who apparently has noticed that the camera switches to soft focus whenever Maria and von Trapp share a scene) confronts Maria about her feelings for von Trapp. Maria freaks out and runs back to the convent, where she’s reprimanded for her cowardice and made to return to the von Trapp family mansion and face her fears. It takes von Trapp approximately two hours after Maria's return to dump the Baroness (to whom he became engaged only the evening before) and declare himself to Maria. The two marry, the end. 

Hah, not quite. There’s still half an hour left of this nearly nine million year long film, so a secondary plot kicks in: the Nazis annex Austria (where the movie takes place) and insist that von Trapp (remember: war hero) go command the Nazi navy, or something. The von Trapp family uses a singing competition as cover to flee Austria, and the film (finally) ends with the nine singing as they hike over the Alps to, presumably, Switzerland and freedom. Climb ev’ry mountain! (/spoilers)

The film is unmistakably Julie Andrews’ and she is wonderful, a sparkling presence who enlivens every scene she’s in. And, this being a stagey musical adaptation from the sixties, it needs some enlivening. Depressingly, her character is effectively neutered the moment she starts to fall for von Trapp – 1965, after all, being a time when ‘falling in love’ was conveyed on screen by having characters moon about and stare meaningfully into each other’s eyes (always in soft-focus). If I sound bitter that’s because I am; Maria deserves better. And it goes without saying that the film’s very heavy-handed implication that von Trapp falls for her in part because she reminds him of his dead wife is, well, creepy. Christopher Plummer does his best with the roll; the few times he’s allowed to show some spark of wit or humor serve to save an otherwise boring - and occasionally unlikable - character.

The Baronesss is an interesting character too, and well played (considering she’s written as the losing third of a boring love triangle). The character’s subtext is fascinating – she’s a wealthy, cultured, beautiful older widow who wants to remarry not necessarily for love, but for companionship; marrying a rich man means her fortune’s safe and marrying an interesting man mean’s she won’t get bored. All perfectly reasonable! So the film has to make her Obviously Wrong for von Trapp (who, around her, is suave and funny and interesting – as opposed to when he’s around Maria, where he’s either grouchy or Staring Meaningfully). How is ‘wrongness’ conveyed? The Baroness makes cracks about sending the kids to boarding school! She can’t play ball with them! They hate her! It’s awful, depressing writing and it makes me mad, so we’ll move on.

(I've never seen the stage production, but a few minutes on Wikipedia taught me that the Baroness' character was changed for the screen adaptation to be more active in trying to keep Maria and von Trapp apart.)

There’s another romantic subplot – von Trapp’s eldest daughter, Liesel, likes the telegram boy, Rolf! He winds up allying himself with the Nazis and betraying them, which is what you get when you squeal ‘weeeee!’ in the rain after being kissed. Seriously, you guys. The sixties! (Wikipedia, hilariously, describes this scene thusly: 'They kiss, and he runs off, leaving her screaming with joy.')

Speaking of the sixties: the film makes exactly no effort at historical accuracy in terms of costume, which is so distracting.


This is not how people dressed in 1938.

Overall: As I said, Julie Andrews is wonderful; 100% the best thing about the film. I expect I might feel differently if I‘d grown up watching it, but I didn’t. Reading up on the film has been fun, however; Pauline Kael possibly got fired from McCall's because she was so mean about the film in her review. The entire review is worth reading (here) but I've extracted my favorite part for your enjoyment:

'Whom could this operetta offend? Only those of us who, despite the fact that we may respond, loathe being manipulated in this way and are aware of how cheap and ready-made are the responses we are made to feel. We may become even more aware of the way we have been turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs.'

Hookers, Victims & Doormats: Maria gets the doormat treatment the moment she marries von Trapp, and Liesel is definitely a victim. But Maria before marriage is wonderful – interesting, funny, warm and surprising – and the Baroness never actually becomes an outright villain. And the nuns are similarly interesting characters, so I can only really complain about Maria’s after-marriage characterization. Well, and Liesel. Who is such a wet blanket.