WFTB Score: 18/20
The plot: Impetuous postulate Maria may not have what it takes to be a nun, but the Reverend Mother decides she may be an ideal governess for the seven children of widowed naval hero Captain von Trapp. Although their personalities initially clash, Maria’s free-spiritedness captivates the Captain; however, more powerful forces than their love threaten the safety of his beloved Austria.
Those of you who have come across The Sound of Music halfway through during countless Easter holidays and thought, ‘Not this again!’, get it or rent it out and pay attention to the first couple of minutes, before the orchestra begins tinkling away, let alone before Julie Andrews opens her mouth. Pay attention to the snowy peaks, the shining river flowing through green valleys, the turquoise lakes, everything that makes Maria’s heart want to sing: that, my friends, is how to open up a stage musical for the big screen.
The opening caught my attention because the remainder of Wise’s film is unavoidably familiar, not just from repeated showings but also television shows based on, and promoting, a revival in the West End of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most famous musical. I can barely imagine that anyone will not know the plot, but to flesh out the above the film follows the story of Maria (Julie Andrews), a nature-loving postulate nun in late 1930s Salzburg whose continuous lateness causes disruption within the abbey.
Thinking that she needs to see more of the world, the Reverend Mother (Peggy Wood) packs her off to the luxurious von Trapp house, where the father is often absent and the seven children – ranging from about four to sixteen in age – are getting through governesses like nobody’s business. With patience, understanding and song Maria wins the hearts of the children, and when the Captain (Christopher Plummer) returns from Vienna he is upset by the wildness of his free-running kids but bowled over by their talent for singing, as is opportunist impresario ‘uncle’ Max (Richard Haydn). The third member of the party, Baroness Schraeder (Eleanor Parker) is not so impressed, but she is concentrating on snagging the Captain as a husband – only the governess does scrub up quite well… Meantime, the Nazis are just about to declare their Anschluss, uniting Germany with Austria, a move that not only disgusts the Captain but will undoubtedly see him called into the war effort.
Each of these story strands is pretty meaty on its own (the love triangle in particular has satisfying overtones of Jane Eyre), but in a musical the story has to be secondary to the songs: and the songs are, in the main, superb, flowing and epic when the mood demands it (The Sound of Music, Climb Ev’ry Mountain), playful at other times (How do you Solve a Problem Like Maria?, So Long, Farewell), and at others still beautifully simple (Edelweiss). The songs are so familiar they may sound simplistic nowadays, but each is memorable and serves its purpose perfectly. It may be an obvious statement but The Sound of Music celebrates the sound and emotional pull of music, not only bringing the von Trapp children back to their father, but also opening out the sense of Edelweiss so that it encapsulates the situation of Austria as a country (putting the Nazis noses out of joint at the same time, which is always a good thing).
Julie Andrews is perfectly cast as Maria, not so pretty that she would look out of place in the abbey nor so plain that the Captain would overlook her; she has a good singing voice, excellent comic timing and just the right mix of hesitancy and self-assurance. Christopher Plummer barks out his orders with a gleam in his eye and makes a convincing captain, whilst Parker as the Baroness is the villain of the piece yet still elicits our sympathy when she recognises she must give way. None of the children are unbearable (though the boys are a bit annoying), Charmian Carr in particular doing a fine job as Liesl, on the brink of womanhood, even if she is clearly well into her twenties in reality.
For me, the Sixteen going on Seventeen sequence with Rolfe (Daniel Truhitte) goes on a couple of minutes too long, and the same could be said for many of the film’s early sequences, but the music is always pleasant and the views are colourful and vibrant. I would have gladly cut out twenty minutes of dancing (and the whole of Lonely Goatherd – the puppets are ugly!), but I think this is probably more due to my modern impatient tastes than any fault of the film.
The last quarter of the film, featuring the family’s flight from the Third Reich and their tense seclusion amongst the abbey’s dead, makes for an exciting climax and a vivid contrast with the sunny – and rather cosy – look of the rest of the film. It also means that The Sound of Music has it all: love, songs, scenery, danger, laughter – it even manages to fit in a small on-screen role for Marni Nixon, famous voiceover for artists such as Deborah Kerr and Audrey Hepburn in other musicals. Little wonder that it won five of its ten Oscar nominations, including Best Picture; and whilst the more jaded viewer will continue to cry ‘Not again!’ when the film next appears on television, they will still hum along in the background as a whole new generation experiences the magic of Maria for the first time.