“The Sound of Music, one of the most viewed films of all times, is made in a big fashion. Those viewers who were fascinated by the Cinderella story, which included nuns, children, Nazis and Julie Andrews, were literally stunned (there were all of the four sufficiently), and they had to watch the film two or three times until they could settle down and go back to the safety of their normal lives.” (Ethan Mordden)
The Sound of Music (1965) is one of the most popular films ever made and has gained quite a reputation with an intense cult following. Back in the day, it was indeed a huge economical success and even won five Oscars. But, what is more, in the course of time, the film has aged very well and newer generations seem to have taken it to their hearts as well. However, not surprisingly while discussing a big hit like this, the film has faced a lot of criticism. Although, it is no masterpiece The Sound of Music is an intriguing film from a historical and cinematic perspective. The colours and landscape pans of Austria are gorgeous but beneath the nostalgic shell one can find several themes that will fascinate even a demanding viewer. Moreover, its setting is so absurd that it takes time to realize how absurd it actually is: during the years of the rising of the German national socialists; a jolly governess and a group of spoiled brats spend their time singing in the Alps.
The initial position of the film is, of course, horrible. But it must be accepted in order to get forward. It would be too easy to reject the film for the artificially cheery songs, too cute children and an idealistic bourgeois who bravely resists the Nazis. To top it all, the Nazis don’t sing because they are determined to lose. This idea can be associated with the philosophy of musical — searching for the meaning of life in the form of song. Nonetheless, one should keep in mind that for some people horror movies are difficult to watch because of their amount of gore and violence but, in turn, musicals are difficult for some viewers because of their amount of cheerful songs and light-hearted surface. In any case, one should try to break the ice and look behind the veil of the external image.
The film begins with wonderful landscape shots which set the spectator’s mind into a romantic tone. At last the camera reaches a woman (Julie Andrews) who sings the title song on a mountain. The opening credits start and images of Austrian architecture are shown to the viewer. Soon the viewer learns that the woman is Maria, who is cheery and dashing in every way but too blunt and inpatient to become a nun. She rather spends her time singing on the mountains than following the rules of the convent. Therefore, the abbess sends her as a governess to the family of von Trapp.
The father of the family (Christopher Plummer) is very strict and maintains order and discipline in the household. The mother has died and the father is always away, due to which the children lack attention and, therefore try to get it by teasing the governess. However, Maria’s arrival and her positive attitude change their behaviour. In the end, even the father softens. Soon, Maria and Georg (the father) begin to fall in love. But, unfortunately, Georg has already arranged a marriage with him and a baroness. After a few adversities the baroness gives in and Georg confesses his love to Maria, and they get married. Suddenly, Germany’s grip on Austria tightens and Georg should sign up to the army. To avoid this, the family decides to run away and, in the final image, they climb over the mountains to freedom in Switzerland.
The historical background of the story can be found from the late 1930’s. Already in 1932 the NSDAP had won the election and, a year later, Adolf Hitler received the powers of a dictator. In 1935 he took the civil rights away from the Jews and started to gather troops. In the following year, he slowly began to conquer the tribal nations of Germany: first he re-militarized Rhineland. Two years later he attached Sudetenland of Czech to Germany and then it was time for Austria. The west did nothing with its appeasement politics. This is the time The Sound of Music focuses on. However, it doesn’t attack on the reluctance of other nations’ to help but quite well portrays the growing fear in Europe; the beginning of horror to which one can only answer with a song.
Robert Wise, the director, who had already tried his skills in film-noir (Born to Kill, 1947), science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951) and musical (West Side Story, 1961) succeed very well in humanizing this unpleasant topic; which is, as a matter of fact, a lot when discussing a massive production like The Sound of Music. However, beneath the superficial surface many themes from politics to history; moral to love; and from the nature of reality to happiness can be found.
Already in the 1950-60’s Broadway musicals had brushed traditional “written directly to the screen musicals” aside. Most of these were empty and unimportant films, with only a few exceptions. The Sound of Music continued this trend but was the finest achievement of it while, at the same, put an end to it all. Between the years from Singin’ in the Rain (1952) to Cabaret (1972), The Sound of Music was the only good American musical. Surely many musicals of the time included nice songs and cute plots but anything cinematic they didn’t have to offer.
A film critic Geoff Andrew has highlighted how Nazism has been perceived in a more captivating manner in The Sound of Music, than in Cabaret which is often celebrated for its depiction of the gloomy morale of the time. The political aspect of The Sound of Music depicts the historical conditions of the rising of the Nazis in a consistent manner. In fact, Robert Wise found great cinematic counterparts to reflect a certain form of evil in the language of film; for, all this doesn’t feel banal because the series of events that lead to the rise of Nazism have been relayed to the viewer concretely. And, in reality, the corny songs are talented resistance.
For the radical left-wing, which rose up in the 1960’s, the film was of course too much. Too much merriment and joy. But in a historical sense the film was also about a new form of information sharing: to give knowledge of Nazism, the backgrounds of WWII and what had been won over, for the new generation. So the question remains: Is this propaganda? Perhaps. Is it bad propaganda? No chance.
At its heart, the film is a story about an individual who attempts to bring freedom to an authoritarian world. It condemns totalitarianism and violence and praises peace and individuality. Maria, of course, as a free spirited wild child represents the latter. God appears to her in the beauty of nature. She arrives to a new strict world when she enters the mansion. Even its architecture seems to represent high social status and hierarchy. But Maria fights back. In fact, The Sound of Music could be seen as a battle; the battle between reason and emotion. For, Georg is very rational where Maria, on the other hand, constantly relies on intuition and sensibility. Moreover, Georg is experienced and Maria innocent with regards to sexuality. The bike and rowing trips with the children are an essential part of nature’s dramaturgy and, therefore epitomize Maria’s consciousness where, in turn, the architecture of the mansion does Georg’s.
Above all, however the film is a growth story about: Maria’s maturation and Georg’s recovery — the strict severity caused by the wife’s death softens. So, in other words, emotion and reason collide and complete each other. In addition to Maria and Georg, this confrontation of reason and emotion is also highlighted by the presence of Germany (the tyranny) and Austria (the dear homeland); but also by reality and the unreality of musical; the latter offers sentimental chaos for the sterile order of the former, which is characterized by the gloomy morale of the national socialists.
As a matter of fact, towards this historical context, the criticism of the viewers was most strongly aimed at. Many saw the theme of Nazism quite useless and unimportant for the time. “Where’s Vietnam,” so to speak. This is a common critic many American films received in the 1960’s but the fact those people seem to have neglected is the allegorical approach to war. For even if the first American war films on Vietnam were made in the 1970’s, other genres touched the topic through allegorical stories — western being the most famous: The Wild Bunch (1969), The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966) and The Great Silence (1968).
In 1964 the Vietnam war had begun and a year later the States started the severe bombing and this most likely accelerated the theme of Nazism in the film. Many of the film’s moments and themes can actually be located into the context of Vietnam or any other war, which reinforces its allegorical nature. No matter whether it is intended or not, for each historical film is, unintentionally or intentionally, a reflection of two ages. One example is the wistful waltz Edelweiss, sung by Plummer, which tells about love for the father’s land and resistance to the Nazi tyranny. Let alone the film’s aesthetics of national romanticism. In addition, on a widely associative note, the film portrays a classical battle between good and evil; and deals with an important theme which exceeds the limits of all wars, nations and ages.: the pursuit of happiness in difficult circumstances.
However, all this is relayed to the viewer in an impressive fashion with strong architectonic vision. A film historian Peter von Bagh has written that Wise “turns verbal poetry into visual images” which quite well summarizes the visuals of The Sound of Music. Wise indeed analyzes the space brilliantly and enhances the nature of the milieu — the songs as only a natural part of it all. Unlike in many other musicals, they are no longer detrimental for the film. Few examples shall be mentioned of Wise’s talented direction: 1) The montage of dolls and facial expressions in the puppet show scene. 2) How choreography is used to accompany the Austrian-romantic architecture. 3) The wedding ceremony’s grandiose filming and how the breakaway from its grip truly can be felt. Last but not least, 4) the structure of the space is nearly perfect in the pavilion scene where Georg and Maria confess their love: the extreme expression of depth which is reinforced by the contrasts and windows; the beautiful silhouettes of the characters; the column-like shapes and strong shadows. It is an extremely romantic image that aptly embodies the spirit of the film’s aesthetics.
The Sound of Music is not as easy as it seems to be. Even though it is often categorized as a family movie. It is an intriguing look at historical conditions and the difficulty of happiness for both, the young and the old. Above all, nature is an inspiring force in the film which partly links it to the hippie movement of the time but, moreover highlights its themes of love and eternity. Love faces obstacles but, in the end, wins over. Although, the film is artificially cheery and sweet, it does deal with many important issues; even if in a more light-hearted sense: falling in love with its problems, love for one’s homeland, and the importance of emotions. In conclusion, The Sound of Music is a film about the triumph of endurance, love and freedom over the hardship of the world.