The Sound of Music (1965)

Along with The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music is one of two movies that have sort of broken into the canon of established Christmas movies, despite containing no scenes set at Christmas. Normally, we don't review movies simply because they've become associated with the holiday, but due to the significance of these two classics, along with the sustained connections they've formed, we're making these exceptions. For the time being, these are the only two movies we're granting this honorary status: maybe we'll revisit a few others in another decade or two.

For Oz, we dedicated an entire article about the convoluted history between that and the yuletide season. I think The Sound of Music's Christmas credentials are a bit simpler, so let's get them out of the way upfront. The simplest and most straightforward holiday connection comes from the fact the song, My Favorite Things, has long been associated with Christmas and appears on numerous Christmas albums. This appears to at least date back to Julie Andrews singing it on a Christmas episode of The Garry Moore Show in 1961. Note that was before the adaptation of the Broadway musical had even been greenlit.

There are a few lyrics in the song that allude to Christmas, so it's not entirely out of left field. Regardless, TV networks eventually began broadcasting the movie during December, and it's become something of a tradition. One other notable Christmas connection before we get to the movie proper: the Trapp Family Singers recorded a Christmas album in 1953, and if you think I'm listening to anything else while I write this review, you clearly haven't been paying attention (side note to this side note: it's a good album).

Now then, let's talk about the third highest-grossing movie of all time (adjusted for inflation, of course, but I assume that should be obvious).

The Sound of Music is difficult to separate from its source material. It's quite literally an adaptation of an adaptation of a book based on a true story. The true story in question concerns the von Trapps. a family with a somewhat complicated past who became famous singers who left Austria during the Nazi occupation.

That complicated past largely concerns Maria von Trapp, the author of a book about her family. Maria had lived a fairly eventful (and not entirely easy) life, including a traumatic childhood. Despite being raised as an atheist, she found religion and entered a monastery, planning to join the order. While there, she was hired as a teacher for a local World War I hero, who she eventually married. The family gained some fame as singers, then eventually left Austria after the Nazis took power. They eventually made their way to America.

Maria eventually sold the rights to her book to a German film studio, which turned it into two movies, which in turn inspired the Broadway musical, which was adapted for the screen. And if you think anything remotely resembling reality survived all that, you need a lesson on how Hollywood functions.

But before we get to the cynical stuff, let's talk about what Hollywood does well. And, in the case of this movie, you can up that to stuff it does incredibly well. The cinematography in this movie is absolutely jaw-dropping. It's colorful, vibrant, and bright, both when shot on soundstages and on location. It's incredible to look at, even on a small screen - I can only imagine the experience in a theater.

Toss in the sound quality, too. Sure, a lot of this is artificial (they replaced Christopher Plummer's singing completely, overdubbing him with Bill Lee), but it all sounds great. I'm not the world's biggest fan of Rogers and Hammerstein, but there's no denying they were damn good at what they did, and this is arguably their best work.

As far as casting goes, everyone's good at their job, which is basically to be overshadowed by Julie Andrews. On some level, everything else here is just a backdrop for Andrews to demonstrate why she was one of the biggest stars of her generation and something of a Hollywood legend. She's compelling in the lead role, and the movie works because of her presence.

But enough praise: I promised cynicism, and I intend to deliver. Let's start with the runtime: at almost three hours, this definitely overstays its welcome. It doesn't help that nearly every song in the second act is a reprise of one from the first, a decision that waters down the emotional impact of the technique.

I also think there's a bit of a tonal imbalance between the seriousness of the subject matter and the whimsy of the movie. This is sort of a light love story told over the backdrop of World War II, and I definitely felt like the film wasn't taking some elements seriously enough.

Then there are the questions around whether any of this was ethical. Recall that the real Maria von Trapp sold the movie rights to her book to a German studio. That studio then turned around and sold the rights to Hollywood, without the von Trapps' involvement. I assume they made some money tangentially through an increased demand for the book and their music, but as far as I can tell they didn't see of cut of the movie that would go on to become what was then the highest grossing in history.

And, to be clear, they weren't particularly happy with their depiction. Facts about their family had been jostled, they'd been portrayed as something akin to royalty, and their parents had been transformed into completely different people. This mainly seems to have been a point of contention around the movie's changes to their father, who was turned into a stern, unfeeling man until Maria's innocent love of life brought him back. Turns out none of that is remotely true: the father was apparently a kindhearted, loving man who was primarily responsible for the family's pursuit of music. Maria, on the other hand, was a far more complicated figure prone to extreme reactions. It would be an oversimplification to say the movie flipped their personalities (Maria seems to have been far more complicated than that), but it would probably have been closer to the truth than what the movie presented.

Even setting that aside, there's something about the changed narrative I find extremely distasteful. The film's climax features the family narrowly escaping the Nazis, eventually traveling by foot over the mountains to freedom. Again, that's all fiction: they left by train, openly, without pursuit. The reason this bothers me is that it takes an experience common to marginalized groups and applies it to relatively wealthy, white characters whose real-life counterparts were privileged enough to avoid that kind of danger.

To be clear, I'm not laying any of this at the feet of the von Trapps. There's nothing wrong with using privilege to stay safe, and they certainly never asked for any of these embellishments. But the decision to claim otherwise in the musical and film undermines the disparity between the protections afforded to wealthy, white families and the dangers endured by others.

Since I'm complaining about issues coming over from the stage musical, I should also credit some story choices I like. Two characters, Max and the Baroness, are introduced as sort of ambiguously evil figures. The Baroness in particular is more or less the musical's primary antagonist for the first act and a half: she's manipulative, merciless, and seemingly cruel. But by the end of the movie, both of these characters are essentially redeemed. More than that, they're redeemed in a way that feels like an extension of their existing humanity, rather than a sort of last-minute epiphany. They're people with hearts, unlike, say the Nazis, who are largely brainwashed into obedience. We see this, as well, through a minor character who ultimately embraces fascism. I have issues with other choices made in this movie, but this feels right to me. Also, it's sadly relevant again.

I'd be lying if I said I love this movie. The truth is, Rogers and Hammerstein aren't to my tastes, and the whole thing runs longer than I'd like. But I can't deny this is an incredible spectacle, nor can I pretend Andrews is anything less than amazing here. The Sound of Music is one of the last great musical films of its era and certainly one of the most impressive ever made. It's worth seeing for context alone, but if that's not enough, the film is absolutely breathtaking.

I just wish it was a little shorter.