This is a response to haiku’s These are a few of my favourite things.
Now I know the longsuffering Cherie will chastise me for the nastiness and JD will chastise me for the overintellectualizing but really … one must. There’ve been few pieces which have had me off the chair laughing on the floor – the piece on British Rail was one, another on Melbourne Rail was a classic, there are others – and for me anyway, this was another below:
While it’s true that there may be more important issues to be addressing today, it is also true that few days are any different, so if not today I fear I may never be able to discuss that which troubles me greatly about what went on in The Sound of Music, a film that, 42 years ago this month, was enjoying its world premier season in cinemas across America.
Widely regarded as an “outstanding family film”, a “classic for all time” and, strangely, a “musical”, The Sound of Music is indeed a fine piece of entertainment for which director Robert Wise deserved his armful of Oscars.
However, it is also a dreadful indictment on the western values of the 20th century, a fact that has nothing at all to do with cinema, but rather the astonishing confederacy of altogether appalling personages that riddles the tale from start to finish, not a single one of whom possesses any virtues that might shine a light on the depths of their frailties.
The Sound of Music tells the story of Maria, a Roman Catholic nun in training who is commissioned to be the governess for the seven children of one Captain Georg Ritter von Trapp, a widowed naval war hero who resides in the town of Salzburg, Austria. Ostensibly, it is the story of their love affair, the family’s many tribulations in both the personal and politically circumstantial spheres, and the power of music as a means for triumphing over adversity.
On a purely superficial level, the message and the moral is sound, the personal fates at which the “heroes” and “villains” ultimately arrive seemingly deserved, a “happy ending” not just for the principal characters, or even Austria (whom we know, of course, survived the looming disaster in Europe against which the story is set), but for the fortunate viewers, who emerge from the experience as the biggest winners of all.
It is my belief that the talent and good looks of the cast, the toe-tapping melodies, the edge-of-seat drama of the plotline and the occasionally witty volleys of dialogue in the production have, for more than 40 years, successfully masked a very awful truth:
Every single character in The Sound of Music is a bastard.
It is perhaps appropriate that I deal with each individual exclusively.
From the very start, it is clear that Maria is a ceaseless irritation even for the presumably tolerant nuns of her own abbey, the opening dialogue consisting of the sisters’ complaints that Maria is tardy, recalcitrant and a “flibbertigibbet”.
But these are mere infractions of carelessness, and Maria’s core sins are much more serious than that.
In short, she is an intolerant liar out for her own ends, her determination to force her views upon others verging on dogmatic, her calculating resolve to manoeuvre events to benefit her own desires hidden beneath a sickeningly pious exterior.
From her first meeting with Captain von Trapp, Maria, whose clear duty is to conduct herself and the children to the rules and wishes of the man who has employed her, presumes to take charge of the household, interrupting the Captain’s instructions regarding his preferred itinerary for the children with a deceptively saccharine: “When do they play?”, before belligerently refusing to adhere to the “whistle” system despite von Trapp’s entirely sensible explanation that “this is a large house, the grounds are extensive, and I will not have anyone shouting.”
Later, at dinner, Maria castigates the Captain for beginning his meal without thanking “the Lord”, rudely presuming her own deity and method of worshipping it upon the entire family.
The first day has not even ended when Maria commits a breach of both the Captain’s trust and her duty as a governess that is simply unforgivable: noticing that his eldest daughter was absent after dinner, Georg enquires after an explanation, whereupon Maria assumes the role of Liesl’s defendant by insisting “she and I have been getting acquainted tonight.”
This is a downright lie, told by a women entrusted with the safety of another’s children to the very man who has vested that trust in her, and had the Captain known the truth – that his daughter, far from safely chatting with her new governess, had been outside in the dark getting slippery with a Nazi – he’d have been forgiven for suspecting his new governess was not only a “flibbertigibbet”, but a fascist collaborator who’d sell his children to the Third Reich for a song (and not a very good one at that).
But Maria’s most serious transgressions can be found in the manner by which she deals with her feelings for the Captain himself, and the complete disrespect she shows towards the Baroness Elsa Schraeder.
It is manifestly apparent – even to the children – that the Baroness and the Captain entertain a mutual romantic investment, and while it is yet to arrive at a formal engagement, it is clearly an affair to be respected by the hired help, particularly a demi-nun whose charge is to look after the children.
But this doesn’t stop Maria, her determination to flit by the Captain’s eye each evening causing the Baroness to lose her composure on more than one occasion, Maria neither oblivious to the tension nor unwilling to antagonise it.
In a telling exchange, after The Lonely Goatherd puppet display, the Baroness snidely makes plain her irritation with Maria’s hogging of the female limelight, and Maria gives as good as she gets:
Baroness: “My dear, is there anything you can’t do?”
Maria: “Well, I’m not sure I’ll make a good nun.”
When the matter comes to a head on the night of the party at the von Trapp residence, the Baroness quite understandably attempting to manipulate her rival off the scene, Maria feigns ignorance:
Baroness: “The captain would hardly be a man if he didn’t notice you.”
Maria: “Baroness, I hope you’re joking…I’ve never done a thing to…”
Baroness: “You don’t have to, my dear. Nothing’s more irresistible to a man than a woman who’s in love with him.”
Maria: “In love with him?”
This is not consistent with the version of events Maria later gives to the Reverend Mother at the Abbey:
Mother Abbess: “Are you in love with him?”
Maria: “I don’t know! I don’t know. I…There were times we looked at each other, I could hardly breathe.”
Clearly, Maria was always aware of what was going on and was only too happy to allow her ‘relationship’ with Georg to quietly gestate under the Baroness’s nose, her covert tryst only thwarted when Elsa had the nerve to bring matters out into the open, and even then Maria wasn’t gracious enough to admit that her adversary was right on the money, playing coy to the end.
When she lasciviously returns to the household to “climb every mountain”, as it were, it is nothing less than a scarlet act of direct romantic combat in the face of the woman who has already placed her cards upon the table, and to whom von Trapp is now betrothed.
Maria responds to this news by putting on a near see-through frock and wandering around the grounds at night, in plain view of the Captain’s balcony.
Not, in fact, a very Christian show of respect for the holy bounds of wedlock.
I’ve taken up too much time on this homewrecking bitch, so it’s time to move on to somebody who doesn’t have a Royal Doulton haircut.
Captain Georg Ritter von Trapp
In sharp contrast to the wily, conniving Maria, Georg’s principal character flaw is that he’s a dill.
However, he is also arrogant, fickle, dripping in a rich air of self-satisfaction that seems oblivious to the sad mediocrity of his own wit and possessing an ego so clumsy and pompous as to place his entire family in grave danger for it.
These were slippery times in Austria, and those who wished to survive were well advised to play a shrewd game in the face of the fascists.
Not Georg, who seems to believe the European war can be won during his childish exchanges with Herr Zeller, the Nazi rep in Salzburg who holds the van Trapp family’s fate in his hands. Such bold and ill-advised quips as Georg relentlessly throws in the face of the potential executioner of his children would be excusable if they were any good.
Herr Zeller: “Perhaps those who would warn you that the Anschluss is coming, and it is…would get further with you by setting their words to music.”
Georg: “If the Nazis take over Austria, I’m sure you will be the entire trumpet section.”
Herr Zeller: “You flatter me.”
Georg: “Oh, how clumsy of me. I meant to accuse you.”
With a coquettish smirk and a weak-as-milk riposte, von Trapp may have just assured little Gretl an apprenticeship in clothing-and-shoe gathering at the nearest “re-education” facility.
But so long as he gets a high-five from Max for putting the fat little Nazi in his place everything’s OK with the Captain.
Again, at the climactic showdown with Rolf among the headstones in the Abbey, von Trapp appears to have prevailed in a battle of nerve with the Lugar-wielding but ultimately gutless Rolf. Having seized the gun from the young boy’s grip, and thus having averted certain capture, von Trapp may have been well satisfied with the outcome and fled with his family to safety.
But wanker Georg couldn’t help himself but to deliver one last verbal humiliation to an already defeated little boy with a provocative: “You’ll never be one of them.”
Thus challenged, Rolf blows his whistle, to the apparent surprise of the dimwit Captain, and the great escape is on all over again.
Not that Georg is above Rolf’s brand of flakiness himself, the Captain’s hardened principals withering at the drop of a hat.
The constitutionally militarist father is busy firing Maria for tearing up his curtains, taking his children into town against his wishes, loudly accusing him of being a crap dad and generally making a top-shelf arsehole of herself when the mere sound of his children singing a song moves him, within the space of a verse, to abandon his entire martial outlook and beg like a ninny for Maria to stay.
Those at the Salzburg Folk Festival who knew George well were probably less surprised than bored when his rendition of Edelweiss ended in a neurotic choke of tears.
Furthermore, Maria over the Baroness? What was he thinking?
Baroness Elsa Schrader
As I’ve already mentioned, she is perhaps the tragic figure in this story, but she’s not without her faults. That game in which she tries to engage the children, involving the bouncing of a ball and the calling out of a number, is a stinker that could only have been conceived in the dullest of minds, and her ideas for wedding gifts for Georg are unimaginative for to say the least.
She also appears to have an ugly prejudice against the Catholics, resorting to stinging jibes about nuns whenever the moment allows for it.
She is also a lousy listener, as is evidenced when Georg tries to interrupt her list of potential gifts with the message that she’s about to be dropped:
Baroness: “At first I thought of a fountain pen, but you’ve already got one. Then I thought perhaps a villa in the south of France, but they are so difficult to gift-wrap. Oh, Georg, how do you feel about yachts? A long, sleek one for the Mediterranean, or a tiny one for your bathtub…?”
Baroness: “And where to go on our honeymoon? Now, that’s a real problem…”
Baroness: “A trip around the world would be lovely. And then I said to myself: ‘Oh, Elsa, there must be someplace better to go. But don’t worry, darling, I’ll…
Baroness: “Yes, Georg?”
Elsa can at least think herself extremely fortunate that she escaped from this exchange without Georg bursting her eardrums with that blasted whistle of his.
Rolf is a Nazi and there’s nothing redeemable about that. Furthermore, blind Freddy could see that he’s gay.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but his denial of the truth is grossly unfair to Liesl, who’s so hot for it she probably wouldn’t notice if it were the guy from Little Britain who was spinning her round the rotunda.
Witness this significant exchange during their early courtship, wherein Rolf is pretending to send Liesl a love letter by telegram:
Rolf: “Dear Liesl: I’d like to be able to tell you how I feel about you. Stop. Unfortunately, this wire is already too expensive. Sincerely, Rolf.”
Rolf: “Affectionately? Will there be any reply?”
Liesl: “Dear Rolf: Stop. Don’t stop!”
Clearly, Liesl’s gagging for it, but Rolf’s passion is anything but full steam ahead, his reluctance hidden behind petty financial concerns and a lukewarm determination to end the communique in only the most ‘gentlemanly’ fashion.
It is perhaps not so regrettable after all that Rolf chose not to escape over the alps with the von Trapps, for it would have been inevitable that the young Friedrich would have at some point attracted the former postman’s attentions, and it is doubtful the singing of My Favourite Things would have assuaged the bitterness that union would have spread through the previously happy von Trapp household.
No more pardonable for being typical of those in cloistered religious orders is the Reverend Mother’s conceited decision to instruct Maria in the ways of love.
Furthermore, her judgment is in error: rather than encouraging Maria to return and scale the peaks of von Trapp, it would have been more prudent to lock her out of harm’s way for the time being.
It must also be said that The Reverend Mother might benefit from taking the odd lesson from Captain von Trapp when it comes to running a tight ship, for at times she seems completely out of control of her own Abbey.
Not only is she seemingly incapable of knowing where Maria is at any tick of the clock, she also appears not to care too much. Maria has been returned to the Abbey from her post at the von Trapp household for some time before the Reverend Mother decides she’s been “wrong to leave her alone so long” and calls her in for a chat:
Mother Abbess: “You’ve been unhappy…Why did they send you back to us?”
Maria: “They didn’t send me back. I left.”
One would have thought the return of Maria would have resulted in an immediate investigation as to the reasons – at least, one would think, a phone call to the Captain – and yet Reverend Mother reacts with surprise to this revelation, having floundered around the Abbey for weeks without the slightest clue as to what the hell one of her servants might have been up to during her time outside.
The Reverent Mother also turns out to be an enthusiastic harbourer of enemies of the state. I also suspect it might later have been revealed she was a man all along.
A garden-variety opportunist, who rarely misses a chance to calculate the dollars each twist of fortune will make him. Also thinks he’s a comedian, the fact that the friendless Baroness is the only one who laughs at his jokes testament to what a shitful comic he is, even considering his time and place.
There is so much wrong with the von Trapp children that I dare not discuss it, and I know perhaps you don’t want to hear it, but you’ve got to.
Liesl’s not a child. She’s nearly a woman…Friedrich wants to be a man…Brigitta could perhaps tell us a lot about him – she notices everything…Kurt acts tough to hide the pain…Louisa, I’m not real sure about…and the little ones just want to be loved.
But I don’t love them. I hate them.
It wasn’t just the piece itself, it was also the comments which had me in stitches:
# Jack, are you still suffering withdrawal from nicotine?
# This is payback, isn’t it? Because your misses made you watch this with the children during your holiday!
# Actually, now that i think about it, I’m pretty sure that all the characters except Liesl are gay. The sad thing is that Maria has the hots for Liesl and has to marry her father (who’s gay, because navy=gay) to get to her.
# One of my favourite memories of a visit to Salzburg a few years ago was the ‘Sound of Music’ tour. The guide was a droll, sarcastic Austrian who had an impressive knowledge of the film. I particularly liked the anecdote about one of the child stars getting a bit too tubby during her stay in the town (who could resist the delicious wurst, and those pretzels the size of steering wheels?) resulting in some late re-shoots using a standin for continuity.
# Are you so lost for ideas that this the best piece you can come up with? I struggled to get through it, waiting for the “truth” to arise, to no avail. I’m not saying this to defend the musical because “it’s a classic” but because this article was the most pretentious thing I have ever read. And you berated the Captain for being arrogant? The comment about facism was probably the lowest point of your writing so far.
# I saw Sound of Music as a traveller in Johannesburg, SA, when it was first released there in 1973. The ads for the movie trumpeted ” Completely Uncut”, demonstrating the amount of censorship at the time.
# Funny, I am similarly repulsed by the main characters in”Oklahoma”, who are real scumbags. Doesn’t say much for the rest of the townspeople who think the sun shines out of their smarmy arrogant backsides.
# I take issue with your statement that “there may be more important issues to be addressing today”.
# Particularly nauseating is the scene where the children willingly ride their bicycles to the local viallage while wearing dreadful outfits made from Maria’s bedroom curtains. Didn’t ONE of them say no, I won’t be seen in THAT?
# I’m sure you would have derived a lot of pleasure from the real fact that at the end of the film as the family are “escaping” the Nazis, they are actually standing on a hill and heading towards Germany!!
A very sad man, Jack Marx … thank goodness.
Personally, I quite liked it for decades and it’s been a comfort to so many for so long, not unlike those feelgood movies they made in the Soviet Union to get people to forget about real life – it has its place.
However, the longer I get in the tooth, the more I realize how subversive she was, Maria, and not in a good way. She was steeped in that “the damage I cause is OK because I’m the good person in this” do-goodsm which plays on emotion and does not respect the traditions of the family – and as for dressing the children in curtains and parading them publicly in the town, she was well out of order on that.
Sure he needed to lighten up and connect more with his children but she went behind his back, like in those teen flicks where the authority-flaunter is the hero [see the bed jumping pic above] and using “feelgood”, turned the children into fellow subversives against their father.
The way she should have done it was to respect that family’s ways and I’ve no issue with her making a play for the good Cap’n – she had her future to consider – then, from a position of being one of the family, played her role as the softer partner, smoothing the jagged edges, making him happy and that in turn would have made him softer towards the children but she should also have reinforced the family’s position in that part of Austria and defended that.
She needed to work with him, not against him in what he was trying to do at a difficult time in history.
The most conservative person in the household needed to be the woman, as she had most to lose if it fell apart – except now of course, where the government makes it financially worthwhile for a woman to destroy her family.
He needs to defend the family physically and the values it stands for but she needs to defend the daily workings of her family, to keep it working together, to be the mediator, the one all come to for comfort, to be the pair of loving arms which doesn’t judge or impose conditions on her love, he needs to bring home the bacon and she needs to cook it up into something sustaining and palatable.
People change. I changed politically from an everyone-love-everybody Labourite to a conservative who realized there ain’t no cake except the one you make yourself, to a Tory and finally to a small c conservative and libertarian for adults and a classical liberal for children.
Maria also changed under the Captain’s influence as much as he changed under her – it was a two-way street and maybe they all did live happily ever after. At least, that’s the way it should have been.