Recently my family and I watched The Sound of Music for perhaps the twelfth time — probably the last great musical that Hollywood ever produced. It made me wonder if I could list the reasons why such a movie could not now be made. These reasons I offer below; but it seems to me that they can all be united under the single assertion that the intellectual, imaginative, and emotional palette of the American people has suffered a terrible constriction, a reduction to the tedium of lust and greed and the thirst for power. It is not so much that Hollywood would not make a movie like The Sound of Music as it is that the people themselves would be hard pressed to understand it.
Here, then, are the reasons as I see them; then I will conclude with a recommendation to faithful Christians on what we should do about it.
1. The movie takes for granted that some things are holy. It is almost the definition of postmodernity, the belief that nothing is holy, or that the holy is determined, at whim, by our desires. So in that truly awful movie Titanic, the lead boy and girl (hardly a man and woman) celebrate their undying love for one another — a love of some 20 minutes’ duration — and prepare to meet their Maker by fornicating. They have, it seems, nothing better, certainly nothing holier, to do.
But in The Sound of Music, we hear in the distance the men’s choir of the church of St. Ignatius, as Georg von Trapp drives home with his fiancée, the Baroness Schroeder, and their friend the impresario Max; and the sounds of their voices are meant to clash against the worldliness of the people in the car, almost as if they were calling Georg back to the Austria he loves and the faith he has never quite abandoned. The movie really is about the reclamation of the captain and his family by a young woman, Maria, who thinks that God has called her to be a nun, but who sees instead that God has called her to be a wife to a widower who has lost his way, and a mother to his seven good-natured but as yet undisciplined children. The music that she brings back to the family culminates in the wedding march as Maria walks, in virginal white, to the altar, where she and Captain von Trapp kneel to receive the blessing of the priest.
The Sound of Music offers many an opportunity for sniping at the Church or at the ascetic life. Yet far from taking those opportunities, the movie shows, with a pleasing fulfillment of our hopes, that the nuns at the abbey are good and sane. The Mother Superior wisely recommends that Maria leave the abbey, for her own spiritual welfare. Even the nun in charge of novices, a stern and ironical old battleaxe who has called Maria "a clown," helps to save Maria and the von Trapps in the end, by removing the distributor cap from the Nazis’ car.
This is not to say that Rogers and Hammerstein actually understood the Catholic Faith. They don’t. The narcissism that was even then destroying our culture is to be found in the movie, too. I can hardly imagine what the devoutly Catholic Maria von Trapp could have made of the song that her namesake sings as she runs madly toward her new job as governess at the von Trapp mansion: "I have confidence in me!" Or how anyone with a shred of genuine gratitude to God and understanding of the forgiveness Christ offers could sing Maria’s love song to Georg: "Somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good."
2. There is such a thing as innocence — and it is not the same as ignorance. Maria von Trapp, as governess for but a few weeks, knows more about the von Trapp children than their father himself does, and she has no scruples against telling him what they need. Except in the case of the baroness — and that is an important and revealing exception — Maria is a shrewd judge of character, not despite her innocence but because of it. Only such a woman could have won over the trust of the children and could have rebuked their father and gotten away with it.
But suppose that we detected in Maria even the slightest hint of lust. Suppose we caught her eyeing up the captain, or dressing to catch his attention. It would destroy the romance of the movie; it would mean that the captain was trading one kind of crass and designing woman for another, just as in our post-patriotic times his refusal to serve the Nazis would imply little more than that he was going to serve some other regime, maybe one not quite so bad, but certainly not one to enlist our admiration. Maria does not understand Baroness Schroeder precisely because she is all love and no hard-edged, self-consuming lust. That baroness, for her own part, uses Maria’s innocent heart against her, revealing to her that Georg may be falling in love with her — understanding that that would be just the thing to persuade the honest young lady to leave the household.
We do not understand innocence, not because we are sophisticated and subtle, but because we are old and drab in our sins. When the eldest daughter Liesl and Rolf meet for their secret dance in the gazebo, we are meant to see the danger that the girl is running, even though she herself does not see it. The two of them sing a song about how Liesl is only 16, going on 17, whereas the wiser Rolf is all of 17, going on 18, and he will take care of her. The irony is that Rolf is at best but a callow boy, at worst a selfish prig flattered by the Nazism he does not understand, while Liesl herself, still innocent, is the aggressor in their dance, taking Rolf aback. It is all teenage infatuation, precipitated in part by the father’s coldness to his children and the lack of a mother in the home. But if there were any real lust in the scene, it would lose its charm. Liesl would become a tramp in training, and Maria — who covers for the girl when the captain asks her what she has been doing that evening, in the rain — would be complicit in the sin.
3. There are such things as children, thank God. Not miniature adults with foul mouths. In the movie Sleepless in Seattle, which is about the best we can do these days for romantic comedy, the little boy asks his father whether he will have sex once he gets married to the woman he is pursuing. "I certainly hope so," says the father. Big laugh. One wonders whether the screenwriters could conceive of the healing mystery of childhood — that children are good for us to be near just because they do not yet understand the world, and so remind us of when we too could take more delight in a cloudless sky than in a tawdry joke cracked in a bathroom.
In The Sound of Music, the children are clearly longing for their father, and they resent the baroness for her taking him away from them so often. Beyond that, they do not speculate on what the captain and the baroness are doing. That would reduce the captain in their eyes and in ours, and it would make the children themselves far less interesting as characters. The children cannot be other than innocent, to sing the rousing songs that Maria teaches them, and to obey their father so promptly when he resumes his role as head of the von Trapp family.
It is their innocence that keeps them from appearing ridiculous when they sing the farewell song to the guests at the von Trapp mansion; and it is their innocence that binds the film together, as the finest expression of Austrian patriotism, of the love of Maria and the captain, and of the holy life to which all the faithful are called. Even the pranks they play on Maria on her first day at the mansion are harmless, and that they should play them in the first place proves that they are real children, neither trained dogs nor machines. We like them for the pranks they play, and we like them the better for feeling sorry for them afterwards, when Maria "thanks" them, gently but firmly, for having made her feel so welcome.
"He’s only a boy," says the baroness, when Georg rebukes Rolf, who has come to bring him a telegram from the Nazis, and whom Georg caught tossing pebbles at Liesl’s window. If only that were so. The minor tragedy of the movie is that the insecure Rolf loses his boyhood. "Come with us," says Captain von Trapp, when Rolf has caught the family hiding in the cemetery, just before their escape over the mountains. "You’re only a boy," he says. That is true enough — and if Rolf were to join them, he would be returning to the boyhood that is proper to him, and would be well on his way to genuine manhood. He chooses being a "man" now instead, and blows his whistle.
4. There are such things as boys and girls, and men and women. It is not possible to have a romantic comedy without reveling in the differences between men and women, delighting in the typical confusions these cause, and then delighting in their fit resolution. But we live at a time when masculinity and femininity are held up as lies, as objects of scorn.
Who could now play the role of Captain von Trapp, as Christopher Plummer played it? He was manly, patriotic, clearheaded, decisive, and courtly; and if he had been instead a caricature of these things, if he had been a bully, a jingoist, a muddlehead, a waffler, and a prig, why on earth would we cheer when he proposed to Maria? She is attracted to the man in him, and returns him to that manhood he knows he has in part lost; thus he is a greater father to his children at the end of the movie than at the beginning, and a clearer giver of commands, for the good of all.
Who could now play the role of Maria, as Julie Andrews played it? She was womanly, tender, cheerful, largehearted, and, dare I say it, properly submissive; and if she had instead been a caricature of these things, if she had been bitchy, touchy, prim, emotionally unruly, or a doormat, why on earth would any sane man propose to her? Captain von Trapp is attracted to the woman in her, the woman who can at one time rebuke him for ignoring his children, and then, when he has regained his senses, be the delegate of his authority and his love, in taking care of the children as their mother.
We could say similar things about the children. The boys are boyish, and the girls are girlish, and in both cases it is considered a part of their ordinary yet mysterious appeal. If Liesl were a tomboy with a right cross and a foul mouth, why would we care so much to protect her from Rolf? If Friedrich were what boys now are portrayed to be, sullen, slovenly, and stupid, how could we believe it when he becomes a man before our eyes? "We can do it, Father!" he exclaims, when the captain suggests that they drive the car into the hills and cross the mountains on foot.
5. Today, no one can sing. No one knows why people ever sang. Unless one calls the moaning of unnaturally constrained vocal cords — a constipation of the voice — "singing." The music that is gradually receding from the airwaves (to be replaced by news and talk) is all tedium, all day, all night; nothing but narcissism and lust, hardly a genuine human feeling to be had.
We cannot now have musicals, because we do not sing; and we do not sing because we have lost the sense of anything to sing about, or anyone to sing to.
The lesson for Christians, I think, is this. You can engage a culture, but you cannot engage a corpse. When people are living in a cemetery, you do not join them. You establish a real village, and invite them over. You first become the sorts of people who sing, who love men and women for what they are, who love children (and actually have a few), who admire innocence, and who kneel before the holy. Then you will have something of a culture — and you will find those who are weary of the alternative trying to engage you.