It’s hard to convince people gripped by today’s mood of secular gloom that The Sound of Music is a work of abiding artistic genius. The cynic will recall a saccharine musical stretched over almost three hours, involving singing nuns, an impromptu pyjama party, puppet shows and the mawkish strains of Edelweiss. All this soppy madness culminates in a family of nine fleeing from a pack of Nazis, but not before pausing to sing at a music festival. Why would anyone take it seriously?
One rather prosaic reason is that the film, which celebrates its 50th birthday this month, is the fifth most lucrative movie in cinema history. When it was first released in 1965 it knocked Gone with the Wind off the top money-making spot.
A better reason is that The Sound of Music is a strongly Catholic film that exudes an innocence you’ll never find in films today. Yet this brilliant work of art has yet to gain the following it deserves among the faithful.
For instance in 2008 Bishop Richard Williamson, then a member of the traditionalist Society of St Pius X, described the movie as “soul-rotting slush”. The eccentric prelate asked: “Can you imagine this Julie Andrews staying with the Captain if the romance went out of their marriage? Would she not divorce him and grab his children from him to be her toys? Such romance is not actually pornographic but it is virtually so, in other words, all the elements of pornography are there, just waiting to break out.”
It’s true that The Sound of Music emerged in a decade that bore some pretty rotten fruit. The sexual revolution of the 1960s was bad news for the Church and for the world. But that just makes The Sound of Music shine even brighter as a cinematic jewel for which the Church should be grateful. For every Bishop Williamson there should be a dozen clerics urging Catholics to embrace this epic story of faith, family and vocation.
The film opens with Maria, a hopeless novice, fumbling through faith. (Plenty of Catholics will empathise with her habit of being “always late for chapel”.) She is guided by the firm motherly hand of the Reverend Mother, who sends her away to take a break from convent life and serve as the governess of an aloof widower’s seven children. As Maria reluctantly sets off on her journey, she utters the most memorable line in the film: “When the Lord closes a door; somewhere He opens a window.”
As the story develops, yes, your toes may curl at rather twee songs such as Do-Re-Mi and My Favourite Things. But even the most hard-hearted viewer could not fail to be moved by the scene in which Captain von Trapp is reunited with his children when he hears them singing and meekly tells Maria: “You brought music back into the house. I’d quite forgotten.”
This narrative should not be dismissed as vacuous sentimentality, for beneath its garish veneer the film explores real questions of faith and discernment. Maria’s relationship with the Captain gets off to a rocky start when she reprimands him for forgetting to “thank the Lord” before he eats his dinner. But Maria is sincerely searching for answers from God, asking Him why she was sent to the von Trapp household.
On hearing at the beginning of the film that the Captain is likely to propose to a glamorous baroness, Maria prays on her knees before bed, saying: “Father, now I understand why you sent me here – to help the children prepare for a new mother.” But true to life, just as she thinks she’s got it all worked out, Maria herself falls in love with the handsome Captain. After returning to the convent, she bitterly tells the Reverend Mother: “That’s what was torturing me: I was there on God’s errand. To ask for his love would have been wrong.” This scene offers one of the best ever film lessons on the meaning of Catholic vocation. And if that isn’t enough, the exchange culminates with the ultimate belter, Climb Ev’ry Mountain. Often ridiculed as a series of platitudes warbled by an elderly nun, this anthem contains a wealth of Catholic wisdom. Through song, the Reverend Mother implores Maria to follow her dream. But she adds a crucial caveat that the goal must be…
A dream that will need
All the love you can give,
Every day of your life
For as long as you live.
The Reverend Mother makes it clear that Climb Ev’ry Mountain is not endorsing the kind of ambition you see in X Factor contestants. When Catholics embrace their dreams they also embrace the Cross. Ask any priest or spouse: their vocations are not self-serving and involve true sacrifice. The life they are called to demands all the love they can give, every day of their lives, for as long as they live. Take it away, Reverend Mother!
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (06/3/15).
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund