Let me get my bias out of the way up front. When I was in high school, I played Herr Zeller the Nazi, so I tried to arrest Captain and Mrs. Von Trapp, the romantic leads of this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. I will try to remain neutral in my evaluation of the characters in the film, and especially the presentation of the Church in this film version of Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical, The Sound of Music.
The Catholic Church plays a crucial role in this classic film, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, ranks in the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Best Films of all time, and -- accounting for inflation -- is financially the third most successful film of all time.
The story is based on true events which took place in Austria in the late 1930’s. A young woman, Maria, who had been training to be a nun, took the job of governess for a Captain with seven children. In the film, Maria and the Captain fall in love and marry and then must flee the Nazis as they take over Austria. (If you haven’t seen the film and you feel I spoiled it for you, I am SOOOOO sorry. You’ve had over fifty years to see it.)
The main church presented in the film is the Convent’s Abbey. Beside the Abbey, there are minor, random allusions to other churches. In the opening credits, the cameras pass what looks like a Protestant church and an Orthodox church. There are several mentions of the Kloppman Monastery Choir. And the title song includes the lyrics, “My heart wants to sigh like a chime that flies, From a church on a breeze.” (I have no idea what those lyrics mean.)
If I had to judge the Abbey in the film just by the theological education Maria seemed to receive, the church would be greatly lacking. She sings a duet with the Captain, “Something Good” (it’s a song that wasn’t in the original Broadway score). Here are some of the lyrics, “Nothing comes from nothing, Nothing ever could, so somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.” She seems to be completely ignorant of the concept of Grace. God does good things for us all the time based on His love and kindness rather than on what we’ve done. She really should have learned that in the Abbey.
Maria’s Abbey training shines through a bit when she reminds the Captain to thank God for the food before their first meal together. I also like that Maria learned something from the Abbey about giving. (She has only one dress because her clothes were given to the poor when she entered the convent. When the Captain asks about the dress she has on, she responds, “The poor didn’t want this one.”)
But in the convent, they don’t seem to refer to Scripture very much. I think the nuns in the Abbey come off worst of all when Maria is off in the hills, providing director Robert Wise with one of the most beautiful and intoxicating film opens of all times as a helicopter captures Julie Andrews dancing and singing in the Alps. Meanwhile the nuns are all gossiping about Maria in the song, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” Yes, some of the nuns sing positive things about the young woman, but still it seems the worst kind of gossip to describe a person as a “problem.” Bizarrely, the song is used for the processional at Maria’s wedding. (You have a problem, woman? Get married, that’ll take care of it.)
And sadly, the Reverend Mother tends to counsel in cliches and bromides rather than with Scripture. When Maria comes to the Reverend Mother in her greatest moment of conflict, the Abbess instructs Maria to “Climb Every Mountain” until she finds her dream. While it is common in musicals to be instructed to “follow your dreams” (in Disney films as well), in Scripture we are usually instructed to, you know, follow God.
Fortunately, the Reverend Mother and Maria do at one point acknowledge that truth. The Abbess asks Maria, “What is the most important lesson you have learned here, my child?”
Maria responds, “To find out the will of God and do it wholeheartedly.” That’s better, theologically, than that follow your dream business.
Toward the conclusion of the films, when the Nazis are in pursuit of the von Trapps, the nuns really come through. The Reverend Mother even quotes Scripture for the Captain, “I lift my eyes to the hills from whence my help comes from” (Psalm 121:1). But even better is the moment when a couple of the Sisters confess a sin.
They have sabotaged the cars of the Nazis pursuing the Von Trapps.
For the sake of those convent mechanics, I’m giving the Abbey from Sound of Music Three Steeples.