Set in Austria in the years preceding the Second World War the fi lm is based on the real-life story of the all-singing von Trapp family. It tells how a young nun Maria leaves her convent to become a governess to the seven children of Captain Georg von Trapp (who is also a baron). He is a widower and strict disciplin arian who runs his household with military precision.
Maria wins the affection of the children and eventually Georg. The couple marry but then the Nazis invade Austria and the family is forced to fl ee the country after appearing in a concert.
The Sound Of Music is an inspirational, life-enhancing tale which combines romance, excitement, great Alpine scenery and some wonderful Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. It continues to enchant us nearly 50 years after its release.
But just how faithful is the film to the real experiences of the von Trapps? In her TV documentary Climbed Every Mountain: The Story Behind The Sound Of Music presenter Sue Perkins discovers Hollywood told us only half the story.
First, there was the way the two main adult characters were portrayed.
“Whereas Hollywood would have us believe the baron was a cold and disconnected father, this could not have been further from the truth,” Perkins says. “He was warm and loving and his children were horrifi ed at his portrayal in the movie version.”
While the real-life Baron von Trapp was a much softer character than he appears on screen Maria, although a kind and loving person, was not quite the sweet, inoffensive fi gure portrayed by Julie Andrews.
“Maria in real life was a formidable creature, quick to anger, strict, with a religious fervour that bordered on zealotry,” says Perkins.
AND while in the film she comes to the von Trapp household to be a governess to all the children, in fact she came to be tutor to just one of them, Maria Franziska, who was recovering from scarlet fever. In the film the marriage between Georg and Maria takes place in 1938 just before the Nazi takeover of Austria but they were married 11 years earlier and by 1938 they had two children of their own, who are not featured in the film.
Neither was the courtship between von Trapp and Maria as romantic as was portrayed. Georg asked his governess to be a second mother to his children and Maria later admitted that at the time she was not in love with her employer.
“God must have made him word it that way because if he had only asked me to marry him I might not have said yes,” she revealed.
In the film all the names of the von Trapp children were changed.
It also introduced characters who did not exist in real life, such as “Uncle” Max Detweiler, the von Trapp’s musical promoter, played so memorably by Richard Haydn.
In fact it was the family’s priest Father Franz Wasner who acted as their music director and who accompanied them to America.
While it was true that Georg von Trapp, a proud Austrian, opposed the Anschluss (union) between Austria and Nazi Germany, his family’s dramatic escape from their home country in the film was also different from what occurred.
“We did not climb over mountains with all our heavy suitcases and instruments. We left by train, pretending nothing,” Maria Franziska said in a 2003 interview.
After leaving Austria the family settled in Vermont in the US and became a hugely popular singing troupe, touring until 1955. They also set up a holiday resort, the Trapp Family Lodge, which is still operating today. But there was great sadness in 1947 when Georg died of lung cancer.
The seven children portrayed in the fi lm went on to pursue varied careers. Rupert was a physician, Hedwig worked as a teacher and Maria Franziska became a lay missionary in Papua New Guinea.
The first of the children to die was the youngest Martina, who was only 30 when she passed away after giving birth to a stillborn daughter in 1951. The death of Agathe, von Trapp’s oldest daughter, in December 2010, at the age of 97, means that today only the 98-year-old Maria Franziska survives. Maria von Trapp died in 1987 aged 82.
How can we explain the many differences between what happened to the real-life von Trapps and the film version? “The first thing to note about this story is how many layers of interpretation it has undergone,” explains Perkins.
The 1965 film was based on the 1959 Broadway musical of the Sound Of Music which in turn was based on the 1947 book The Story Of The Von Trapp Singers by Maria von Trapp, and two earlier West German films.
In the same way that a simple message will get changed as it is relayed from person to person so it was with The Sound Of Music.
But although Hollywood didn’t tell us the whole story was that really such a bad thing? Do we really want to see Captain von Trapp as a warm and kindly fi gure from the outset? It’s the way that Maria and the children, melt the heart of a cold disciplinarian that is one of the film’s main attractions.
As is the sense of danger that the Nazis bring to the film’s conclusion, which would have been ruined if we had seen the von Trapps calmly boarding a train to leave Austria.
Hollywood screenwriters may have taken liberties with their tale of the von Trapp family but millions of The Sound Of Music fans will be very pleased that they did.