The movie adaptation of The Sound of Music, directed and produced by Robert Wise and starring Julie Andrews, was released over half a century ago, in 1965. But its enduring appeal means that it’s still one of the world’s most loved films. Indeed, its allure – at least in part – lies within its dramatic, heart-wrenching storyline. However, the true details behind the movie are even more epic than Hollywood would have us believe.
The Sound of Music is an adaptation of the 1959 musical of the same name, with the screenplay written by Ernest Lehman, who adapted it from writers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Based on Maria von Trapp’s memoir The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, the movie enjoyed huge success and was the highest-grossing release of 1965. Then the next year, it became the biggest-earning film of all time, snatching the title from Gone with the Wind, which had held it for five years.
And even as time passed, the public’s passion for The Sound of Music continued. Indeed, its initial release lasted for four and a half years and the movie enjoyed two re-releases, helping to make it a worldwide hit. Consequently, the film sold 283 million tickets across the globe and raked in a total gross of $286 million.
And The Sound of Music received some critical acclaim as well. At the 38th Academy Awards in 1966, the film was the most nominated release, alongside Doctor Zhivago, both of which earned ten nominations. But it was the movie musical that would emerge triumphant.
Indeed, The Sound of Music walked away with five Academy Awards: for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Sound, Best Film Editing and Best Scoring of Music. Elsewhere, the movie also won two Golden Globes, a Directors Guild of America Award, and a Writers Guild of America Award.
Alongside the flurry of awards, The Sound of Music later earned a number of other accolades. Indeed, in 1998 the American Film Institute named it the country’s 55th greatest ever movie and the fourth best musical. Then in 2001 the United States Library of Congress chose the film for preservation in the National Film Registry thanks to its historical, cultural or aesthetic significance.
But what is it about The Sound of Music that makes it resonate with audiences so much? Perhaps it’s down to the film’s unforgettable soundtrack, that includes too many standalone hits to mention. Or maybe it’s the way that music is used in the plot to unite people, even amid the fear of the onset of what would become World War II.
The popularity of The Sound of Music is certainly helped by the film’s idyllic setting of Salzburg in Austria and the stunning rural backdrops nearby. And it’s perhaps this beauty portrayed in the movie that adds to its appeal. That’s because it jars so vividly with the threat of war and the upheaval that causes for the movie’s characters.
The real cause of The Sound of Music’s success is probably a mix of all these reasons, not to mention the incredible story of the von Trapp family, which provides the crux of the narrative. Indeed, the love and solidarity that develops between the characters has moved movie-goers throughout the years. And it’s not hard to see why.
The Sound of Music follows nun-in-training Maria von Trapp, as she’s sent from her convent to the home of retired naval officer Captain Georg von Trapp to care for his seven unruly children. Though used to their father’s military style of discipline, the youngsters misbehave at first. But Maria is a natural when it comes to kids.
As a result, Maria is soon able to win the von Trapp children over with love and patience. The governess teaches the children how to sing and soon music becomes a large part of their lives. However, when their father Georg learns of Maria’s influence on his offspring he isn’t amused and demands that she returns to the abbey from where she came.
But the biggest surprise of the movie comes when Maria melts Georg’s heart after he hears his children singing with her. Indeed, he joins in with the melody and subsequently asks Maria to stay with his family. And it’s this decision which will have a lasting impact, because later on the pair fall in love and marry.
Now united as one family, the von Trapps decide to share their talent for singing with the world. Though reluctant at first, the Baron allows his children to perform at the Salzburg Festival. But the show turns out to be their last hurrah in their home nation. That’s because Georg is called up to the German Navy, following the Nazi annexation of Austria, and he decides to flee the country with Maria and his children.
But while that storyline may be familiar to some, what many people might not know is that The Sound of Music is based on a true story. As in the film, the real von Trapp family did indeed hail from Salzburg, Austria, and the musical bunch did flee from the advancing Nazis. However, other elements of the real-life story were quite different.
First of all, Maria was first employed as a tutor for just one of the von Trapp children, she wasn’t a governess for all of them. In 1926 Georg had contacted Nonnberg Abbey in search of someone to teach his second-oldest daughter, Maria. Indeed, the youngster had contracted scarlet fever, the same illness that had killed her mother, and couldn’t walk the four miles to school every day.
With that in mind, Maria was sent as a suitable tutor for young Maria. And she was more than qualified for the task, having trained at the State Teachers College for Progressive Education in Vienna. As a result, it was decided she would teach the child for 10 months before formally becoming a nun.
Of course, fate had other ideas. And, like in The Sound of Music, Maria would never return to the convent to complete her nun training. Instead, she began looking after all of the von Trapp children. And, upon noticing how good Maria was with his kids, Georg asked her to marry him, despite an age gap of 25 years.
But Maria and Georg’s marriage was not the fairytale union The Sound of Music would have you believe. Indeed, after he had asked Maria to marry him, she had returned to Nonnberg Abbey where she sought the advice of the mother abbess. There, she was told that it was God’s will for her to marry Georg, and Maria then agreed to his proposal and married him.
Indeed, in Maria’s 1953 memoir The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, she admitted, “I really and truly was not in love. I liked [Georg] but didn’t love him. However, I loved the children, so in a way I really married the children. [And] I learned to love him more than I have ever loved before or after.”
So Maria married into the von Trapp family in 1927, long before she does in the Sound of Music. However, it wasn’t her influence that encouraged her stepchildren to start singing. In fact, the von Trapp household had been musical long before her arrival. That’s because Georg and his first wife had encouraged their kids to learn how to play a variety of instruments, including the guitar, violin and accordion.
“My real mother was very musical… She played violin and piano and we all sang before we met Maria,” Georg’s daughter Maria Franziska von Trapp revealed to Vanity Fair in 1999. “We had at least a hundred songs before she came. What she did was teach us [was] madrigals, and of course this is very hard to do. But we found it was no problem for us.”
Another discrepancy between the von Trapps portrayed in The Sound of Music and the real family was the size of their clan. In the film, there are only seven children. Indeed, when Maria had met Georg he did have seven kids, but the couple later had three more together, taking the total to ten.
Meanwhile, the names and the ages of the von Trapp children were also changed in The Sound of Music. In the movie, the oldest child is a girl called Liesl, but in reality the oldest von Trapp kid was a boy named Rupert. The first female child in the family was actually Agatha, but she was shier than Liesl is in the movie.
Moreover, none of the von Trapp children had any relationships with Nazis, as portrayed in The Sound of Music by Liesl’s flirtations with Rolf. Indeed, Myles von Trapp Derbyshire, the grandson of Rupert von Trapp, explained this to ABC News in 2015. He said, “The whole relationship with Rolf was added, that did not exist.”
“[Rolf is] a made-up character,” Myles added. “My grandfather was actually the eldest child. So the relationship there with one of the Nazis didn’t exist.” Furthermore, he shattered another plotline from the movie, adding “[The family also] didn’t climb every mountain, they hopped on a train to Italy when it came to the Nazis pursuing my great-grandfather.”
And Myles is right, his relatives didn’t escape the Nazis by climbing over the Alps. Instead, they caught a train to Italy under the guise that they were leaving on a family vacation. Because Georg was born in Zadar, now in Croatia, he had gained Italian citizenship in 1920 when the city had become part of the latter country. So it seemed like an obvious place for the family to flee to.
Unlike the dramatic escape scene in The Sound of Music, all this happened in broad daylight. Leaving through their back gate, the von Trapps simply crossed some railway lines to reach the train stop. Furthermore, Salzburg residents were even there to wave them off.
Furthermore, Maria was pregnant at the time, which would’ve have made scaling the Alps very difficult. In any case, thanks to geography, even if the von Trapps had crossed the mountain range from their home in Salzburg, they would have ended up in Nazi Germany, rather than escaping from it.
Indeed, the geographic blooper in The Sound of Music infuriated the reallife Maria. According to Tom Santopietro’s book The Sound of Music Story, she complained, “Don’t they know geography in Hollywood? Salzburg does not border on Switzerland.” However, director Robert Wise simply replied, “In Hollywood, you make your own geography.”
And The Sound of Music’s lack of geographical accuracy wasn’t the only thing that upset the von Trapp family. For example, the children of the family were angry with how their father was portrayed. Consequently, they denied he was a strict disciplinarian who had no time for his kids, as the film makes out.
In his book, author Tom Santopietro writes, “In reality, Georg was a warm and loving, if somewhat overwhelmed, father. It was actually Maria herself, with her emotionally stunted upbringing, who needed thawing.” And the author’s account of Georg has been backed up by the von Trapps themselves.
Johannes von Trapp is Maria and Georg’s youngest son. And in 2015 he told the BBC that his father was “a very charming man, generous, [and] open. Not the martinet he was made out to be both in the stage play and in the film. My mother did try to alter that portrayal for the film, but she was not successful.”
But while Georg’s personality was altered to fit the narrative of The Sound of Music, one influential person was omitted altogether from the movie. That man was Father Franz Wasner, the person who crafted the children into professional singers in the first place. And the story of how he came to find them could have been a plot to a movie itself.
As it did with many families, the Great Depression hit the von Trapps hard. Indeed, they later had to take in lodgers at their Salzburg home, and one of them happened to be Frank. And after realizing the family’s talent for singing, the priest became their musical director, helping them forge a career as professional musicians.
“[Frank] slowly but surely molded us into a real musical entity,” Maria once said, according to Tom Santopietro’s book. Moreover, the priest stayed with the family after they left Austria, accompanying them on tours throughout Europe and the U.S. But writers of The Sound of Music thought the priest’s presence would undermine Maria’s role as the family’s music teacher.
Meanwhile, The Sound of Music ends with the von Trapp family leaving Austria. We know that they’re first stop was Italy, but after embarking on a concert tour they took a boat to New York and finally settled in the U.S. However, this was hardly the fairytale ending that some fans of the film may expect.
“After they came to the U.S., they were broke, because they had to leave everything behind in Austria,” Myles von Trapp Derbyshire explained to ABC News. “They decided on Vermont, it reminded them most of Austria with the green mountains and all. They bought a farm and turned that into a music camp.”
Meanwhile, Georg sadly passed away in 1947, leaving Maria alone with her children to raise. She then decided to write her book, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, which was released in 1949. Indeed, the memoir was well-received and inspired two German films as well as The Sound of Music.
At first, Maria worried that the Hollywood adaptation of her family’s story would show her as too rebellious. But in the end the opposite was true, as she explained to the BBC. She said, “My long drawn out misery is, I can’t get these diverse Marias to be as wild and untamed as I was at that age. They are all very ladylike, you see, and I was not.”
So there were plenty of inaccuracies between the film and the real story of the von Trapps. Nevertheless, some members of the family still have a great fondness for The Sound of Music. Myles told ABC News, “What blows my mind is how much it’s continued and how much people still value the story. And the people that I meet, how much it’s affected their lives. It’s great to be part of a story that’s proven itself to be timeless.”