At first there is no sound at all. The camera glides gradually from the sky to the breathtaking hills and valleys of Salzburg, Austria, the same way it closed in on Manhattan at the start of "West Side Story." As the overture trickles in, a speck appears atop the highest hill. The speck grows larger until, in the inevitable close-up, it becomes Julie Andrews, whirling about and singing of the glory of nature.
It's the film version of the last Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration, "The Sound of Music," and all of the syrup and corn that flowed from the stage production has been captured on screen, magnified tenfold in Todd-AO, magnificent color and stereophonic sound. Cynics can consider themselves duly warned; moviegoers looking for nothing deeper than an eye-and-ear-pleasing, near fairy tale shouldn't miss it.
The technical similarity to "West Side Story" is not limited to the opening scene, nor is it a coincidence. Both films were produced and directed by Robert Wise, and again he demonstrates his ability to enlarge a Broadway musical without losing its mood or meaning in the translation, at least through the first two-thirds of the film.
The story of Maria, the postulant so effervescent that she is sent from the convent to care for the seven children of widower Georg Von Trapp, a retired naval captain, requires simplicity and taste in its handling. Despite his use of almost every modern technological advantage, Wise met the challenge nobly until he forgot himself toward the end. The stereophonic sound captures the beauty of the lilting musical score and Miss Andrews' equally enchanting voice, instead of burying the viewer in a cascade of thunderous explosions. The color is subdued and the settings -- with the exception of a ridiculously lavish wedding scene -- enhance the production instead of dominating it.
Ernest Lehman's screenplay is also properly low-keyed, capturing the spirit and light humor of the play. In a scene written for the film, Maria sarcastically thanks the children at dinner for the "greeting" they gave her earlier -- a frog planted in her pocket and a pine cone placed on her chair. The sarcasm results in seven sobbing youngsters, prompting Captain Von Trapp to ask Maria, "Is it only at dinner or at every meal that you intend leading us through this rare, wonderful new world of indigestion?"
As the captain, stage veteran Christopher Plummer comports himself smoothly at all times, perhaps too much so, as in the love scenes with Maria. But there can be no reservations about Miss Andrews. One believes in her even when she's saying things like "They just want to be loved!" She is the embodiment of Maria, eager, innocent, wonderful with children ("Mary Poppins" established her as Hollywood's leading governess; here she clinches the title), ever refreshing to look at and listen to. Eleanor Parker and Richard Haydn are adequate in supporting roles.
The songs are, of course, typical Rodgers and Hammerstein fare, bouncy ("The Lonely Goatherd," sung through the puppets of Bil and Cora Baird), inspiring ("Climb Every Mountain") and all thoroughly hummable. Unfortunately, Wise chose to omit three numbers from the original score, including two of the best, "How Can Love Survive?" (although the scene it came from wasn't dropped) and "No Way to Stop It." One of Rodgers' new tunes for the film, "I Have Confidence in Me," is a good one, showing off Miss Andrews to good advantage. The other, "Something Good," is every bit as soppy as the one it replaces, "An Ordinary Couple."
There are other, far more serious shortcomings, most of them contained in the last third of the movie. For reasons difficult to understand, Wise went into a complete reversal of form in almost every scene after the intermission. The muted moonlight effect (also borrowed from "West Side Story") used discreetly at the beginning is thrown in at every opportunity. When Maria and the captain marry, simplicity is discarded in favor of a wedding scene worthy of royalty. Hundreds attend, what seems like every bell in Austria is rung and worst of all, Miss Andrews walks down the aisle to "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria," sung as a booming, boisterous march. The ending itself is an unnecessary exaggeration of the one written for the stage, overflowing with elementary school patriotism.
Then, too, there are the children, summing up the pre-World War II tension in Austria with a reference to the swastika: "Maybe the flag with the black spider on it makes people nervous"; and, when they aren't allowed to see Maria after she returns briefly to the convent: "But I wanted to show her my sore finger." They mug for all they're worth, and you needn't be a cynic to gag at regular intervals. But that's the price you pay for sitting through a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. In this case it's well worth it.