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The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, October 4, 2004

ST. GILDEN, AUSTRIA  ✦ OK, for the record, nobody rocks like Mozart. But Julie Andrews made plenty of Austrian stores come alive with the sound of ka-ching, after her famous opening to the Sound of Music, filmed 40 years ago on a mountain near this lake-district resort town.

The movie initially raked in a cool $165 million, about $800 million in today’s dollars. Now tourism cash still flows from it like a river, especially an hour from here in Salzburg, Mozart’s hometown, where the visitors never really leave.

The popularity of all things Sound of Music is matched only by Salzburg’s famous music festival, and the grandeur of its historic churches and castles or “schlosses.”

One is Leopoldskron Schloss. After the Second World War, some Harvard grads made this 18th century rococo palace into the home of an American institute that hosts debates on pressing global issues. Since 1947, some 20,000, including Yours Truly, have graduated from these “Salzburg Seminars,” better informed about world economics and things that suggest we know more about the planet’s mess than we do.

The link is that in 1964, some of The Sound of Music was filmed at Leopoldskron, at least outside, since a Salzburg Seminar was in progress inside. Interior shots of the schloss were recreated elsewhere. Which is where things get interesting, because Hollywood, of course, loves to create its own geography, literally and otherwise.

Yes, the real von Trapp “children” (none was named Liesl, Friedrich, Brigitta, Louisa, Kurt, Marta or Gretl) were actually aged 17 to 27 when the musical family escaped Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938.

They travelled by train to, first, Italy, not on foot to Switzerland. They certainly didn’t go over the Untersberg, Salzburg’s closest mountain, which would have led them into Hitler’s lair in the Bavarian Alps.

These film-makers, though, did better than most. I find it more curious that The Sound of Music, Hollywood-creation that it is, is treated by most Austrians with cool indifference to active dislike. Many haven’t even watched it. You’d think they would at least look at the goose that laid their golden egg.

Then there’s the pristine image of this family classic. Are you surprised to learn that the young actors didn’t have to act like they feared Christopher Plummer as their harsh father?

They did fear him. Plummer, for example, who for years called the show The Sound of Mucus, said of little Gretl at the final, mountain-escape scene, “I’m not carrying that bloody fat kid.” A thinner double was found.

And Edelweiss? No, this song is not Austria’s national anthem. It was written for the movie by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Edelweiss? Edelweiss! Say it’s not so!

To me, this is all like sullying rather holy ground. I’ve identified with the movie in a very personal way. I lived near the Austrian-Bavarian Alps as a child. Later, my sister (aptly named Heidi) and I sometimes saw our austere, German father, a widower, through the lens of Plummer’s more sensitive moments. And we felt the softness of a Julie Andrews through a loving nanny who did sing Edelweiss to us.

None of this is to say that mythology is bad. The next generation of von Trapps now runs a resort lodge in Vermont, and I wouldn’t mind visiting exactly because it carries that Sound of Music mystique.

But even when our culture’s stories are proper and meaningful, let’s recognize them for what they are. Because if we don’t, what does that say about our inability, or lack of desire, to recognize myths that we may have about other cultures, like, say, the Muslim world in a post-911 era?

Somewhere here is a lesson about what every advertiser knows: perception plays an incredibly powerful role in our lives. I think of this especially after my recent Salzburg Seminar relating to Third World aid; and now on the eve of my young family’s return to a somewhat labelled country like Yemen.

We tend to see life not as it is, but as we think it is, through personal and cultural prisms. To see things as they truly are, we need divine help. The rest, I think I will have to mull over later, even in the Middle East, with the help of some Mozart.