Is it un-American to suggest doing something besides spectating the national pastime during this holiday season? Instead of watching the umpteenth football game, how about sitting down with the family and watching a movie? There are some fine ones out there, most of them made before the turn of the century, and they can be downloaded through the magic of Netflix, Amazon, and Apple, et al. Two merit recommendation: one well known, the Academy Award best picture winner for 1965, the other obscure, a made for TV movie from 1983. They are both based on actual events during World War II (although the better known film takes extensive dramatic license), with the protagonists under threat from the Nazis, but they differ dramatically in tone. Christopher Plummer is the hero in one and the villain in the other.
Film critic Pauline Kael called The Sound of Music “the sugar-coated lie people seem to want to eat,” in a review that reportedly led to her dismissal from McCall’s magazine. The film can be cloyingly sweet, but there are reasons to watch it. In its opening moments Julie Andrews sings the theme, head uplifted and arms outstretched as if she were embracing the Alpine setting. Andrew’s voice and crystal clear enunciation may be reason enough to watch, but the song and her character are the embodiment of an indomitable, irrepressible joy. She is too full of joie de vivre to be kept in cloistered seclusion. Fortunately, she is sent away from the convent, to be the von Trapp’s governess. We know when she is introduced to strict disciplinarian Captain George von Trapp (played by Plummer) who is eventually going to win. And win she does, winning the Captain’s and her charges’ hearts.
The cynics sneer, but Hollywood feeds us vampires, zombies, alcoholics, addicts, dictators, con men, hit men, gangsters, dystopian apocalypses (or is it apocalyptic dystopias?), and their “blockbuster” staple: movies lifted from comic books with cardboard heroes, super powers that obviate the need for intelligence, courage, or resourcefulness, unbelievable plots, simplistic moral choices, and high-tech special effects to hide creative bankruptcy. After years of uninspiring fare, one has to ask: what’s wrong with a little joy, especially for the kids?
The Sound of Music offers a glimpse into the last vestige of American innocence. It received mixed reviews, but it and its infectious soundtrack were wildly popular. It is the number three film of all time in inflation adjusted box office receipts. Back then, Americans still enjoyed bouncy musicals and believed in their political leaders, although the government had already descended several rungs into hell. President Kennedy’s legislative record was almost nonexistent, the Bay of Pigs was a disaster, he approved the coup against and murder of President Diem in South Vietnam and took the first steps there into what became a quagmire, his efforts to assassinate Castro failed, he was a compulsive philanderer, and he and his father were in bed with the mob. Yet, people swallowed Jacqueline Kennedy’s Camelot hook, line, and sinker and overlooked The Sound of Music’s dramatic license, although there is so much of it that, like Camelot, it is best considered a fairy tale.
The other movie is no fairy tale. Send the younger children to bed before you watch The Scarlet and the Black. Although the von Trapps’ escape from Austria was exciting, the Nazis wanted Captain von Trapp for their navy and the danger was in the background. The van Trapps were never in the mortal peril of Jews or others considered enemies of the regime. The Nazis in The Scarlet and the Black are the ones we’ve come to know and hate. Christopher Plummer plays Colonel Kappler, the SS Head of Police for Rome during the German occupation of that city. He rounds up and deports the local Jews after swindling them of their gold in exchange for a false promise of safety. He shoots a priest when the Italian police intentionally fail to execute him. Evil, as it often does, comes dressed to the nines. Kappler is ruggedly handsome, has a beautiful family, lives in ornate splendor, is well spoken and polite, and has a cultured appreciation of Rome’s artistic and historical legacy.
The clash between Kappler and Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, played by Gregory Peck, sparks the movie. Kappler deports Jews to concentration camps and imprisons escaping Allied prisoners. O’Flaherty provides sanctuary on the grounds of the Vatican, a neutral nation, and in safe houses around Rome, and helps the hunted leave Italy. Caught in the middle is the Pope Pius XII, played by John Gielgud, who must preserve Vatican neutrality, but also understands and commends O’Flaherty’s desire to help those in need. He warns O’Flaherty without stopping him outright. Peck does a memorable job of portraying the monsignor’s crisis of conscience after the Pope’s warning. Ultimately, O’Flaherty risks his life to fulfill what he regards as his Christian duty.
There are two dramatic face-to-face confrontations between Kappler and O’Flaherty. At a glittering party, the monsignor defies and gets the best of Kappler, who confines him to the Vatican under threat of death if he leaves. He leaves repeatedly, often in disguise, to direct rescue efforts. In a powerful jail cell scene, dressed as a German SS officer he gives final absolution to the Italian priest Kappler later murders. O’Flaherty narrowly eludes capture several times as Kappler’s frustration mounts. Kappler even instigates an assassination attempt, foiled by O’Flaherty’s pugilistic skills, inside the Vatican.
With the Allies on the verge of taking Rome in the summer of 1944, Kappler arranges a late night meeting with O’Flaherty at the Coliseum. Citing the priest’s Christian beliefs, Kappler asks him to arrange safe passage from Rome for his wife and children. O’Flaherty angrily refuses, but after Kappler is captured he is informed during an interrogation that his family has escaped unharmed into Switzerland. The implication is clear―they owe their safety to Kappler’s bitter enemy, who has shown forgiveness beyond the capacity of most mortals. The film’s epilogue states that after the war, O’Flaherty frequently visited Kappler in prison and Kappler eventually converted to Catholicism.
There are a few insubstantial inaccuracies, but The Scarlet and the Black is much more true to life than The Sound of Music. The real O’Flaherty is credited with saving 6,500 Jews and Allied war prisoners. He was decorated by several Allied governments after the war, and received a personal blessing from the Pope on the day the Allies liberated Rome. The movie is a tribute to his heroism, and stark illustration that confronting evil often involves personal risk and requires great courage. Through the ages no institution has inflicted more evil than governments. It remains to be seen who in our age, with its vanishing standards, state bestowed entitlements, and trivial obsessions, will have the courage to resist our government’s depredations and encroachments on liberty.
This review first appeared on Straight Line Logic on 11/25/13