(In somewhat belated tribute to the inimitable Christopher Plummer, who passed away on February 5, 2021).
I was about thirteen years old when a much older cousin of mine, then in his mid-twenties, discovered that I had never watched The Sound of Music. He was horrified at my ignorance and immediately set about dispelling some of it by telling me the story.
My cousin’s recounting of the story was full of adventure and wartime suspense. From what I could tell, it was a story of an Austrian naval captain who’s being bulldozed by the Nazis into joining their cause, and who decides therefore to leave Austria. There was a thrilling chase, some hair-raising moments as the hero, his wife and children hid in a convent, and then the escape, aided by the nuns…
‘So it’s a war movie?’ I asked. I was a big fan of war movies back then, especially of the adventurous ones like Where Eagles Dare and The Great Escape.
My cousin looked a little uncertain, but he finally nodded. ‘Yes, I suppose you could call it that,’ he agreed.
Anyway, the long and the short of it was that when I actually watched The Sound of Music (which happened to be later that same year), I was in for a surprise. A very pleasant surprise.
I fell in love with the songs (some of which, of course, I was already familiar with). I fell in love with Julie Andrews and with Salzburg. And I fell, hard, for Christopher Plummer as the Captain. From the moment an oblivious Maria, dancing all by herself in the ballroom, glances up to find him standing there and regarding her… I was smitten.
It took me many years to discover what Christopher Plummer really was capable of, and what, really, comprises much of his work. As is probably famous by now, The Sound of Music was a film he took a long time—several decades—to reconcile with. He hated the sentimentality of the film, and spent many years referring to this hugely popular film as The Sound of Mucus. In more recent years, he seemed to have become more mellow in his perception of the musical, but still: while it may be the film that Plummer is best known for, of all the Plummer films I’ve seen, it’s the one that’s least like the others, the role that doesn’t fit with the others.
The first ‘other’ Plummer film I watched (after beginning this blog, as it happens) was The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), and that showed me what he was capable of. This somewhat rambling and overlong sword-and-sandals flick had a huge star cast, including Alec Guinness, Sophia Loren, Omar Sharif, and Stephen Boyd, but the one person who put everybody else in the shade was Christopher Plummer as Commodus. The ambition, the total ruthlessness and lack of scruples of this man, his greed for power and wealth: Plummer brought him to life brilliantly, and chillingly.
Then, I ended up seeing Plummer in three wartime movies (yes, these ones were really more about the war than about music and romance!): The Battle of Britain (1969, in which he actually played his own nationality, Canadian), Triple Cross (1966) and The Night of the Generals (1967), in which he had an all-too-brief role as Rommel.
The Battle of Britain was not much of a showcase for Plummer (it had too vast a canvas), but Triple Cross: ah, that was a different kettle of fish, because it gave Plummer the opportunity to portray a flawed but interesting man, a real-life unlikely hero named Eddie Chapman who convinced the Nazis he was a double agent and would spy for them, while he was actually spying for the Allies… it was a complicated story and didn’t really require the sort of histrionic ability that Plummer exhibited in The Fall of the Roman Empire, but as the devil may care ladies’ man, a sort of Bond, Plummer’s Chapman worked very well indeed.
And then there was The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969), a relatively little-known historical set during the time of the Spanish conquest of South America. Plummer played the tormented Atahualpa, the last Inca Emperor, in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, and it was a role (and a portrayal) that I found both unsettling as well as poignant: he is proud and fiercely protective of his land and his people, but at the same time, there’s an inevitability about his entire existence, as if Atahualpa realizes that his days, and those of his civilization, are numbered.
The problem with my confining my blog to pre-1970 films means that most of Plummer’s work is outside my timeline. Before about 1964, most of his work had been for television, and some of his biggest roles (including the one, Hal in Beginners, 2010, for which he won an Academy Award) came long after the 60s. I have seen a few of these more recent films (not many, I must admit, because most of my movie-watching is limited to old films), but I know that Plummer didn’t flag, didn’t sit back and rest on his laurels.
It has been many years since I got over that initial infatuation with Plummer as Georg von Trapp. But earlier this year, reading the biography of Robert Wise (who directed The Sound of Music), I could not help but wonder why Wise, who was reputed to do ‘most of his direction at the casting stage’ and who famously always found the right actor for a role, and then let that actor build the character, should have chosen Plummer to play von Trapp. It seemed to me as if von Trapp wasn’t a difficult role (which meant it didn’t need an actor of the calibre of Plummer; any middle-aged attractive actor could have played him, I thought). It wasn’t even as if it needed an actor who could sing: Bill Lee sang playback for Plummer. What’s more, von Trapp is not even the central character of the story; he’s important, of course, but really, this is more the story of Maria, the children, and their music.
You just have to look at Plummer, as he asks the children where are the berries they’ve been picking. See the twinkle in his eye, the slightly sardonic expression as he ribs them, knowing full well they’re trying to bamboozle him, and playing along until they fall into their own trap.
Or the gentleness, again tinged with a teasing (and seductive!) sort of humour, as he confesses his love to Maria in the gazebo.
Or that dignity and charisma and air of command he can summon up, reinforcing the image of the proud Austrian who will not kowtow to the Nazis.
The role of Georg von Trapp isn’t that much a walk in the park, after all. And much as he may have hated the film and his role in it, Plummer still did it justice. Now that’s what I call professionalism.
So long, Mr Plummer. Thank you for the movies.