Why Captain Von Trapp from The Sound of Music is Christopher Plummer's perfect legacy
Edelweiss will bless the memory of Christopher Plummer forever.
It's not a secret that Plummer, who died Friday at 91, probably would've liked to be remembered for projects other than The Sound of Music.
He famously dubbed it The Sound of Mucus, and over the years, he derided it as "sentimental" and "gooey." Though as he aged and the film celebrated milestones like its 50th anniversary, he warmed to it, asserting that he was proud to have been a part of it.
Still, no matter what he thought of it, there's no denying many will remember him first and foremost as the stern Captain Von Trapp, a man who parents his children like a drill instructor until the kindly Maria (Julie Andrews) opens his mind and his heart.
And there really is no more fitting role by which to remember this lion of the stage and screen. Plummer feared the role was "poncey" or weak, but for millions of viewers, the Captain is anything but. He's a man made real by Plummer's own gravitas, a character enriched by his ability to play outright bastards and romantic heroes alike.
Because you need both to make Captain Von Trapp work. His hardness toward his children that stems both from his military background and his grief over the loss of his wife must be steely enough to make his gradual blossoming, like his beloved edelweiss peeking out of the winter snow, meaningful. The collective joy we experience as he joins his children in song or the intensely powerful romanticism of his silhouetted gazebo proposal to Maria are impactful because we've watched him grow from a man who rules his household by whistle.
It's not an accident that so many people cite Captain Von Trapp as their first crush. He's a hot dad of the highest order, and that's all Plummer's doing. It's in the way he plays the role, from irresistible winks to the twinkle in his fierce, blue-eyed gaze. He gives Andrews' Maria as good as she gets, matching her inner fire and cheeky nature with his own.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the scene where he dances the laendler with Maria. He's begun to warm to her, but he still has his military reserve, determined to play proper host to his party guests. His request to dance with Maria seems a simple extension of that, allowing her to dance with someone other than the children. His body language initially reaffirms his strict, by-the-book nature, but his eyes tell a different story, following Maria as she makes a circle around him and giving her the barest hint of a smile.
As the dance takes them into closer proximity with each other, their gazes meet and a breathlessness overtakes them as their attraction becomes evident. It's a moment sexier and more charged than any R-rated clinch. This is because it's the first time we get to watch Captain Von Trapp channel his intensity directly at Maria in a way that doesn't involve chastising her.
There are no words, only music, but Plummer and Andrew say it all with their electric gazes. Then, he seals the deal with a stunned look when they break apart as if shocked by his own feelings, followed up by a closed mouth smile as he realizes she's been equally as affected. It's the tiniest of expressions, but it tells us everything we need to know about who this man really is and how Maria has reawakened that. He gives the romance an edge, a carnality that makes the slow burn of his thawing heart all the more enticing and not at all treacly as Plummer feared.
But more than anything, it's Von Trapp's decency that makes him Plummer's most enduring character. Plummer himself was a mercurial man, known for outbursts (even famously being fired from a play via a vote taken by his fellow actors in response to his crude behavior). He played any range of roles from villains to character parts he could disappear into. But as a presence, he was self-assured, even slightly arrogant, aloof, and elegant. Von Trapp is all these things, Plummer's cocksureness lending him the sex appeal he felt the role lacked.
Still, the character's most attractive feature is his heart, his commitment to doing what's right. It's why Maria falls for him, why his children still crave his affection, and the driving force of the film's central message.
In recent years, he's become a meme, the GIF of the captain ripping a Nazi flag in half a popular, pithy response to the rising tide of fascism on the internet and in American politics. But besides being a handy shorthand for standing against fascistic ideals, it encapsulates who Von Trapp is in a single image — a steady, unyielding presence who will always be there as a symbol of those who choose to do the right thing in life and love.
It might've taken Plummer a long time to come around to why The Sound of Music is a masterpiece, but he's a crucial part of the equation — an actor who elevated a character that could've embodied all the criticisms he lobbed at it. Only he could've made Von Trapp so charming, so intimidating, so romantic, so sly, and so decent.
He's given us a hero that not only shows us the subtleties of his range, but one that will endure precisely because of them. So while some might say that he had a wicked, miserable past at times, he also had more than his fair share of moments of truth. And among them, Captain Von Trapp will always endure as not only something good, but the best of what he could be.