Did Maria von Trapp really prance and twirl around the lovely Austrian mountains as Julie Andrews did in the film? What was Liesl thinking when she fell in love with a creepy young Nazi, eventually endangering her wholesome, musically gifted family? (Well, when you're 16 going on 17, that about explains it.) And what's an edelweiss anyway?
My wife, Laura, and I intended to find out when we dropped all pretense of worldly sophistication and clambered aboard a Sound of Music tour in Salzburg.
Salzburg is the setting for the 1965 musical loved by audiences but scorned by highbrow critics. Yes, the movie is schmaltzy and melodramatic, and a Hollywood-type tour sounded "cheesy," as Laura put it.
But the movie didn't win five Academy Awards for nothing. It's full of memorable tunes and glorious scenery. It has sinister Nazis, inscrutable nuns, terrible betrayal, and righteous defiance.
Besides, I told a reluctant Laura, when I was growing up - as one of two brothers and five sisters, exactly like the Von Trapp clan - we pretended to be the Von Trapps, though we couldn't sing a lick.
So we plunked down 35 euros apiece and signed up for the four-hour tour. A white minivan roared up our hotel driveway. (If Captain von Trapp drove like the typical European, he needed only to commandeer the nearest vehicle to escape the Nazis, not climb across the mountains.)
A small placard propped against the windshield read "Bob's Sound of Music Tour." A husky young man with close-cropped hair and a Washington Redskins jacket sat behind the wheel.
"Bob?" I asked, offering my hand.
"Gunter," he replied, in an accent decidedly less thick than Arnold Schwarzenegger's. (Schwarzenegger, an Austrian native, is listed in the credits of the movie as a key grip, according to our guide. Surely that can't be true.)
My wife and I knew Hollywood couldn't be trusted. Chances were that the true story of the Von Trapps bore only a passing resemblance to the celluloid version. But I was holding out hope that the movie contained a kernel or two of truth. The film was part of my childhood, and I wanted it to retain some of its magic. Maybe the hills weren't exactly alive with the sound of music, but I was hoping to hear, if only in my head, a note or two of joy and passion, which good movies summon.
Pleasant and knowledgeable, Gunter chatted away about the city landmarks we passed. The magnificent Mirabell Palace - where Maria and the children sing "Do-Re-Mi" in the film - was built by the Archbishop Wolf Dietrich in the early 17th century. The archbishop built the palace to house his mistress and their 10 children.
Today, it attracts couples who desire a grand room in which to be married.
The Von Trapp home, a sprawling white mansion, looks exactly as it does in the movie. It should. This was the movie home, not the family's actual residence. The producers chose wisely. The mansion radiates grandeur, a home fit for an aristocratic captain. Known as the Leopoldskron, it was built in 1736 and changed hands innumerable times. Today it's a conference center.
The sparkling lake - which the children memorably fell in - guards the front of the home. Lining the road are the trees from which the curtain-clad Von Trapp children hung like monkeys, much to Captain von Trapp's chagrin.
Where was the marvelous gazebo, where Liesl sang "I am 16 going on 17?" Overeager tourists trampled it to pieces. The authorities reconstructed it and moved it to a more protected site. We'd be going there next.
Gunter himself was nearly as interesting as the sites. A rare Austrian football fanatic, he played on a club team. His English was almost impeccable because his mother rented a room to Americans studying at the university. Gunter himself was a zoology student. Spiders were his specialty. He told us he kept 2,500 tarantulas at his office.
Gunter was amused by the interest of Americans in "The Sound of Music." The film was practically unknown in Austria. It had never been broadcast on Austrian television, he said. Clerks at video stores would not have heard of it. (There were two German versions of the story in the 1950s, but Gunter was too young to know about them.)
I asked him about the beautiful "Edelweiss" song. "What does it mean?"
"That's a rare flower that grows only in the mountains," he explained. "It's hard to find, and the song is about a young man who looks for the flower for his lover and is buried in an avalanche."
Do Austrian men still hunt for the flower?
"Oh, no. Young men are not as romantic as they were 200 years ago. That kind of thing is dying out."
He paused and turned toward us.
"I saw an edelweiss once," Gunter offered.
He shot us a grin. "In a museum."
We zoomed out of town. The beauty of Salzburg, wedged beneath Alpine peaks, faded into the distance.
Gunter pointed out an ordinary home. The moviemakers used that as the Von Trapp home, too. In fact, three homes were used for the split second when Julie Andrews as Maria first arrives at the Von Trapp residence. One was used when Maria rang the doorbell, a second for the opening of the door, and the third for when the door was fully open.
Now Laura and I understood why Spielberg and his ilk can't shoot a movie for less than $50 million.
On the outskirts of Salzburg, we stopped at the Hellbrun, another palace built by another wealthy archbishop with a girlfriend. Archbishop Markus Sittikus, who, history says, had 15 lady friends, loved practical jokes. Gunter showed us the dining room table with secret holes that shot water at guests when Markus pressed a button.
Since it was improper for a guest to arise without the archbishop doing so first, Markus could prolong the "water torture" as long as he liked.
All this tomfoolery was forgotten when we saw the gazebo, placed on a grassy spot.
This small but exquisite wonder is 150 years old. I would guess that in Austrian dictionaries a picture of the gazebo is found under the word "graceful."
When the film producers happened to stumble across the gazebo, they wrote a scene just to include it in the movie. True to Hollywood, where reality must be improved upon, they then built a replica to aid them in the filming.
Back in the city proper, Gunter drove up to the historic Nonnberg Convent, founded in AD 700 by St. Rupert. Rupert is no small potatoes in the history of Europe. He was Bishop of Worms when a duke asked him to Christianize Bavaria and its outer regions. Known for his simplicity, prudence, and zeal, Rupert converted pagan temples into churches and established the salt-mining industry, from which Salzburg derives its name.
That was all well and good. But, for our purposes, the Nonnberg Convent was Maria's convent, both in the movie and in real life. Tourists aren't allowed inside. The formidable outside walls suggested mystery, prayer, and eternity.
Near the convent is St. Peter's Abbey, where Rupert is buried. For several hundred years the abbey was a center of Christianity in central Europe. The abbey cemetery was used for the scene in which Liesl's Nazi boyfriend blows his whistle to alert authorities to the hiding Von Trapp clan.
The old burial ground has a brooding, eerie atmosphere, even in midafternoon.
Just down the street from the cemetery is the Festspielhaus, famous for its music festivals. This was where the movie Von Trapps sang in competition before secretly fleeing the Gestapo. When we saw it, the huge stone structure, empty of people, was devoid of charm.
Gunter called us back to the van, and we headed to the countryside, rich with gorgeous hills and lakes. The scenery was breathtaking. We drove over gurgling streams, through long, dark tunnels, and past sleepy villages whose homes sported chocolate-brown roofs and wooden eaves.
Our last destination was the church in Mondsee, where the movie's wedding was filmed. The Gothic church was wildly decorative. Thirteen red steps led to the ornate altar. Outside the church was a memorial to the men from the village killed in World War I, one as young as 15 and another 66. It didn't take a movie to make this church special.
Gunter steered the van back onto the highway for the trip back to Salzburg. With the trip nearly over, he let down his guard and shared with us his take on the movie. "It's a typically American movie," he said. "The dresses are American. The music is very American."
"Bob," the former owner of the tour company, was an American who cashed in on his countrymen's fascination with the movie. Gunter explained that he had sold his business to an Austrian, presumably for a tidy sum, and moved back to the United States.
The Von Trapps did not escape by hiking over the mountains into Switzerland. "That's 300 miles away," explained Gunter. The movie shows a hurried escape with the Gestapo in rapid pursuit.
The real story is more mundane. Refusing to fight for the Nazis, Captain von Trapp agreed to leave Austria. He forfeited his home and other property.
The film also ignores the strong Roman Catholic faith of Maria. Raised as a socialist and atheist, she was dramatically changed by a chance encounter with a Jesuit priest when she was a teenager. She left the convent only because a doctor was concerned about her health.
But it did not matter to Laura and me that the film was partly Hollywood hokum.
Gunter took our picture as we stood against a magnificent backdrop of a deep lake and a soaring mountain.
Gunter was real. Maria was a person of substance. And there was absolutely nothing phony or second-rate about the scenery. Laura and I were alive together in the glorious hills of Salzburg and could fairly sing for joy.