Falling in Line: A Homage To Chris Plummer

The news in 2021 just keeps getting harder and harder when you learn who has died and who has lived. It’s not even springtime yet. Chris Plummer has died. He was in his 90s, and perhaps it was a time in coming, but it’d be nice if this year eased up on the celebrity deaths of people who positive impacted our lives.

I know Plummer from three roles: as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. Charles Muntz in Up, and Harlan Thrombey in Knives Out. He was a versatile actor who knew how to add tragedy to villains, and flaws to heroes. Plummer knew about depth, and bringing a serious approach to every role, no matter how big or small.

We are going to talk SPOILERS for each of the movies. You have been warned.

The Austrian Captain

Captain Baron von Trapp in the musical and movie was apparently not as brusque as he was in real life. The real Maria von Trapp once recalled that she was the disciplinarian and he was the kind one to the children. Nevertheless, Chris Plummer went with his interpretation, though he was annoyed that most people knew him for this role rather than for the rest of his work. He said he didn’t like having to be so stiff for most of the filming, though his character does soften up. (Sorry, Chris, you are too iconic in a musical with Julie Andrew and resistance to the Nazis.)

For those who don’t know, The Sound of Music is about how a rebellious nun becomes governess to seven mischievous children. She manages to win them over with her kindness and determination to earn their respect, as well as to show their father that they also need his love. Her plan is for them to mend bridges before the Captain marries a Baroness. That plan goes astray when the Captain mellows on seeing that Maria is helping his children find joy again, and he joins them in singing a rendition of “The Hills Are Alive”. Maria leaves when she realizes she has feelings for the Captain, and that would compromise her integrity as a governess.

Plummer’s Captain is stern, hiding his mournful qualities behind a permanently scowling face. He lost his wife, and tries to treat the seven children like a naval crew. The Captain summons them with whistles and orders them to march. He’s incredulous when they come to the new governess for reassurance during a rainstorm, asks why Liesel his oldest was not at dinner, and refuses Maria’s request for material to make play clothes for the little ones. The man doesn’t understand children, or that they need a chance to have fun.

One could interpret that the Captain understands war as the only form of loss. He thus treats his first wife’s death as a battle to be won, and for his children to march through life the way that sailors and soldiers do. It takes Maria showing him there are other ways to win a fight — with the power of music to soften a man’s heart — without needing an army regiment. The kids relax around their father as well, singing to him and encouraging him to play the guitar. He’s able to hide his laughter while seeing them.

Maria saves him and the children, with her melodious lilt and big heart. She does come back, and the Captain breaks his engagement with the Baroness when they realize they have fallen out of love with each other. Much later, they use music to escape the Nazis when the latter wants to impress Captain Von Trapp into their service, singing at a show and winning the audience over. Quite fittingly in real life, they became stage performers after escaping Austria and used music to rebuild their lives. Chris Plummer may not like this role, but he did good with it nonetheless.

A Paragon Of Adventure

They say never meet your heroes, or you may be sorely disappointed. Charles Muntz serves as a corrupted paragon, of what happens when you chase a dream too far. He may have gotten older, but he certainly hasn’t gotten wiser. Plummer certainly doesn’t add stiffness to the role; nearly every word that comes out of the man’s mouth is unrestrained rage.

For context, Up opens with backstory about the explorer. He was a famed scientist and inventor, who lost his credentials when scientists deemed his bird skeleton a fraud. Charles vanishes from society, vowing to return to Paradise Falls and bring back the bird alive.

You can see the change in body language during the footage. Charles stands proud, in a pilot’s cap and goggles. He gives a thumbs-up of encouragement in a portrait or photograph mounted on a wall, with a catchphrase worthy of an explorer: “Adventure is out there!” In addition, we see that he spoils his dogs rotten with various inventions to provide them spa treatment and regular exercise.

His expression turns sour as the scientists remove his medals. In addition, Charles’s posture becomes more hunched while giving a press conference. We know that his journey to catch the bird, whom we come to know as Kevin, will prove futile. If he had returned to society, admitting to his failure, he would have seen all of the people who had inspired him.

Charles Muntz represents adventure and possibility to Carl and Ellie Fredericksen. They met as kids and bonded over the idea of going to Paradise Falls, where the explorer disappeared with his giant airship. Ellie made Carl promise to take her to South America, where she could build a dream house right above the roaring waterfalls. As time passed, the promise became an in-joke between them where they filled up a jar with pennies. They would subsequently smash that jar to handle emergency cash. Even so, Ellie kept all of her adventuring knickknacks, well into old age.

The viewer doesn’t expect to see Muntz again, unless the trailers spoiled otherwise. Carl certainly doesn’t, with the black-and-white reels that he saw as a child. Yet, by some miracle, he and a boy named Russell find a talking dog in the Amazonian wilderness. The dog leads him to an army of canines, and a grumpy old man. Carl needs a few moments to recognize the man, since it has been so long.

We get a red flag with how Charles encourages harsh treatment Dug. Dug, a Golden Retriever that is all fetch and heart, believes he found the bird. When Kevin fails to make an appearance, sensing that a cave with a bunch of dogs is not a good place to be, the other dogs put Dug in a Cone of Shame. Usually, vets only do that if a dog has stitches or an injury they’re not supposed to touch. It’s hinted that while Alpha gives out the punishment, Charles set out the rules. It’s very not cool, especially since he mentions he’s lost a good number of dogs while hunting the bird. He seems to have lost his former dedication to giving them spa treatments.

Despite that warning vibes, Charles seems to be harmless enough. He laughs on seeing the house, and treats the two humans to dinner. When Alpha needs his voice modulator repaired, Charles does it cheerily and reassures him. Carl can’t help but smile, seeing his hero in the flesh, a projector come to life. He says that Ellie would have loved to be here, that she was Charles’s biggest fan. Any nerd can relate to this moment, of meeting their hero.

Then the dinner goes dark. Charles explains that he’s hunting a great bird in the stone maze, and has lost many dogs. When an oblivious Russell blabs that he has a new bird pet who loves chocolate, Carl senses that it was the wrong thing to say. He tries to make excuses to leave, and Charles’s smile grows menacing. He reveals he collects helmets of those, and threatens to take Carl and Russell’s heads, unless they prove they’re not after his bird.

We have heard of moments of this in real life. In some cases, people get to meet their heroes, and they see a dark side. They may even get hurt in the confrontation, and unable to deal with the revelations. Pixar would later have its reckoning with John Lasseter, so the dinner seems oddly prophetic.

Charles is meant to represent who Carl could have been, if he were willing to sacrifice innocent lives in search of an impossible dream. They’re both old men with back problems and entire rooms full of keepsakes related to a past life. The closest Carl comes to doing so is when Charles burns down his house, and he has to give up a chance to save Kevin the bird-mother in the process. Even so, Carl snaps out of it when he sees Ellie’s scrapbook, and the pages he wouldn’t open because she died before she could put photos of her plans in Paradise Falls.

We also see how they let go of their keepsakes. Carl willingly deposits them in Paradise Falls, making sure to to arrange his and Ellie’s chairs. There’s sadness and determination. In contrast, Charles smashes up his fossils and knickknacks, practically frothing at the mouth. He has no control. Plummer delivers sheer angry energy during the confrontation. He’s visibly hunched over from age, but you can sense the bitterness that goes with it.

Heck, Dug’s switching sides shows how Carl will never become like Charles. He was loyal to Charles because he had to be, but didn’t consider him a master. When the opportunity presents itself, Dug will knock down rocks at his former teammates and bite Charles in the leg to save Carl. Carl rewards him with snuggles and kindness, while Charles couldn’t go beyond verbal praise.

Figuratively, Charles can’t let go of his dream. While we understand why he wanted to restore his rep utation, at some point he shut out everyone who did worship him, and those who could see him as their hero. His response to hearing about Carl and Ellie’s dream is to talk about how he inspired them, and has enemies out there. There isn’t much gratitude that even after what happened, people believed in his promise of adventure. Fittingly, Carl’s old dream ends up weighing him down; a few balloons snag onto Charles and he falls from the sky. He’ll die alone, and the people who saw will not mourn him.

A Man Of Mystery

Harlan Thrombey was one of Plummer’s last big roles. He toes the line between a compelling character, and one that you feel deserves what happened to him and not. It’s a tough call, especially when we get the full reveal of the story. (I’ve written about Knives Out before, in terms of the story and themes related to racism. You can read that article here.)

The story of Knives Out concerns a wealthy family dealing with the death of their patriarch and benefactor. Harlan Thrombey built a murder-mystery empire. As the police question Harlan’s children and grandchildren about the last night he was alive, his nurse Marta holds a great secret. She knows what happened, but Harlan has sworn her to secrecy. He has his reasons, even if we find out they aren’t good ones.

Plummer toes the line between Harlan’s good intentions and his less-than-sympathetic moments. He has moments of entitlement, as shown when he playfully knocks over the Go board when Marta is winning. We see how he dotes on Linda, threatening her husband to confess to an affair or Harlan will tell her, and also how he enjoys Marta’s company.

At the same time, Harlan is a bit of a “drama mama” as detective Benoit Blanc puts it, and too arrogant about his own abilities. He causes trouble with his relatives with dedication to keeping secrets. Harlan could have easily revealed Richard’s affair to Linda, or created a college plan with Meg so she properly graduates. Instead, he hides behind coded messages and sealed envelopes. We can see how the man is a good mystery writer, and also a terrible patriarch.

Even Harlan’s body language shows where he cannot shed disdain or control in the direst situation. As Marta recollects in her mind and later tells Ransom and Benoit, she accidentally gave him the wrong dosage of morphine, enough to spur an overdose. Harlan casually writes it down as a murder mystery idea, until Marta doesn’t have the antidote. You can see him remaining calm, even as she panics. He twiddles his fingers while she rummages through her medicine bag. Harlan refuses to show the rational amount of fear for the situation.

Harlan treats Marta as one of his kids, and not as his nurse. Is that a problem? Yes, in the case of an emergency. He hired her to take care of him. As Benoit puts it at the end of the movie, Harlan ought to have listened to her and let Marta call an ambulance. Had that happened, the paramedics would have found out that Harlan was fine, and someone had tampered with Marta’s medical bag. This would have led to the investigation of an attempted murder rather than a suicide, and Harlan would have lived to explain the reasons for the will change to his children. He had to dive into the drama of the moment, however, and remain in control. This ended up killing him.

Did Harlan deserve to die? Absolutely not. With his actions and attitude, you can understand that he was frustrating as a father, grandfather, and employer. Walt understandably gets frustrated with him for not letting him broker deals with Netflix, which as a publishing company head is his job. Linda exchanges secret letters with him, and wants answers for how he suddenly slit his throat. Ransom is not sympathetic at all, but you have to feel bad that he was once his grandfather’s research assistant and had a good relationship with him before age soured them. The film had to emphasize that the killer, once he’s revealed, did a terrible and stupid deed to murder Harlan. They could have gotten the same result by telling the family about the changed will, and having them unite to either invalidate the new paper since holographic wills are not legal in the state of Masachussetts or browbeat them.

Plummer manages to have Harlan subvert the typical murder victim. We neither like nor dislike him, or feel that he deserved his fate. Rather, Harlan is someone that chose death over life, and to go out in a blaze of glory. That glory was filled with flecks of disappointment, sadness and anger, as the real killer sought to keep undermining Marta. We understand why some people would have issues with Harlan, especially those in his own family, and the viewers can get frustrated with him for ignoring common sense and medical advice at a crucial time.

After The Mountains Are Climbed, The Mystery Is Solved

We are going to miss Chris Plummer. He treated each role seriously, no matter how big or small. That gave us a litany of characters whom we could root for, pity, or marvel at as the film reels continued. My friends said that he was great in Star Trek VI and had a lot of fun with the role he received. He has a vast body of work as well, that we can appreciate.

Plummer liked being an explorer in his right, to understand motivations and actions that would denote character. He liked to show emotions, and the reasons for them emerging during a specific timeframe. Plummer wasn’t afraid to go deep and consider ways to add depths. His Captain was certainly stiff, but a man who suffered a great loss and has military sides as a defense mechanism.

Thank you for the adventure, Mr. Plummer. We hope you inspire many new ones.

A 2016 MBA graduate and published author, Priya Sridhar has been writing fantasy and science fiction for fifteen years, and counting.

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