During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.
1939’s “Gone with the Wind” has no equal. Running nearly four hours, it’s a sweeping romantic epic about the rise and fall of the American South in the American Civil War. It follows Scarlett O’Hara as she marries, complains, and cries her way through the entire war and well into its fallout. It is exactly the kind of film that everyone should see once and, if they are so cursed, see twice since this thing gets shown in history classes in the deep South.
I admit I was mixed about having to see this movie again. The one and only time I watched it was over the course of a week back in middle school. For me, “Gone with the Wind” always seemed like a celebration of all things that I found troublesome about my heritage. It romanticizes the gallantry and heroism of slave owners. It asks the audience to sympathize with the fallen opulence of plantation life built on the backs of others. It celebrates the old American South as a civilization that did not deserve its fate.
After seeing it again, I am not so sure my biases are accurate. “Gone with the Wind” is a difficult movie to fully understand because it rarely takes a stand for anything. It supports slavery if only through its omission of its evils and the presence of strong, noble characters like Mammy and Big Sam. At the same time, next to no one seems concerned about whether African Americans are freed or not (including the Southern gentleman who don’t want to see their way of life disappear).
Though it skirts around the issue of racism, “Gone with the Wind” takes classism straight on and rarely to the film’s benefit. Early on, a poor white man is kicked off the plantation, despite his talents, because he had the nerve to knock up a woman of higher birth. One of Rhett’s friends is a prostitute but she still wants to give money to the war effort. When she tries, her money is seen as no good until she finds the one person with the social pedigree and soul to accept her charity.
Beyond race and class, the first half the movie focuses on the South itself. Diane felt some of the text was uncomfortable to read and I have to agree. Not to get too political, but all of the text describing the Southern war effort as some grand adventure or quest seemed problematic. Words like ‘chivalry’, ‘gallantry’, and ‘gentleman’ were used quite liberally as well.
Growing up in the American South, I have a complicated view of the matter. I’ve never been one to fly a Confederate flag, but just as hard as my eyes roll when someone tries to play the Civil War off as being about states rights I have a similar concern with the North’s reasons for war too. Often they are portrayed as pure and about freeing the slaves, but that’s only a smart part of the overall picture.
None of these nuances are in play here. “Gone with the Wind” uses the word ‘yankee’ as a slur more often than not. There are thankfully no long sylloquies about states rights, but the destruction and death depicted as a direct result of General Sherman’s march to the sea and burning of Atlanta does plenty to bring into question Northern atrocities. With the fantasized depiction of slavery too, “Gone with the Wind” is definitely a pro-South film even if it had been cleaned up for Hollywood and mass consumption. Rather than dwell on historical events or politics, the movie instead focuses on the love triangle of Scarlett, Rhett, and Ashley as the whole world around them falls apart and then is rebuilt.
“Gone with the Wind” wouldn’t be much of a movie without the performance of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett. Her resting bitch face is unparalleled and juxtaposing her against the pure Melanie (played by Olivia de Havilland, previously Maid Marian in “The Adventures of Robin Hood”) was genius. With the exception of Prissy (who I hate for other reasons), no one is more hateable than Scarlett. She’s the perfect villain for this plot though I imagine that was hardly the intent at the time.
How is Scarlett the villain? She’s selfish until the very end. She loves Ashley and pines for him, but she marries his cousin in an attempt to make him jealous. After that, she moves in with Ashley’s wife Melanie to await Ashley’s return from the war. She marries a second time to a man who loves and is loved by her sister just for his money. When her second husband runs off with Ashley and others to a nearby shanty town where Scarlett was assaulted, she never once worries about her husband when he doesn’t return but a wounded Ashley does. Even as Melanie is on her deathbed, Scarlett makes Ashley’s grief and raw emotion about her more than anyone else.
The only sympathy I have for Scarlett is how Ashley leads her on throughout the film. Rather than be honest with her and tell her he will never love her, he consistently aims to protect the weaker sex from the pains of raw truth, thinking it more chivalrous and decorous. I am unsure if Scarlett was ever mature enough to hear Ashley’s honest opinion of her, but he could’ve at least tried.
And as dull as Ashley was and as frustrating as her obsession with him could be, Scarlett’s love for him helped me appreciate the movie once I found an interpretation of it that made sense. In the first half, we see the glory of the South as it burns down to the ground as a direct result of Southern hubris and pride. Early on, we overhear the menfolk talking about how they will win the war in a month with their gentleman ways alone. Scarlett constantly ignores talk of the war and never gets very involved, so I pondered throughout the film if she was above nostalgia.
To me, Scarlett’s love for Ashley, taking us from the very beginning of the film to the very end, is that very same nostalgia. She longs for the dream of Ashley, a man who we are repeatedly reminded is chivalrous, honorable, and above all else a gentleman. Even as she marries Rhett, the only other person to know how deep and how long she has loved Ashley, the dream of her white knight sours what Scarlett and Rhett have together.
We see early on the price of pride as their entire world burns to the ground. We see the hundreds of men lying dead in the streets and fields or returning home clearly broken and mangled. When Scarlett realizes she had fallen in love with a dream that would never exist again, she realizes what she had in Rhett and rushes back to their home. As she admits to Rhett her foolishness, he admits his own in thinking this could ever work and begins to walk out on her for good. When she asks him what she should do in the wake of her dream ending, Rhett responds with a line that everyone knows whether they’ve seen the movie or not: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” In an instant, that line lands with all the violence and destruction of the burning of Atlanta itself.
That line alone was worth sitting through almost four hours to get there. I had forgotten its power, especially as pop culture has stripped away its context. In a single blow, Rhett lands a punch that Scarlett deserved during the entire movie. He reveals that he is the hero and that, survive or die, the Old South is behind us just as Scarlett is behind him. He leaves as Scarlett is left clinging to all that is left: the land she grew up on.
Overall, Diane and I both enjoyed watching the movie. Despite its many problems, “Gone with the Wind” remains a whirlwind of emotion, technicolor, and great performances. Of what we’ve watched thus far, it is both the hardest to watch fairly from modern eyes and the hardest to see without so much baggage attached from having grown up in the South. I doubt either of us ever revisit it again but I do suggest everyone see it at least once. If only the winners write the history books, then “Gone with the Wind” stands alone as historical fiction written by the losers. It’s a fantastic place to see at least one, but thankfully is just a fantasy.