Gone with the Wind (1939)
Director: Victor Fleming
Screenwriter: Sidney Howard
Starring: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Hattie McDaniel
“Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A civilization gone with the wind…”
With the passing of Olivia de Havilland last year, the then last surviving central cast member, it felt as if Gone with the Wind really had become an artefact of history. Over 80 years since its production, the film edges towards the outskirts of living memory and is transformed into a snapshot of the past. The question is; how do we appraise this jewel from the crown of the Golden Era of Hollywood? Is it to be treasured as a classic and a masterpiece for decades to come, or to be dismissed as an antiquated and irrelevant relic? In truth, Gone with the Wind is one of the most paradoxical films in cinema history, garnering both huge amounts of love and hate, and not just within a modern context: Gone with the Wind has split audiences since the day of its release. Amongst the intense debate surrounding this film we find the most adamant demands for the censoring and editing of this movie. Ironically, these demands have helped to sustain Gone with the Wind‘s relevance as there is nothing like controversy to pull in audiences. With 80 years under its belt, it is almost a matter of urgency to understand the everlasting appeal of this film; to explore why, despite its displays of flagrant racism from the past, our modern society has not let this Golden Era classic go with the wind.
Based on Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel “Gone with the Wind”, an infamously historically inaccurate but hugely romantic retelling of the American Civil War from the perspective of the Confederates, David Selznick’s 1939 film – later given a wide release at cut down ticket prices in 1941 – follows the story of two plantation owning families: the Wilkes at Twelve Oaks and the O’Haras at Tara. The plot centres around Gerald O’Hara’s (Thomas Mitchell) spoiled daughter, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) – a character so big that a gory war is almost a mere background detail within the sweeping tale that is her life. This fiery spirit’s heart pines for that of John Wilkes’ (Howard Hickman’s) son, the soft-spoken but timid-hearted Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). But alas, the Wilkes’ always marry their cousins and so enters the gentle and kind hearted Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), Ashley’s newly betrothed and the unwitting new nemesis to Scarlett. A barbecue at Twelve Oaks marks both a last ditch attempt by Scarlett to secure Ashley’s hand in marriage (which he rejects much to her humiliation and to infamous vagabond Rhett Butler’s (Clark Gable’s) amusement) and the beginning of the US Civil War, which all the enthusiastic young gentlemen run off to sign up to. At this stinging rebuttal, Scarlett makes the resolution to hurt those she believes have wronged her by entering into a loveless marriage, thus beginning the saga of Scarlett in the civil war and Reconstruction period of the old south. This saga is marked by Scarlett’s ruthlessness, her plotting and scheming, and her three marriages, but in the end, after all the infliction of pain, and the rack and ruin she has brought to those around her, she still loses the love that she has always craved.
Visually, it is perfectly clear why Gone with the Wind is considered a classic. Today it is stunning; it must have shone like a sun in all its Technicolor glory in the black and white world of 1940s cinema. To parrot the hugely overused phrase of “they don’t make them like they used to”; surely Gone with the Wind has to be at the front of the queue to demonstrate this truth? Its sweeping majesty legitimately calls into question the production value of modern day Blockbusters. Such impressive statistics that the film can boast are its 50 speaking parts and a total of 2400 extras; with one scene of injured confederate soldiers having 800 extras alone (alongside the use of 800 dummies as well). In the famous burning of the Atlanta Depot sequence, all seven of Hollywood’s Technicolor cameras were used to capture the 500 feet high flames that ravaged the 40 acre set, controlled by fifty studio firemen and doused by 5000 gallons of water. Beyond statistics, the “spared no expense” approach to all the physical elements of the film production leads to a visual feast in which every on-screen detail feeds into the storytelling of Gone with the Wind, transforming it from a film into its own cinematic experience. These visual details may not escape the trademark paradoxical nature of this movie, but they do help to take us by the hand to lead us into the dizzying heights and the devastating lows of the fiery passion and drama at the heart of this story.
It wouldn’t be foolish to think that colour was invented by Gone with the Wind: the luscious greens of Tara before the shadow of the war is cast over it, and the blood red of the Confederate loss. Rhett Butler’s declaration of love to Scarlett against the backdrop of the burnt orange sky of Atlanta is one of the most romantic and sensual scenes in Hollywood to date. And, just as much as we are dazzled by all that the Technicolor Spectrum has to throw at us, we are thrilled by the use of darkness and shadow in this movie. These scenes in which our players are only shadows are the most visceral, such as the desperation of Melanie’s labour in which no medic can be spared to tend to her. It is this same darkness that heralds in the rawest scene of the film as a starving Scarlett scrambles in the dirt in search for food, taking a bite out of a raw radish to just as soon wretch it out.
“I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”
All of this glorious visual splendour would be nothing without the outstanding talent of the cast. To describe Gone with the Wind as a melodrama would be an understatement. The tragedies and hardships that befall the main characters within the near 4 hour runtime is quite frankly ridiculous, and wouldn’t go amiss in a soap opera. Nonetheless, our principal cast, without an overly strict realism approach, manage to bring a grittiness and nuance to this rather histrionic affair; Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel picked up the Academy Awards for Best Actress and Best Actress in a Supporting Role respectively (the film won 8 Oscars in total including Best Picture) – Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar win is hugely significant, as she was the first black actor to even be nominated for an Academy Award. It cannot be denied that Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy is constructed from racist stereotypes, but Hattie’s performance ensures that Mammy is one of the warmest and most vivacious characters in the movie, and also serves as the moral compass of the story – it is fact that Hattie McDaniel helped to lay the path for other black actors and filmmakers to make it into Hollywood and will forever be immortalised as a trailblazer.
80 years later, a huge amount of respect is owed to the male leads, Leslie Howard and Clark Gable, who play Scarlett’s love interests. For a film that is often condemned as a dinosaur, the portrayals of Ashley Wilkes and Rhett Butler shockingly resound with an unexpected relevance. The plot of Gone with the Wind does have parallels with that of other examples of romantic Classical English Literature such as the works of Jane Austen, but “Pride and Prejudice” fails to strike as much of a chord with modern day attitudes to romance and the role of the gentleman in society. In any other period drama, Leslie Howard’s soft spoken and pained performance would have had him in a White Knight role as the perfect gentleman he is, but in Gone with the Wind Ashley Wilkes is one of the sources of discord in the families at the heart of the story, despite Scarlett’s reputation of being a temptress. His ongoing emotional affair with Scarlett is due to his simpering nature and cowardly lack of will, making him truly detestable, yet Howard’s soft, mild mannered performance saves Ashley from any real condemnation.
By contrast, Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler is a cad and a scallywag: he consorts with prostitutes and gambles with Yankees without shame. And yet he is easily the most likeable character on screen. In the 80 years since Gone with the Wind was released, there has been a huge evolution in the leading men of Hollywood. On a shallow assessment one could conclude that Clark Gable would not be palatable to the modern audiences of romance. Nevertheless, Gable more than justifies his status as a Golden Era sex symbol through his performance as Rhett Butler which oozes charisma and panache. Butler can sweep whole audiences off their feet let alone Scarlett O’Hara. But more than his charm it is because, despite what are considered to be loose morals, he is the true White Knight of the story. Like Scarlett, he bucks against the expectations society places against him, and comes out as the most noble of all the main characters. It is his unflinching honesty that sets him apart, especially in comparison to Ashley Wilkes. Whilst Ashley hides behind propriety and his gentlemanly manners, Rhett couldn’t be more upfront with his feelings (in all of its carnal messiness) towards Scarlett. The vulnerable integrity of Gable’s performance brings weight to the plot, helping to ground the continuous melodrama into real emotional depth. The honesty of the performance makes Rhett’s tragedy the most stinging and is responsible for the now eternally iconic ending.
“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Now, there cannot be a review written about Gone with the Wind that doesn’t mention Vivien Leigh’s performance as Scarlett O’Hara. Scarlett is the most fascinating “heroine” to ever be committed to literature, with her casting being one of the biggest issues the production faced. Leigh of course was a phenomenal choice and her outstanding performance owes no thanks to the director, Victor Fleming: he failed to see the intricacies of Scarlett’s character, dismissing her as a bitch. On one occasion when Leigh asked for some constructive advice, Fleming told her to “take the script and stick it up her royal British ass”. Scarlett O’Hara is at the heart of many of the paradoxes of Gone with the Wind; for although the film is undeniably old-fashioned and offensive, the character of Scarlett receives some surprisingly progressive treatment. Again, similarities between this story and other works of Classical English Literature, such as “Wuthering Heights“, can be seen: Scarlett O’Hara is strikingly similar to the heroine of that tale – if indeed Catherin Earnshaw of “Wuthering Heights” started taking steroids. In short, despite coming from a setting of over 150 years ago within an 80 year old film, Scarlett O’Hara remains one of Hollywood’s most believable and fleshed out heroines. Not only does she subvert the societal expectations of her Confederate society, she goes against the trend of the popular tropes of feminine characters that remain in Hollywood to this day.
Leigh went all in for a “warts and all” portrayal of Scarlett. As a teenager she is bratty and shockingly flirtatious; as a young widow she is consumed by the grief for her social life rather than for her late husband. As she ages, she does lose some of the petulance of her youth, but these are then only replaced by spite and ice-cold calculation. Her scheming and bloody-mindedness causes more than offence but real death and destruction to the family and friends around her. A consistent characteristic seen throughout her life is her selfishness; she weeps at the several tragedies of her life but it is never out of true remorse for her actions. Despite all of this, Leigh still manages to make Scarlett likeable – audiences are enraptured by her. Like Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh brings a brutal and vulnerable honesty to the part, giving her a relatability that has sustained itself over 80 years.
In stark contrast, Scarlett’s character arc is disappointing. Scarlett is at her best during the poverty of the Confederate defeat and the early Reconstruction Period. Her more unflattering traits such as her ruthlessness and selfishness make her admirably steadfast in the face of hardship, a rarity seen in even modern heroines; a more genuine epitome of the image of the independent woman than many 21st century characters. It is at the reclamation of her wealth and her refusal to let go of ancient grudges that the fate of her downfall becomes sealed. Gone with the Wind is tragic and it is difficult for a modern audience to discern the overarching message of the film – this is where the real controversy lies.
Gone with the Wind is an uncomfortable watch in the year 2021. Despite the supreme art direction and acting talent, nothing takes you out of the moment quite as quickly as racial slurs and expletives. Images of young children enslaved by the white plantation families is nothing short of distressing. In most ways, Gone with the Wind‘s controversy is very obvious with illustrating the Confederates as the good guys, whilst history has made it clear that the United States’ use of slavery was morally repugnant. Surely then, we are safe from its romanticising of the Old South with its masters and slaves when it is so clearly wrong. In truth, audiences aren’t as safe as we hoped to believe. Gone with the Wind is one of the smartest and most insidious examples of propaganda to appear on the silver screen, and Scarlett O’Hara is at the heart of it.
Scarlett O’Hara remains one of cinema’s largest characters, to which the demise of a nation is white noise in comparison, but oh contraire, the plight of The South is embodied in the tragedy of Scarlett’s life. In the second part of the film, Scarlett commits real atrocities: she steals romantic partners from her sisters, shamefully exploits the wealth of others, uses brutal prison labour and profiteers in a time of poverty. What motivates her? Is it through her romantic spite as she continues her emotional affair with Ashley Wilkes? No. Eventually she realises that he doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, despite her pining destroying all of her other meaningful relationships. At the end it all becomes clear, every terrible thing Scarlett did it was for Tara. Thus the horrible realisation that the blame for Scarlett’s evil and tragedy lies squarely with the victory of the Yankees – if the Confederacy had been left well alone in its way of life of “Master and Slave”, how much bloodshed and misery would have been spared? Amongst the melodrama, romance and passion, this terrible and abhorrent message slips into your mind very nearly undetected. Truth be told it’s unforgivably manipulative.
What then must be done with this film? Banned? All copies destroyed? Well… no.
Such actions simply boast an ignorance that matches that of creating such an offensive film. At the same time, doing nothing about it may be just as harmful as it does perpetuate stereotypes and misinformation which can cause real harm and distress. Thus, it is understandable why services decide not to host this film for this very reason. In this day and age, it is more important for this film to remain available though, as it is a source of understanding ourselves. 80 years ago, it was found acceptable to make a Blockbuster which at its very core was racist, and we need to be able to understand why this was the case then if we have any hope of understanding modern society and the racism that unfortunately thrives now. It is also just as important to understand the mechanisms of propaganda, of which Gone with the Wind is a prime example, if we are to have any hope of overcoming the misinformation of the modern age.
Gone with the Wind is an ever-lasting reminder of how storytelling can be used to manipulate, but it also reminds us of where we came from as a society and how far we have yet to go. It is sometimes impossible to separate the art from the artist, but as much as Gone with the Wind weaponises, it illuminates.