0505 | Gone With The Wind

[Note: this is the third film in my 2016 Blind Spot series. For a list of the other well-known or well-respected films I’ve already watched or I’m going to be watching for the first time this year, see this post.]

So, somehow I’ve reached the ripe old age of 40 without ever seeing Gone With The Wind, but don’t be alarmed; it’s but one of a numer of classics that are ‘blind spots’ for me, and I’ve rectified this particular situation by watching it over the Bank Holiday weekend while recovering from a bout of flu. First and foremost there’s no denying the film’s grandeur, which is manifest by a number of different factors: the running time (close to four hours including overture and intermission), the epic scale of the story, the quality of the production (including the set design and all those flamboyant costumes) and the way the use of Technicolor – still in its early days in 1939 – accentuates the drama of love and war, creating all those fiery red skies. In terms of plot, Gone With The Wind covers so much ground that comparitively films today seem far more conservative in their approach (oh, the irony). It’s a one-sided American Civil War film, a drama about the plantations of two families during that period, an intricate – and fairly satisfying – love story, a paean to land and the idea of home, and a wholly one-eyed and romanticised account of the lives of slaves and the southern way of life more generally.

What’s interesting is the film’s ability to be all these things and more, especially given its troubled production; you get the impression that it was a minor miracle that it all fit together successfully. Producer David O. Selznick spent a fortune, forced re-writes on Sidney Howard’s script before reverting to the original, fired the director and replaced him with Victor Fleming, while reports suggest Vivien Leigh was hard to work with at times and didn’t get on with co-star Leslie Howard at all, with whom she shares a few key romantic scenes. Then there’s the small factor of a long search for the female lead, and the near-two year delay while Selznick waited for his preferred leading man, Clark Gable, to become available. That was a good move, as it happens, as Gable is memorable as the wealthy cad and eyebrow juggler Rhett Butler, veering between the two extremes of cheeky hero and marital rapist. But Gone With The Wind is really notable for its women, and the character of Scarlett O’Hara in particular. Leigh’s petulant but strong-willed southern belle is eye catching, and she irritates and later inspires in equal measure; Olivia de Havilland as Melanie Hamilton is the heart of the movie even if the character is a little grey when stood next to the tempestuous, noisy Scarlett; and there’s Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American actor to win an Academy Award, playing the house servant Mammy, one of several black stereotypes found in the film.

It’s been well documented elsewhere but it bears repeating here: time hasn’t been kind to Gone With The Wind. The depiction of happy slaves and the glorification of slavery is the most troubling factor, while the film’s fervent anti-Yankee, anti-Reconstruction sentimentality is surprising for its vehemence, as is its romantic idealisation of the south, here a verdant land of elegant young women, noble, innocent male suitors and little else of note. One wonders what watching black audiences made of Butterfly McQueen’s turn at the time – Malcolm X said later that it made him want to crawl under a rug – and there are elements of McDaniel’s award-winning performance that presumably induced mass cringing at the time, too. There are valid reasons, therefore, to really dislike Gone With The Wind, but for me fully resisting the charm of its central romance and romantic sub-plots – as well as the film’s desire to impress you with scale – feels impossible; perhaps if I was a black American, rather than a white English guy, I’d feel differently. Anyway, for what it’s worth I preferred the first half, which includes most of the iconic silhouette shots and red skies, and the story builds deliciously to a dramatic crescendo before the intermission. Butler and O’Hara escape a burning, war-torn Atlanta. Scarlett returns to her home at Tara, and all the while Max Steiner’s grandiose score hums along. At points such as this it’s one of those films that screams ‘look what cinema can be!’, and…well…I like that kind of thing a lot. For many reasons it still feels genuinely risky today: imagine a major studio making a four-hour-long romance, and then imagine them making one that ends with death, death and more death, as well as the male lead walking out on a still-defiant, never-broken female lead. Who on earth would green light a film like that?

Directed by: Victor Fleming.
Written by: Sidney Howard. Based on Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell.
Starring: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia De Havilland, Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel, Evelyn Keyes, Thomas Mitchell.
Cinematography: Ernest Haller.
Editing: Hal C Kern, James E Newcom.
Max Steiner.
Running Time:
221 minutes (without overture, intermission etc.).

Comments 13

  1. ckckred March 29, 2016

    Nice review Stu. It is hard to watch Gone With The Wind today. Alongside a whole slew of other movies from the first half of the 20th century, its depiction of race is cringeworthy. That being said, it’s hard not to fall for the picture’s grandiose production and acting, which definitely impacted me when I saw this, though I heavily object to GWTW romanticizing the pre-Civil War South.

    • Stu March 29, 2016

      Thanks Charles. It was definitely easier for me to sit through as it was my first time watching the film, so I had little idea as to what was coming next, but it’s quite a troublesome watch in many respects these days and I don’t think I’ll be revisiting it any time soon.

  2. Cindy Bruchman March 29, 2016

    A fine review and I agree with just about all your sentiments. I’ve watched it probably 10 times but I managed to fall asleep after their kid is born and always miss her falling off the horse and dying. Then I catch the final goodbye and think good riddance. Scarlett. What a brat and perfectly played by Vivien Leigh. It was Clark Gable’s best role. Yes, to the stereotypes. I find them interesting from the perspective of a social historian and understand the cringe along with everyone else. Loved the backstory you provide. I wasn’t aware of the 2 year delay, for example. Excellent, Stu.

    • Stu March 29, 2016

      Thanks Cindy, much appreciated, especially given you’ve seen it so many times! That’s a whole working week of your life given over to GWTW by my reckoning! Haha. Well, ‘brat’ is the right word with regard to Scarlett, but she does change, I guess, even if she’s only ever really concerned with self-interest. Even her daughter dying doesn’t seem to elicit much response. I enjoyed Leigh a lot, though…both leads great to watch here.

      • Cindy Bruchman March 29, 2016

        Her voice is annoying. However, she managed to strike a cord within me. I remember a particular downtrodden chapter in my life when all parts of my world was dismal and gray. I stood alone at a bus stop at 11 o’clock at night in a bad neighborhood. I hadn’t eaten in ages. I had no money. I felt alone and trapped waiting to go to a job I hated, etcetera, etcetera. I remember holding up my fist, Scarlett style, and saying with her accent, “As God is my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again.” Ha!

        • Stu March 30, 2016

          That’s a great story…I hope you haven’t gone hungry again! I remember talking to a girl in a bar in Washington, DC when I was in my early 20s; she was from Georgia or South Carolina, one of the two, and she came out with the ‘As God is my witness…’ line at one point. I’ve always remembered it, though I only think she said it because it was ten cent wing night! Had I been quicker I’d have come back with ‘Frankly, my dear…’

  3. Keith March 29, 2016

    Fine review. A truly astounding epic that (as you say) does so many things. Personally I wouldn’t say romantic idealization of the south. It isn’t that the film depicts relationships that never existed. It’s that the film stays within its own vacuum to the point of overlooking the vast majority of slaves who were brutally treated. And despite the beautiful exteriors – the beautiful dresses, the beautiful homes, and the beautiful people – there is an acidic quality to several of the characters and relationships that I feel trumps the the overindulgences and pageantry. And in the end are any of these people you would want to be with? I don’t know. It is an interesting discussion.

    • Stu March 30, 2016

      Thanks very much Keith. I used romantic idealisation as the film pretty much nails its colours to the mast in that respect within the opening credits, i.e. when it says on screen ‘Here in this pretty world gallantry took its last bow’. I nearly spat out a mouthful of tea when I read that! I think there are a couple of instances of the title cards offering more extreme viewpoints (which I’m guessing are lifted straight from Mitchell’s text, though it is just a guess). There’s one about carpetbaggers that I recall, and it comes right before a scene in which Scarlett’s walking around on the street and there’s this suggestion through her reactions to those around her that civility has disappeared now that the slaves are free men. Awful sequence, hated it! And I dislike the way they skirt over the Klan meeting, which I gather is specificially identified as such in the book. But you make an interesting point re the acidity of characters and relationships…that’s a good way to describe them.

  4. Eric Binford March 29, 2016

    Well, Mammy is a stereotype, that’s true, yet she is the most decent person in the entire film. Melanie is good, but she’s good to a fault. Mammy is wise, smart, strong, compassionate, etc. She’s Scarlet’s conscience. Rhett Butler recognizes Mammy’s great qualities and I think he even tells her how much he respects her. And McDaniel is extraordinary — her monologue, as she and Melanie climb the staircase, is a tour-de-force. No, it does make the film’s racism okay, but it does make it palatable.

    • Stu March 30, 2016

      Thanks Eric. She is decent, I agree…but she’s still a stereotype! I think it’s an important performance/part for many reasons, but I disagree with the point that she makes the film’s racism palatable.

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