Epic in every conceivable facet, Gone with the Wind is a hugely successful, multi award winning melodrama which sweeps its way through intertwined families of the Old South during The American Civil war and subsequent reconstruction era. Notable in its day for its long pre-production and actual production problems, the film has come to be known as one of the most loved in history. As well as receiving a record ten Oscars, a feat that wasn’t beaten for twenty years, it was also the highest grossing picture of its day and still remains the highest grossing film in history when adjusted for inflation. When released in 1939 it also had the distinction of being the longest American sound film, clocking in at a patience testing 221 minutes, or 234 including overture and intermission.
Although recognised upon its release as a critical and commercial success, and despite its place in history well and truly assured, more recent critical reassessments have been less kind, picking up on details which were less consequential in the late 1930s and early 40s. I’d heard both the good and bad second hand but decided to finally set aside many hours on a rainy Sunday and watch it for myself. My opinion of the picture is less favourable than the norm but I’m able to recognise it for its strengths and can’t dispute its historical standing in the medium of film.
Gone with the Wind has a large cast of characters who come and go over the years but there is one constant. She is Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh). Scarlett is the eldest daughter of a wealthy Georgia plantation owner and the prettiest girl for miles. Despite having every man within an eye’s gaze falling at her dainty feet, Scarlett only has eyes for one man, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). Although her love is secret, she yearns to tell the man but is disappointed to learn of his impeding marriage to his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). At Ashley and Melanie’s engagement party, the despondent Scarlett notices that she’s being admired by Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), a man of good standing who has been disowned by his Charleston family. With war on the horizon, what follows is a tale of love, loss, tragedy, duplicities, wanton desire and resourcefulness, told over several decades.
The sheer magnitude and scope of the plot is hard to comprehend. The film stretches on and on, ever widening, seemingly without worry for length. I have to admit that for long periods of the movie, I found myself zoning out and losing interest in the proceedings. Although I set aside half a day to watch the film, I had to take two breaks during it, one quick and the second an hour at the gym. Had the film been even an hour shorter though, I still don’t think it would have completely held my attention. I found large swathes of the picture lacking in drama and tension and only really got into it at the fall of Atlanta which must come over an hour and a half in. My problem was that I didn’t really care about many of the characters. Scarlett is a vain and self centred young woman who hides her insecurities behind malice. As the film progresses she turns from the spoiled brat of the opening into a harder, financially incentivised person. Both versions of Scarlett can be deeply unlikeable and it’s difficult to invest in a central character like her.
I had much more time for Olivia de Havilland’s Melanie who was kind and conscientious, sticking up for those who were belittled or shunned by others. Despite Scarlett’s occasional ill treatment of her, she remains close and attentive, always looking out for others first. She makes a great counterbalance to Scarlett. Clark Gable gives Rhett Butler a magnetising screen presence and the film always feels strong when he’s on screen. He’s less easy to pin down than the female leads, often speaking sense and looking out for those he loves but also thinking about number one wherever possible. His pursuit of Scarlett is a highlight and Gable brings a lot of charm to the role.
Although I found the film to be a little over romanticised and found my self drowning in a thick soup of melodrama, the writing still seems sharp at times. Scarlett treads a line between dependence and independence which separates her from the traditional southern belle role that some of the peripheral characters play. Rhett is a man who knows what he wants and usually gets it and some of the dialogue is enjoyable and finely tuned. One of the problems with the film is something that has surely cropped up in many recent evaluations and that is its revisionist history. Not since D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation have I seen a film which is so publically favourable to the Confederacy. The screenplay paints white Southerners as elegant, graceful and moral, forgetting that many of the characters were slave owners. The depiction of slavery itself is almost laughable with black characters seemingly in love with servitude and when free, shown to be drunk, sneering and aloof. One scene after the war features a shocked Scarlett taken aback by the sight of two black men in suits. It makes for cringe worthy viewing. Aside from the skewed view of the black race, northerners or ‘Yankees’ are given an even less favourable write-up. They’re drawn as wicked interlopers, in the south to pillage from the honest, hardworking folk of the fallen Confederacy.
In amongst the blatant racism and fervent regionalism emerges Hattie McDaniel who in response to her performance as house servant Mammy became the first African American to be nominated for and win an Oscar. Although she has gone down in history for this feat, her win was surely bittersweet. As well as winning the award for an appearance in a film that appears to glorify slavery, she was also barred from attending the film’s Premier in Atlanta due to segregation laws. To me and I’m sure to many modern audiences, this is far more noteworthy than her performance, good as it was. Clark Gable, McDaniel’s close friend, even threatened to boycott the Premier but at McDaniel’s insistence he did attend. Although I’m (rightly in my opinion) giving the film a hard time for its racial credentials, there are scenes from the source novel which are absent from the film because of their racist ideas. In one scene, a group of men ride off to clear a camp of vagrants after Scarlett has been attacked. This scene avoided the depiction of the Ku Klux Klan but if anything, this actually makes the white men even more valiant in response to the perceived black threat.
Another scene which surprised me was what appears to be a marital rape. With Scarlett depressed and Rhett drunk, she refuses to kiss him at which point he lifts her on his shoulder and carries her up the stairs into darkness. What’s more amazing is that the following scene, set the morning after, shows Scarlett happily basking in post coital glow. It’s a very peculiar sequence which as with much else, I have to chalk up to the era. Whether acceptable at the time or not, it’s a scene that stands out for all the wrong reasons.
On a more positive note, Gone with the Wind is a truly awe inspiring film to look at. Its visuals are crisp and the colour is over saturated with some vividly incorrect sky colouring heightening some of the dramatic scenes. Deep orange sunsets frame characters in low lighting and the use of shadow is highly effective too. The grand, opulent sets are beautifully designed and some of the outdoor scenes feel lush and expansive. The burning of Atlanta is a tremendous sequence which still looks stunning by today’s standards. The costume design is spectacular and the actors themselves look radiant, even when downtrodden. The film’s score is effective although like the script, a little melodramatic. Nevertheless it works perfectly and sweeps along with the fantastic scenery. The direction is at times superb although I can’t be sure who is responsible. Original director George Cukor was fired after just three weeks of principle photography despite spending two years in pre-production and Victor Fleming was called upon to complete the picture. He was also briefly replaced by Sam Wood during a two week period in which Fleming was suffering from exhaustion. Whoever was responsible though, the film looks and sounds incredible and even though I feel it’s far too long and slow, it does flow satisfactorily.
Summing up Gone with the Wind could take as long as it does to watch it but overall I have three things to say. The first is that it rightfully deserves its place in history, for good or for bad. Secondly it’s a film that left me wanting more, despite its length. Though I didn’t want a longer film, I wanted more drama and more action. Finally though, I feel that despite its many shortcomings, Gone with the Wind is a film that should be watched. The performances, particularly that of Vivien Leigh, are outstanding, it’s incredible to gaze upon and it’s film history. Ticking it off feels like a right of passage for a film fan. Tick.
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