AFI Countdown Challenge #4: Gone With The Wind

Around a decade ago, I had to have my gall bladder taken out.  I was living alone at the time, and my mother, a retired nurse, had my dad pick me up and bring me home after the surgery to recover for a few days.  My niece was living there at the time, she was about six or seven, and I brought some movies with me to watch as I recovered.  One of them was Gone with the Wind, and when I put that on, I asked her if she wanted to watch the film with me.  She said no, so I teasingly told her it was the High School Musical  of 1939, and she being a big fan of those movies looked really confused when I told her that.  I told her to go check with her grandma, and yeah, Granny said that was probably an accurate description.

My niece still didn’t watch the film with me.

So, here we are, the all-time box office champ if you adjust for inflation.  I suspect that was most likely due to the fact that it was released to theaters multiple times over the years, and when there wasn’t anything like home video or cable, then if you wanted to see the one film that most Americans probably peg as the quintessential classic movie, you had to go down to the equivalent of the multiplex.  There, you could see the wide vistas, the giant sets, and the Old Hollywood grandeur representing the lost chivalry of the Old South that only exists in works of fiction.  Seriously, the film opens with a title card talking about how the Old South was the last place in the world where chivalry, knights, and maidens fair still existed, and that is such a load.

There’s still a lot to admire about Gone with the Wind, but at its core, it’s a story that asks you to feel bad for rich slaveowners.  All the heroic figures in this film except for Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) owns slaves.  Scarlet O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and her extended family at Tara?  Slave owners.  Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), the man Scarlet inexplicably spends most of the film mooning over?  Slave owner.  Sweet Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Haviland), the kindest, most understanding woman ever created by any god?  Slave owner.

Now, I read the novel this film is based on, and much of Margaret Mitchell’s story deals heavily in the “Lost Cause” theory of the Civil War, much like earlier entry in this series The Birth of a Nation.  That said, as I read it, I saw that Mitchell didn’t exactly make Scarlet a very sympathetic figure.  Scarlet is frequently confused by the more philosophical discussions that people discuss around her.  Her mother (another slave owner) was known for being kind and generous, even to the point of contracting a fatal illness while caring for a white trash family, and Scarlet wishes at one point that she also had her mother’s reputation for being kind and generous without actually being kind and generous.  A good deal of that does transfer over to the film, and Scarlet’s basic awfulness actually helped make the novel more tolerable.  Sure, I didn’t care for how Mitchell, say, tried to make it sound so tragic what happened to those slave-owning, formerly rich, former plantation owners who bragged about how much their gallantry would somehow whip them Yankees in no time, forgetting that gallantry doesn’t stop a bullet.  And Mitchell describes all the black characters in the novel–even the formidable Mammy–in animalistic terms, where none of them were very bright, and even saying the smart former slaves stayed with their masters when the war was over.  But all that was made a lot more tolerable by the simple fact that almost every one of the white characters in the book were at best hypocrites during the war.  They really were a hard bunch to feel bad for.

It’s also really hard in 2018 to sympathize with wealthy characters that don’t go the Batman route.

So, here we have Scarlet, in love with Ashley Wilkes, a man I can’t say is all that impressive anyway.  I mean, he does end up marrying his cousin Melanie, and when I made a joke about that in Gabbing Geek chat, both Watson and Ryan were quick to point out that marrying a cousin wasn’t as taboo as it is now about a century or more ago.  That still won’t stop me from making this joke:

File photo: Ashley Wilkes

You dodged a bullet there, Scarlet.

By the by, Watson hasn’t and won’t see this film because he thinks there’s something ironic or some such about a guy who’s a huge film buff that hasn’t seen the most popular movie of all time.   I think he does it to taunt Jenny.

But you know what?  I will admit to actually liking Rhett Butler.  He’s a scoundrel, but at least he doesn’t hide it behind a cloak of respectability.  At the beginning of the film, as the men talk of war and how easy beating the Yankees will be, Rhett just steps forward and says the South can’t win, and then he outlines what would be the entire Northern strategy.  He doesn’t hide what he is.  He and Scarlet make a good match, and when he finally has enough of her crap, he walks out.  He just doesn’t give a damn anymore.

And then Scarlet, thrice-married Scarlet, someone who married once for spite, once for money (stealing a husband from her rotten sister Suellen), and once for…well, honesty I suppose, realizes that the man she should have held on to just walked out the door.  She isn’t done yet, for tomorrow is another day.

It would be tempting to say that Scarlet O’Hara has learned a great deal about self-reliance and knowing who and what really matters in her life after the nearly four hour running time of this film.  But, I am not sure that she does.  True, she’s capable of keeping the Tara house financially secure, but she started the film as a dreamy girl mooning over a man that didn’t love her, and she ends the film that way, only it’s love for a different man this time.  There’s a lot to say about Gone with the Wind, and while parts of it haven’t aged well, at least it’s aged better than Birth of a Nation.

That said, I would recommend another Civil War-set movie based on a novel as a companion to this film:  Cold Mountain.  Gone with the Wind deals with how the war impacted the rich and powerful of the Old South, the ones that lived in this illusion of chivalry.  Cold Mountain shows how it hit a young couple at the other end of the economic ladder.  Those folks had a far less romantic view of war, and while the war wasn’t good for the rich plantation owners, it was a hell of a lot worse for the poor folks who did most of the fighting and dying on the front lines, to say nothing of the folks left behind for one reason or another.  That one’s worth a look if for no other reason than to see another view of how that war hit the South.

NEXT UP:  We’re heading into the final week for this project with the 1972 crime drama The Godfather.

tomk74

Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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