Thematically controversial and visually arresting, Victor Fleming’s 1939 Gone with the Wind, isn’t exactly the most accurate of motion pictures, but the scope of its storytelling, and the psychological insights it displays about a flawed but compelling heroine, are admirable indeed.
How does one defend a 75-year-old movie that sugarcoats aspects of a nasty legacy in American history? Obviously, one doesn’t – one can’t! In fact, the film does not need defending – unless one, not only has a chip on their shoulder, but lives and sleeps with one at all times. Well-educated people will know that slavery was actually brutal (12 Years a Slave, anyone?). Why does a work of art must agree to certain degrees of accuracy? What kinds of responsibility does a picture bear towards the truth? Is it really so insensitive to love the film for those dresses, those vistas and those characters dazzling in Technicolor?
Just before the outbreak of the American Civil War, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) lives in decadent splendour in Tara, her family’s plantation in the Georgia countryside. Her spoilt life consists of balls, beaus and bossing the slaves around. Scarlett is in love with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), who is in love with Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland). To spite Ashley and everyone else, she accepts to marry Melanie’s brother, Charles. As the war starts and young men join the Confederate Army in bunches, Scarlett sees her way of life dissipate. After her husband dies and her son is born, Scarlett moves to Atlanta. There she meets Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) again, who will eventually become the love of her life.
On the night the Yankees set Atlanta on fire, Scarlett walks all the way back to Tara, taking Melanie and her new-born baby with her. Her mother has died and her father has lost his mind. As she slowly starts to rebuild Tara, an opportunistic government official raises the taxes on the property with the intention of driving the family out and buying it cheaply. Scarlett does what it takes to raise the money, including marrying her own sister’s boyfriend and starting a lumber business. After her second husband dies, she finally marries Rhett Butler. They live in a luxurious mansion with their daughter Bonnie Blue. When tragedy strikes and the child dies in a horse-riding accident, Rhett loses his mind. At the end, Scarlett finally accepts Butler as the love of her life, but now it is too late – he simply does not give a damn anymore!
..Love-Hate Relationships Never been more Poignant.
To me it seems a bad joke that plenty of people are bothered by the way the film portrays the slaves as simple-minded folks, with no psychological lives of their own, when the wider context of that period in American history is in itself so rich analytically. Before asking the nonetheless pertinent question of how Gone with the Wind presents African-Americans in time and space, what about dealing with the myth that the United States is the land of the free and the home of the brave? The caricaturing of blacks, communists and muslims throughout history says otherwise. By its very nature, the country is many lands with different – and sometimes contrasting – customs and laws.
We can do things the way we’ve been doing since the dawn of times, with man pretending to care about his fellow human beings and then, being in fact as selfish as possible, or we can try to at least admit that this is the way we are and the pretence of social progress and that we are further in the road towards freedom for everyone is just a delusion imposed on us by our own psyche to make us feel good about ourselves. Now, I don’t want to deny social progress – the world was definitely a different place 150 years ago. However, social class, rather than race, is a better indicator of the injustice suffered by a person. It is just sad that people of certain races usually belong to the lower strata in society.
It is foolish to just concentrate on the sociocultural issues raised by the movie and utterly dismiss important themes depicted by the story. Scarlett O’Hara starts the film as a spoilt and arrogant girl, who might deserve or not her comeuppance at the end, but what it matters most is that she is – justifiably so or not! – divided by two opposing frames of mind. She has to contend with two very real aspects of her personality. On the one hand, by upbringing, she must obey social convention and love (or pretend to love!) Ashley, the calm, supposedly rational gentleman. And on the other hand, by temperament, Scarlett has to defy her society and be strong, independent and fight for her happiness. She seems a very modern woman.
Besides, who reads the text at the beginning of the movie, which mentions ‘Cavaliers’ and ‘Gallantry’, and really hold their heads between their palms and despair? Perhaps if one is young and naïve… I often think that the condescending way in which people accuse the film of being racist is more offensive than to actually acknowledge that the characters of Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) and Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) are not only compelling but also subtly complex and ambiguous. Obviously, to someone who fundamentally disagrees with such position, and believes that it is, in fact, outrageous that a movie like this is permitted to exist (!?), then Scarlett’s story arc and psychological journey – from a spoilt little beau to a confident and independent woman (can anyone spot the irony here?) is inconsequent – a mere distraction conjured up by a deeply racist society.
Gone with the Wind is important, not due to its depiction of a certain period in American history, but because of its cinematic merits; the film deserves its place as a masterpiece of world cinema for the story it tells and not the issues it raises.