When I was but a wee leveret in the wilds of Baltimore City, I loved Gone With The Wind. This was a time before it (or anything) was readily available, so I waited for it to air on TNT every year. I’d watch it in two parts on weeknights, then in its entirety the following Sunday evening. It was something of a tradition for me. I got to the point where I knew entire stretches of the movie by heart. I was that big of a fan.
I was really looking forward to seeing it as part of the AFI Top 100; it had been at least ten years since I watched it, even though I had seen it at least a dozen times. There’s always a sense of trepidation when you revisit a fond memory from your childhood. Does the story hold up as well as you thought it did? What little details do you notice now that flew over your head when you were younger? I know a lot more about slavery and the curious way Hollywood has approached the subject than I did back then; just how cringe-inducing would seemingly innocuous details seem to me now?
The answer is very. Gone With The Wind is a deeply problematic film, and not just because of the way it asks us to think of slavery as “not that bad”. True, it engages in a bit of revisionist history, painting the antebellum South as something of an American Eden. But the issues go deeper than that, right down to the core of the story and its heroine, Scarlett O’Hara. I had always gone with the popular opinion of Scarlett — she was a Southern spitfire, full of flint and steel, able to take whatever came her way and make the best of it. But on watching the film this time, I have to say that I think she’s a sociopath.
The movie is roughly four hours long, and a LOT happens in it, but the basic through-line is this. Scarlett O’Hara (Leigh) is one of the daughters of a wealthy Irish landowner in the South. Right around the time the Civil War is heating up, she’s set her sights on dashing Southern gentleman Ashley Wilkes (Howard). However, Ashley loves her neighbor Melanie (de Havilland) and they agree to get married just before every able-bodied man is called to fight. Through the troubled years of open rebellion, loss and reconstruction, Scarlett tries to survive, woo Ashley and resist the charms of scoundrel Rhett Butler (Gable). It’s a sweeping epic of a story with wonderful setpieces and so many memorable scenes. Rhett is a singular type of hero, complicated and contradictory, and you can’t help but feel that he should be throwing his affections after a better person than Scarlett.
Throughout her life, Scarlett manipulates and cajoles men into doing what she wants them to do; she marries twice not for love but to spite someone and propel herself into a better financial position respectively, and she tries to get Ashley to run away with her while her entire family is depending on her and Melanie is recuperating from an extremely difficult birthing and a harrowing trip from Atlanta back to the O’Hara’s plantation. She has disdain for just about anyone that she doesn’t have a use for and only thinks of them once they can do something for her. Simply put, she is the worst.
It’s actually a testament to the great charisma of Vivian Leigh that the character can be so reprehensible yet still engrossing. You find yourself caught up in her struggle despite her thoroughly amoral behavior, even if it’s because you hope the people she’s with make it through all right. Scarlett is caught between her dream of a romanticized life (Ashley) and the kind of life that she brings to herself through her actions (Rhett), yet both options feel simply too good for her; there are times where you really wonder if she’s even capable of love, or if her feelings for Ashley are some sort of self-serving reflex, or a passing desire taken root and amplified because it couldn’t be fulfilled.
I know it seems like I’m coming across really harshly with Scarlett, but really…her lack of empathy knows no bounds. She whips a horse to death outside of Tara and feels not the slightest bit of remorse, immediately moving on to the house. When Melanie goes into labor during the fall of Atlanta, all she can think about is how inconvenient it is for her and her plans to get out of the city. She volunteers at a veteran’s hospital just to pass the time, and pretty much bolts as soon as she gets her fill. Later, she goes back to try and get the doctor to preside over Melanie’s birth, but only so that she can get it over with and leave the city before Sherman arrives. Everything is only considered by how much it affects her; she is thoroughly, consistently selfish. It’s astonishing.
And her myopic, self-centered view of the world permeates the rest of the movie. Scarlett’s way of life is seen as idyllic, and the Northern interlopers who flood the sacked and razed land are only out to make a quick buck, hoodwinking naive and recently-freed slaves into serving their interests. The slaves themselves are either stupid and indolent (Prissy, as played by Butterfly McQueen), slow but completely content to serve their masters (field overseer Big Sam, as played by Everett Brown) or a caustic but doting servant (Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy — the role that made her the first African-American Oscar winner). There are some scenes that are shocking in their treatment of black people as little more than props — particularly one where a bunch of little girls are waving palm fronds over a bunch of sleeping belles.
I realize when Gone With The Wind was made; in 1939, Hattie McDaniel couldn’t actually pretend the premiere in Atlanta due to the Jim Crow laws of the time. She couldn’t sit with the rest of her castmates during the Oscar ceremony where she won for Best Supporting Actress. She couldn’t even be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery upon her death more than a decade later because they wouldn’t accept black bodies. In a roundabout way, the movie actually helped galvanize the black community into speaking up about its representation (and treatment) in the entertainment industry and the whitewashing of history. In truly American fashion, Gone With The Wind provided a mixed blessing by being so tone-deaf about its subject matter.
But it’s important to point out the image it bolstered at the time and how it informed the perception of the South for decades afterward. It holds up an idyllic, false image of a really ugly period of American history, and it holds up Scarlett O’Hara as its champion. She’s supposed to be the shining virtue of Southern pride — resourceful, proud and determined. But to me, she’s just cold, manipulative and selfish.
I wish I could simply take the movie for what it is — a romantic epic that tells a great love story, populated with indelible characters and great dialogue. Gone With The Wind is certainly that. But I think we’re meant to identify with — maybe even admire — Scarlett, and that’s just asking too much. The movie does what it set out to do exceedingly well, and Clark Gable gives one of the all-time great performances for a dashing romantic lead. But the heart of the movie is rotten, there’s simply no way around that. Once you realize that, the rot pervades everything in it.
Still, I highly recommend that you see Gone With The Wind. For better or worse, it’s a tremendous piece of our cinematic history. Just don’t confuse it for our actual history; you may end up coming away with the entirely wrong lessons.