Movie Review: Gone with the Wind
Director: Victor Fleming
Reviewed: 16 June 2014
jamesintexas rating-- ****
Gone with the Wind won Best Picture in 1940. 74 years later, 12 Years a Slave won the same award.
To watch Gone with the Wind is to see a story of transformation and survival through a distorted lens of American history, culture, and storytelling. At times with its intense color palette and rousing score, the American South feels like the mythical land of Oz (not surprising since director Victor Fleming also helmed The Wizard of Oz in the same year). Yet, it is impossible to ignore the foundation of this way of life and these characters as slave owners, with the slave characters written as ludicrous caricatures (with the one exception being Hattie McDaniel as Mammy). But despite a modern viewing of a work of art made during my grandparents' generation, I found Gone with the Wind to be captivating in its scope and its almost Shakespearean storytelling. As a guide, I turned to my favorite film critic Roger Ebert who stated, "A movie isn't what it is about, it's how it is about it." In this vein, Gone with the Wind is not merely a Civil War film or a portrait of the dying life of the Southern plantation or even a feminist empowerment story with fierce Scarlet O'Hara as the central protagonist. The film's how, its iconography and giant set pieces, its sweeping camera work and deliberate telling of its story make it the classic of American filmmaking that I always heard that it was, and it can be both enjoyed and critically examined.
Scarlett (Vivien Leigh), the daughter of an Irish plantation owner, lives a charmed life at Tara, the name for the family's ancestral home in 1860 Georgia. Attracting all of the boys in the county, Scarlett instead wants Ashley (Leslie Howard), the one man whom she cannot have due to his imminent betrothal to the saintly Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). A desperate attempt to throw herself at Ashley is rebuffed and witnessed by the charmingly rakish blockade-runner Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), a confident and forward-thinking capitalist capable of prophetically seeing the profits and dangers of the imminent conflict. The Civil War arrives in Georgia, and all characters are swept up in the enlistment, the battles, the fundraising on the home front, the care of the wounded, and the eventual march of Union General Sherman upon Atlanta with ferocity and fire. Scarlet must adapt and survive despite her world transforming all around her, and the film depicts Scarlet adjusting to the destruction of her old way of life and her forging of a new one in the post-Civil War South.
As a piece of popular film culture, Gone with the Wind felt like a film that I knew without having seen it (from Oscar clips, parodies, famous lines, etc...). In viewing its nearly four hour running time, I found it engrossing not just because of its remarkable concision of Margaret Mitchell's 1400 page novel (infinitely deeper in characterization, history, and emotion) but also in its memorable imagery. Fleming outlines his characters in complete shadows frequently, and he uses color in almost painterly ways to indicate the burning of Atlanta. His camera dollies out upon a character, framing them in the context of his or her world, sometimes indicating a heroic posture and sometimes (as in the Confederate Hospital) to show one person nearly swallowed up by the history and action of the time. Scarlett's impetuousness and heroism make her developing relationship with the supremely confident Rhett all the more fascinating. The film moves beyond telling the history of these people during the war, and instead tells the history of these people during a time of great change in their lives.
It is impossible not to cringe at certain moments of this film: the slapstick, infantile treatment of Pork and Prissy; the crude and offensive romanticism of slavery and field work; the depiction (and glorification) of rape. Such things cannot be ignored. However, I found the film's technical craftsmanship to be superb; the fiery burning of Atlanta seems a dangerous, artistic triumph of special effects for its time. The film's lead performances are incredibly heartfelt and effective (partly, I think, because there is so much of them to experience). Vivien Leigh owns the entire film with her expressive face and body language, and Clark Gable brings a vivacity to his scenes, though he feels like much more of a supporting character. Hattie McDaniel embodies Mammy with a gruff decency, a loving intensity that makes her steal every scene. McDaniel and Leigh both won Academy Awards for acting, McDaniel's being the first ever for an African-American. I feel that as a work of art, Gone with the Wind showcases epic storytelling on a grand scale, miraculously keeping its characters straight, touching upon the unseen aspects of life in the South during this era with its myth-making always in step. The film remains one of my only windows into this world of supposed chivalry and antiquated decorum built upon the backs of slaves, men and women whose lives were destroyed to accommodate this lifestyle. That fact can and should never be forgotten while watching this film.
In some ways, this dreamworld of Gone with the Wind is like the Land of Oz, an alternate reality of mythical dimensions, a dream that ends and should end and maybe never existed in this way in the first place. We are better for having Margaret Mitchell's stunning novel and Victor Fleming's ambitious adaptation of it, though the story of survivor Scarlett O'Hara should continue to inspire troubling questions about our national identity and the stories that we tell about our own past.