The Epic & False Historical.
A combustable mixture of Classic Hollywood with Southern Glorification, Gone with the Wind provides insight into the Lost Cause narrative.
American Film Institutes Ranking: #4/100
Awards: Nominated for thirteen (13) winning eight, including Best Picture, Director and Actress.
This movie has a lot of angles to consider. It requires an ability to shape shift, consider all the different frames of reference, and sift through what you find.
It needs to be blasted for being a racist, vile attempt at creating lament for an unjust society, falling into the category of propaganda. It’s cultural significance also cannot be denied; across all releases, it is estimated to have sold 200 million tickets in the US and Canada. This view of Southern Gentility was a widely-accepted technique used by many Southerners to help reinterpret and redefine their society, however false the narrative. Then, you have the actual story of Scarlet O’Hara, a 1930s feminist-infused protagonist dropped anachronistically into an earlier time.
This leaves this Hollywood Golden Age film, with the symphonic music, gorgeous sets, and memorable cinematography, held in abeyance: what place should it hold now?
[Quick Paragraph Plot/Spoilers] The story begins pre Civil War on Tara , a cotton plantation in George. Scarlett O’Hara (played by Vivien Leigh) is set to attend a banquet, but learns that her love interest, Ashley Wilkens (played by Leslie Howard) is set to be married to her cousin Melanie Hamilton (payed by Olivia de Haviiland — who somehow is still alive at age 102). During the banquet, Scarlett puts on quite a show, luring all the guests’ love interests to her even though she is interested in Ashley. One particular person of interest at this party is Rhett Butler (played by Clark Gable), a swashbuckler who has his eyes on Scarlett. Thus begins the love quadrilateral, as these four main characters fall in and out of favor with each other for the next 3.75 hours.
Scarlet O’Hara is quite a contemporary character. As the central focus, she takes charge in every moment. She marries men to suit her needs, runs the businesses, and is completely cavalier. Her utter destruction in Act I is followed by an atmospheric rise in Act II to only end with a tragic denouement. The story of Scarlet O’Hara is interesting: she is an unlikable character in the beginning, middle and end, but the worst parts of her personality are also what allows her to hold everything together in the worst of times.
As the engine that makes the movie run, all the other characters are just orbits around her. Her relationship with Melanie is represented as the foil to Scarlett: Melanie forever gracious, pure, and charitable in opposition to the guile and unscrupulous Scarlett. Ashley is Scarlett’s true love interest and only occasionally falls for Scarlet’s advances, always being tantalizingly close and far. Then you have Rhett Butler: the dashing and cavalier man who is supposed to represent all the Old South’s values. His relationship with Scarlett is just as tumultuous as all the come before him, and even this debonair, honorable man cannot gain the upper hand on Scarlett O’Hara.
The movie is visually stunning, and there are several scenes that have reached Hollywood historical status, such as the panorama of dying confederate soldiers in Atlanta, the end of Act I with Scarlett’s monologue of preservation, and when Rhett Butler finally tells Scarlet “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” It took full advantage of the new technicolor technology, and even today there are moments where the set, color saturation, costumes, and art direction all come in together to make magic. Then of course there is the symphony with written themes by Max Steiner — mood setting complete.
This all creates quite an idyllic interpretation of a time long since passed – when men were full of virtue and the Old South still existed.
And there in lies the most egregious and awful aspects of the movie.
Gone with the Wind is another entry in the catalogue to reinterpret the Civil War under the guise of the “Lost Cause.” This idea is quite a pernicious one — it attempts to reinterpret and redefine exactly what the South said and did during the War. There are many tenants under the “Lost Cause” umbrella, and the movie supports each one: 1) The Civil War was not about slavery; 2) The South was an honorable culture that was destroyed; 3) Black people were treated great as slaves, and the slaves themselves enjoyed this hierarchy.
From the opening credits, you know exactly how this is going to go down:
This is what makes the positive aspects of the movie so dangerous — Hollywood used its artistic talents to create propaganda cementing this feeling of lamentable loss for a southern culture that did not exist. Hollywood was a monumental force, and to have a production put together in the name of the Lost Cause is unforgivable. Reminder that Gone with the Wind is the most ticket-purchased movie of all time, giving you insight to how successful it was at its task.
Nothing is worse than its depiction of the slave characters: Mammy (played by Hattie McDaniel), Pork the house servant (Played by Oscar Polk), and Prissy the young help (played by Butterfly McQueen). While Mammy is presented with some pop and is a stabilizing force through tumultuous events, all slave characters share common themes: happy to be in servitude and not having a thought in their head of wanting to live an independent life.
If you want to have a vote for one of the most cringe worthy scenes in all of cinema, the moment Scarlet slaps Prissy when she admits to not knowing how to birth a baby has to be a top five candidate. Prissy is depicted in the most vile of ways, being a person of color who not only lacks desire for independence but is incapable of doing so due to her unintelligence and lying ways. It’s quite disturbing to watch and even more bone-chilling when you understand that it is just a piece to push the bigger, narrative objective of the movie.
There is one point where Scarlet O’Hara decides to use prisoners for hire in route to building a lumbar mill empire. Ashley objects, saying it is immoral to use people against their will in such a way, to which Scarlet correctly responds he didn’t have such a problem when they used slaves before the war. Ashley quickly quips that they treated their slaves much better than any prisoner.
Gone with the Wind tries to make the institution of slavery one of benevolence. Not only are we told they were treated stupendously, we are shown they would be incapable of living on their own given how Pork and Prissy are presented. Even Mammy, with the little bit of autonomy and power giving to her character, didn’t leave after the war was over, preferring to continue to stay with her masters in servitude.
Hattie McDaniel took hell for playing Mammy, and it is something that followed her for the rest of her life. She won Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the first African American to win an Academy Award and would be the last one to win in that category until 1990 (Whoopie Goldberg for Ghost). This should have been a monumental achievement showing the progress of African American acceptance and achievement, but the award was giving to someone who played a stereotypical slave in a project trying to enshrine the institution of slavery.
When people criticized her, she responded “I’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than earn $7 a day being a maid.” Some take a nuanced view of what Hattie McDaniel did for the African American actor. With her popularity and presence, more African Americans were accepted and this led to more involvement within Hollywood. Yes, her particular breakthrough role was a step back, but she did harbor in a new wave of acceptance and opportunity for others.
There is no way to evaluate the movie just on its production or storyline; the Lost Cause narrative is interwoven so tight with the very fabric of this movie as to make it inseparable. The entire context of Scarlett’s rise, fall and subsequent rise mimics this reinterpretation of the Civil War. In reality, Scarlett loses everything because she was an aristocrat and without the evil institution of slavery she is nothing, but the movie works the angle that the evil north took away her righteous society, and now she has to pull herself up by her boot straps.
In the final measure, this film is indeed culturally significant, and with viewing a 20th century film about the 19th century in the 21st century, your experience spans three centuries. With this, you get a view of history that needs to be seen and understood. I have no concern about people watching this film in the 2000s: the slight of hands used to further the Lost Cause narrative are easily seen through, exposing the false intentions of its creators. A new viewer today would be filled with indignation at what this movie attempts and gives them powerful evidence of what occurred between the Civil War and Civil Rights. I implore people to do it on these historical grounds: watch how the best of Classical Hollywood was engineered to instill a false narrative, and imagine what damage it must have done those fighting for equality.