Gone with the Wind (1939)
Director: Victor Fleming
(Another not so quick one, so bare with my rambling here, this review adapted from a college Intro to Film assignment)
The go to example of a movie that is technically perfect but morally troubling is Cecil B. Demille’s “Birth of a Nation”, but for my money “Gone with the Wind” has to be in the running as well. Both movies are set in the same time period, from just before the beginning of the Civil War all the way through to the aftermath and reconstruction period. Both movies paint a picture of the old “Antebellum” south as a virtual heaven on earth for all who inhabited it. The scenes in Gone with the Wind where Scarlet chastises her black house servant are especially troubling and insulting to sit through for modern audiences. Movies like these, while beautiful and breath taking to sit through, gave birth to a whole new generation of southern racists who used the view of the old “perfect south” from before the war invented here to further their backwards ideology and horrific mistreatment of black Americans throughout the 20th century. I wanted to include these criticisms up front because they form the moral framework from which I viewed the statement the movie was trying to make, and regardless of how much I enjoyed parts of the film, that fact was never far from my mind.
Now with that said, this truly is a breathtaking and painfully beautiful and well made movie. The scenes on the plantation, in Atlanta, especially the battle scenes that show it burning and over-run with wounded and dying soldiers are as stunning now as they were then, even with the benefit of over 70s years of advanced special effects. Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara is one of the all time great tragic movie characters. She is a manic mess obsessed throughout by the singular passion for Leslie Howard’s character and Confederate Hero Ashley Wilkes. Leigh’s performance is entirely captivating. We watch her grow from a teenage youth to a tired haggard woman who has grown old well before her time as a result of the war and the slew of misfortune that fell upon her. And while that might seem sympathetic she manages to behave in such a way as to avoid audience sympathy for most of the story, taking advantage of several hapless fools who fall in love with her along the way.
O’Hara is not just a character, as she is a representation of women at the time this movie was made. She is the primary focus of the movie, and her struggle for independence mirrors the slow, clawing struggle that women had to go through to get their rights in the early 20th century. Yet no matter how much freedom and independence she achieves, it is never enough, since her first love, Ahsley, forsook her. Thus she will never be able to accept her “true place” (as the culture saw it) as the loving wife of the man she would sacrifice everything for. Without that “love” to bind her she becomes, as some have written, a kind of “proto-feminist” running her own business as well as becoming the head of her household as her father takes ill, and generally fulfilling lots of roles that no woman of her time (or the time of this movie’s production for the most part) would be able to in real life. Scarlett is the kind of strong leading lady that Howard Hawks featured in countless movies over the years, only unlike Hawks cocksure Femme Fatales, O’Hara is also capable of crushing vulnerability. She uses men without thought to the consequences, and is a headstrong, selfish champion of her own rights throughout the film. There is a fascinating duality here as the movie seems like it is set to slap down Scarlett’s efforts at female emancipation, and in many ways uses that desire as its main justification of vilifying her.
With such a strong female lead, it would take nothing less than Clark Gable in the prime of his screen presence to match her. Gable’s Rhett Butler falls for the headstrong Scarlet early on in the movie and remains in love with her for the majority of the movie. Butler is the kind of suave, silent, but still witty and rough around the edges character that would inspire scores of imitations over the years. Butler gets to utter the film’s most famous line of dialogue at the end, and it is that sentence that provides the closest thing to emotional catharsis that this movie is willing to provide. Butler, who has endured Scarlet’s impetuousness for too many years to fathom at that point, waiting over a decade to finally win her, only to watch her remain obsessed with Ashley. It is only after the loss of their only child, the only woman he loves more than Scarlett, that Rhett finally is able to emotionally separate himself from Scarlett. Scarlett, in her usual spoiled and incessant demeanor begs him to stay and screams out “Where shall I go?” and “What shall I do?” which gives us the aforementioned Gable line “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” which offers the film’s final commentary on Scarlett’s quest for female emancipation.