Written by: Sidney Howard, based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell
Directed by: Victor Fleming
Starring: Vivien Leigh, Hattie McDaniel, Clark Gable
I think that Gone With The Wind stands as a paragon of what the movies mean to a lot of people. It tells a great story and it tells it well, it has great tragedy and swelling triumphs. It has classic Hollywood characters; characters you can relate to, characters you can hate. There are grand setpieces and dialogue that can be snipped out and shared with friends. Gone With The Wind is a very impressive film, one that stands up against the 70 years that have followed it. When given the chance, this film will wash over you and fill your lungs.
Gone With The Wind tells the story of Scarlett O’Hara(Vivien Leigh), the spoiled Southern girl who has the harsh cruelties of heartbreak and poverty thrust upon her repeatedly due to the American Civil War. I don’t think I need to offer a plot summary, we all know the major plot points of this one. There is a view of the Old South here that is warm and nostalgic, mourning the loss of a culture at the hands of Northerners and abolitionists. I’ve read that some people have accused this film and its filmmakers of sidestepping the brutality of slavery in the South, and that’s true to an extent but I believe it’s there.
I found that Gone With The Wind works like a magician performing an illusion, using misdirection to distract you from what is really happening. All throughout the film, title cards draw comparison to the lost culture of knights and chivalry, and the fear that “The Yankees are coming!” hangs over the first part of the film like a thundercloud. The characters distress over the loss of their ways and traditions, but the visuals of the film suggest something other. Barren fields, dirty, dying, sad folk roaming the countryside en masse, fallen down, dilapidated and burnout-out husks of once stately plantation mansions. This is the backdrop against which people mourn their culture, it seems as though the filmmakers are suggesting something rotten deep within the antebellum society. Surely this is a film of the time when it was made, not the time during which it’s set; “Gone With The Wind” depicts the South of Flannery O’Connor, not the South of William Gilmore Simms.
To that end, Gone With The Wind possesses great zeitgeist, slyly reflecting upon the America of 1939. WWII hadn’t quite begun but the threat of the “Yankees” might as well read “Nazis” or, given a few more years, “Commies.” A tumultuous time in the world, America was on shaky ground as it stood unknowingly at the doorstep of several major wars and several enormous social revolutions. The Great Depression was still a reality in the U.S. and the masses of Southern farmers look like the photography of Dorothea Lange come to life. Slavery had been abolished by then, of course, but racism and segregation were certainly not a thing of the past, so the roles of characters like Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) likely resonated on a very base level with 1939 audiences. Sexism was a major problem in America and the Women’s Suffrage Movement was slowly building momentum at the time as well and Scarlett O’Hara’s assertive and independent qualities were constructed in light of Rosie the Riveter and such growing notions of female independence.
Visually, Gone With The Wind is one of the most stunning films of all time, and one of the most amazing examples of very early Technicolor. Expecting a grainy and flat piece typical of such early colour filmmaking, I was shocked to find a crystal-clear transfer bursting with oranges and reds. Characters silhouette against expansive skies, Scarlett’s cart is washed in the flames of a burning Georgia and the sets are elaborate, dripping with colour and are astonishingly massive. Immaculate composition shows characters in such natural poses looking as though they’ve been captured on a master’s canvas. Powerful bodies drawn against equally powerful landscapes make “Gone With The Wind” not only a remarkable film for its time, but also a film that is more stunningly beautiful than most that have followed it.