The budgets may get ever bigger and the special effects ever more impressive, but the ambition of contemporary Hollywood is a shadow of its more aspirant younger days.
‘Epic’ has become a cheapened term in recent years through its sheer overuse. It gets bandied about so often when describing the latest swathe of blockbusters that its meaning has been lost. It takes a dose of Old Hollywood to offer some perspective and a better appreciation of what ‘epic’ cinema truly is.
We all have black spots in our movie-watching repertoire; films that everyone appears to have seen except us. Gone With The Wind is one such example for me (an ‘epic’ fail you might say), so a pristine digital reissue to mark its impending 75th anniversary seemed as good a time as any to finally give in to Victor Fleming’s grandiose adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
As the drums beat inexorably towards Civil War, impetuous and spoiled Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) seems more interested in stealing the affections of dashing Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) away from her saintly sister Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). When Ashley and Melanie marry and war breaks out, the lovelorn Scarlett finds herself constantly coming back to the wealthy and self-preserving Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who finds himself falling for Scarlett against his better judgement.
When taking stock of Gone With The Wind it’s difficult to get away from the numbers. Featuring dozens of speaking parts, almost 2,500 extras and a nigh-on four-hour running time, everything about the film screams ‘epic’. However, it seems only appropriate considering the film’s events take place in the shadow of one of the defining periods in American history.
That being said, at its core Gone With The Wind is a human drama of love lost, found and unrequited. Used to getting what she wants, the petulant and selfish Scarlett becomes obsessed with attaining the one thing she wants the most, but can’t have – the love of Ashley. Her infatuation prevents her from fully embracing a life with the Rhett, who recognises in Scarlett a kindred spirit, and utters: “We’re bad lots, both of us.”
The chemistry between Gable and Leigh is electric. What’s striking almost 75 years on is how fresh and modern both Rhett and Scarlett remain. Gable’s eyes twinkle as he rolls Sidney Howard’s dialogue around his mouth, but there’s also a sadness there and a resignation that, no matter how hard he tries, he and Scarlett can never last.
Leigh, who came through a tortuous audition process to land the part, positively crackles. Although still one of the feistiest and most driven female parts committed to screen Scarlett is, for the most part, pretty damn annoying and does little to enamour herself as the film progresses. When she runs a horse ragged until it drops down dead in order to get back to her beloved Georgia plantation Tara, she doesn’t bat an eyelid for the animal, while her pursuit of Ashley behind her sister’s back borders on stalking. Rhett sums Scarlett up perfectly when he remarks that she’s “like the thief who isn’t the least bit sorry he stole, but is terribly, terribly sorry he’s going to jail”.
Rhett is far from perfect himself, of course. Asked why he isn’t fighting for the South, he replies “I believe in Rhett Butler, he’s the only cause I know”, while the scene late on in the film implying marital rape is still troubling to this day.
As a visual spectacle, the film still packs a wallop. The burning of Atlanta is vividly handled, while the painterly camera shots are a sight to behold. The pull-back from Scarlett to reveal hundreds of dying soldiers and a tattered Confederate flag is pure cinema, while the numerous shots of characters dwarfed by the brooding Technicolor skies overhead (set to Max Steiner’s stiring score) are astounding.
Despite the visual majesty, there’s no escaping the problems that exist with the film. It’s perversely ironic the film is being re-released around the same time as 12 Years A Slave bearing in mind Gone With The Wind doesn’t give a damn about this long and dark chapter in the country’s history. Hattie McDaniel may have been the first African-American to win an Oscar for her role as house servant Mammy, but this sits very uncomfortably next to the film’s refusal to question the Good Ol’ South’s practice of ‘owning’ fellow human beings. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth for sure.
Despite its refusal to deal with the stain of slavery, as a work of cinema Gone With The Wind is as big an event as they come, an epic in the truest sense of the word that’s sure to sweep audiences along for another 75 years.