In Retrospect – Gone With The Wind (1939)

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.

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

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

‘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.

Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) in Gone With The Wind

Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) in Gone With The Wind

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.

Man about town Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) in Gone With The Wind

Man about town Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) in Gone With The Wind

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.”

Atlanta burns in Gone With The Wind

Atlanta burns in Gone With The Wind

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.

Oscar-winning Hattie McDaniel as house servant Mammy in Gone With The Wind

Oscar-winning Hattie McDaniel as house servant Mammy in Gone With The Wind

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”.

The end is nigh for the Old South in its battle against the Yankee North in Gone With The Wind

The end is nigh for the Old South in its battle against the Yankee North in Gone With The Wind

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.

Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) trike a classic pose from Gone With The Wind

Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) trike a classic pose from Gone With The Wind

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.

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12 comments

  1. Zoë · December 2, 2013

    Man I should really see this again. Haven’t seen it in yonks, and this after buying a friend a special collector’s and all.

    Excellent write up! Had fun with your “doesn’t give a damn” wordplay 😛

    • Three Rows Back · December 2, 2013

      Thanks Zoe! I tried to work in “tomorrow is another day” but failed…

      • Zoë · December 2, 2013

        Sucks when it goes down that way. Well played, either way. 🙂

  2. ckckred · December 2, 2013

    Nice review. It really does have a great epic feel to it and it’s very entertaining. Gone With The Wind’s portrayal of race does bother me a bit, but it doesn’t ruin the overall experience.

    • Three Rows Back · December 2, 2013

      Thank you buddy. Slavery is rather the elephant in the room, but there’s no doubt it’s a ‘big’ movie in every sense.

  3. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · December 4, 2013

    Not one I’ve got around to seeing Mark but it’s one I should make the time to see. Great review as always man.

    • Three Rows Back · December 6, 2013

      Appreciate that Chris. It’ll no doubt be on over Christmas so check it out then!

  4. Dan Heaton · December 5, 2013

    I feel like Gone with the Wind is almost two movies. There’s the “epic” quality that people remember and the love story that remains so iconic. Those worked for me. What was painful was not only the racist attitudes but also the over-the-top melodrama in the second half. That really hurt the movie and made it not so great for me.

    • Three Rows Back · December 6, 2013

      Thanks for the feedback. The chuck of the ‘action’ (Civil War, burning of Atlanta) takes place in the first half, so the second half feels a little more of a slog. The bottom line is if you’re not sold on the relationship between Rhett and Scarlett ypu’re not going to be sold on the film. As I mentioned in my review, I was struck at just how fresh and modern their relationship feels, helped in no small part by the performances.

  5. Tom · December 6, 2013

    A classic to be sure, I should really get around to seeing this movie, even though apparently it’s a “racist movie” lol! Good review Mark

    • Three Rows Back · December 6, 2013

      Ha ha! I’d been putting this off, mostly due to the fact it’s almost four hours long. If you can, see it on the big screen though; it’s well worth it.

  6. Pingback: Gone with the Wind (1939) | 100 Films in a Year

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