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.

Review – Lincoln

There’s a moment at the start of Lincoln when you fear Steven Spielberg isn’t going to be able to resist going all Amistad on us and clubbing you over the head with the film’s message.

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln

The scene is thus: following a brief prologue of Civil War carnage involving black and white soldiers (proving that everyone is equal on the battlefield), a black union soldier respectfully gibes the President about inequality. Two white unionists approach separately and in worshipful tones quote Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (“Four score and seven years ago…”) back to him, but stumble over the final words, leaving it to the African-American trooper to complete the recital before rejoining his company.

On the face of it, this opening four minutes or so brings to mind the sort of heavy-handed approach Spielberg has so often been guilty of in his historical epics. Yet, delve a little deeper and it becomes apparent Tony Kushner’s script and Spielberg’s direction are very cleverly revealing two contrasting perceptions of Lincoln; on one side is the saintly Honest Abe figure common to school textbooks, on the other the crafty politician with a gift for oratory who nevertheless knows that deeds, not words are what’s needed.

Lincoln focuses tightly on the final four months of the Republican president’s life, centring on the politicking and increasingly frantic horse-trading that took place in the darkened corridors of power in early 1865 to secure passage through the House of Representatives of the crucial 13th Amendment to the US Constitution to formally abolish slavery.

Lincoln

Honest Abe (Daniel Day-Lewis) mournfully surveys the battlefield in Lincoln

With the Civil War in its final death throes, time is of the essence for Lincoln, who is worried his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation decreeing that all slaves be freed will be thrown out by the courts once the war is over and the 13th Amendment defeated by the returning slave states of the south. Warned not to do it by those closest to him for fear of tarnishing his revered reputation, the President realises the opportunity could be lost and leans heavily on his colleagues to help him get the vote through.

Needing a two-thirds majority in the House, Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward (David Straithairn) send lobbyists William Bilbo (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson) out to procure the crucial votes of on-the-fence Democrats by any means necessary.

Tommy Lee Jones as fiery Republican Congessional leader Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln

Tommy Lee Jones as fiery Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln

Three distinct threads run through the film – the war of words in the House between Democrats and Republican congressmen enjoying the sound of their own voice, the behind-the-scenes machinations, and the strain on Lincoln’s marriage to First Lady Mary Lincoln (Sally Field) – and it’s to Spielberg’s great credit that we never lose focus of any of them.

Kushner’s witty script is necessarily talky, and it pays not to lose attention, but the enormity of the stakes is always clear and the dialogue positively crackles in the hands of probably the greatest cast assembled for any Spielberg film to date.

Tommy Lee Jones, in his best role for years, has a ball as Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens, a radical anti-slavery advocate who can’t stop himself insulting Democratic leaders for sport, but knows when to keep his cards close to his chest when the need arises.

There’s a levity to the efforts of the lobbyists to curry the Democrats’ favour, although the grave seriousness of their task is not lost, and the vote itself is expertly handled by Spielberg, who ratchets up the tension like the old pro he is.

Daniel Day Lewis as Honest Abe in Lincoln

Daniel Day Lewis as Honest Abe in Lincoln

The ideologically led politics of Lincoln serves as a timely parallel to the entrenched state of today’s American party political system where petty in-fighting and belligerence can often push progress to the sidelines.

It seems appropriate that America’s most beloved President is played by arguably today’s greatest living actor and Daniel Day-Lewis is stupendous in the title role. He plays Lincoln as a kindly uncle who chooses to win people over with an amusing anecdote or a subtle observation and, ever the politician, engages in a lot of hand holding.

First Lady Mary Lincoln (Sally Field) in Lincoln

First Lady Mary Lincoln (Sally Field) in Lincoln

Day-Lewis makes it look effortless, finding a pause here or a change of tone there to give what will probably become the definitive take on this most adored of presidents. It’s a masterclass in the power of knowing when to underplay a role, to the extent that when some of the cast look in awe of the President you wonder whether it’s actually Day-Lewis they are marvelling at.

We see a more vulnerable Lincoln when he shares private moments with Mary, who has fallen apart following the death of their son and begs her husband to stop their other sibling Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from joining the war effort. Their pained arguments are powerfully wrought, and Field is excellent as a figure who, like Abe, must compartmentalise personal grief for the good of the country.

Despite this being Spielberg’s most mature and discliplined work to date, he still can’t help himself on occasion, whether it be the rather obvious symbolism of a ticking clock and Lincoln glancing at his watch to show how time is running out, or the saccharine moment when the President walks to a window bathed in light upon hearing the vote has been passed.

Bringing to life a significant moment in the turbulent history of the world’s only superpower, who’d have thought a film where little happens for long periods could be this engrossing?