And the Oscar Goes to…: Gone with the Wind

The video version of this review can be found here:

Gone With The WindWell, we’ve reached one of the big ones, folks. Up till now, we’ve talked about movies with varying degrees of public awareness, but this time, it’s a film known the world over. It’s the first Best Picture I would label as epic and truly grand in scale. It’s the first film in this series to be shot in color, Technicolor to be more precise. It features two of the most recognizable (by name anyway) lead characters to be put on film. It’s the first picture to win 10 Oscars, one of those 10 being the first Academy Award ever given to an African American (Hattie McDaniel for Best Supporting Actress). It’s often acknowledged as one of the best films of all time. I am, of course, talking about the classic Gone with the Wind.

It’s a movie I’ll fully admit to never having much interest in; I was dreading the months leading up to it. But I gave it a shot, and I was pleasantly presented with some great set pieces, an engaging story, and extremely flawed but rarely uninteresting characters. Unfortunately, those characters may be a bit too flawed when they are asked to carry the main weight of the story in its later half. But maybe I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

Gone with the Wind is based off the incredibly long, Pulitzer Prize-winning 1936 book of the same name by Margaret Mitchell – like Harper Lee a few decades later, it was the only book Mitchell ever wrote. The movie begins with Southern Belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivian Leigh) living her life on Tara, the family plantation in Georgia. She’s a pretty but shallow young woman of 16 whose lot in life is to get married and have kids. The perfect beau, if I may borrow a southern expression, in her eyes is the sensitive, educated, and well-respected Ashley Wilkes (played Leslie Howard).

Unfortunately, Ashley is already set to marry his cousin Melanie Hamilton (played by Olivia de Havilland). Scarlett hastily marries a man she does not love in order to make Ashley, who claims to reciprocate her feelings but cannot act on them due to his impending engagement, jealous. Scarlett has little time to worry about such matters as love and marriage, however, when civil war breaks out between the North and South. Ashley and Scarlett’s new husband are off to fight, Melanie is left with Scarlett – who promises Ashley she will take care of his new wife – and Scarlett’s life is changed forever.

The main players. Top: Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havillland). Bottom: Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and Scarlett O'Hara (Vivian Leigh).

The main players. Top: Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havillland). Bottom: Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and Scarlett O’Hara (Vivian Leigh).

The Civil War is obviously a big part of this movie. We never see any battles, though. The film isn’t about the men on the field or the generals coming up with strategies. It’s about those left behind and those coming back. We instead see the consequences of the war and how it effects Scarlett and her family, who represent the whole South in their suffering.

We also see the ushering out of the Old South. The war not only saw the end of slavery but of the southern way of life. The South is rocked to and fro by the war, many famous cities like Atlanta are decimated by battles, and those supporters of the Confederates must find a way to make their lives work during and after the war.

And that’s what Scarlett does. She slowly pushes away her old life as she realizes she’s never going to get it or the Old South back. She goes from a dainty little lady to a tough and fierce business woman who will stop at nothing to survive and, after the war, rebuild her family’s farm. The road to recovery is not an easy one as she fights against starvation, carpetbaggers, and society itself, which doesn’t always approve of her and her methods. She is helped occasionally by friend and sort-of-sometimes-lover Rhett Butler (played by Clark Gable).

It’s no secret this movie is looong; I believe it’s the longest Best Picture as of October 2013. It would be easy for a nearly four hour film such as this to become slow and bloated. Indeed, the first half-hour isn’t the most interesting. It does pick up, though, and I found myself gripped by the goings on in Scarlett’s life. For Gone with the Wind has what The Great Ziegfeld, another lengthy Best Picture winner, did not. It has plenty of story to fill that time. It has more than enough challenges to throw at our protagonists. It also has a great historical backdrop to help provide interest.

Speaking of the protagonists, all the main players do a good job in their respective roles. Leigh manages the transition from Scarlett’s early days to her more mature years quite well. The aging of her character is handled through subtle changes in her hair and costumes, as well as through small changes in Leigh’s performance.

There is, however, the criticism of the African-American roles in the film. The black characters in the movie tend to be seen as revisionist and racist. While I would agree to a certain extent, I think the backgrounds of the main African-American characters that we see should be taken into account. We mostly see Tara household workers, and it could be argued those characters have spent so much of their lives serving white people that that way of life is right in their book. I’m not supporting slavery or anything – just offering another point of view. Plus, the film does take out some of the racism from the book, such as removing any overt references to the Ku-Klux-Klan and changing two black men who attack Scarlett in the book to one black man and one white man in the movie. The black characters are also usually the ones shown to have the most common sense. So, the film at least tries to be a bit more fair to African-Americans in some regards, but back to the movie’s positives.

Although Hattie McDaniels (right) won the Best Supporting Actress award, some criticized her performance as being racist and stereotyped.

Although Hattie McDaniels (right) won the Best Supporting Actress award, some criticized her performance as being racist and stereotyped.

The director, Victor Fleming, takes full advantage of the color at his disposal and his large and complicated subject matter. The film is rife with rich blues, greens, reds, and oranges in a non-subtle way, the movie relishing the opportunity to shoot in color. Fleming gives the audience plenty of shots showing off the landscape of the South in all its old grandeur, its desperate chaos as it gets deeper into the war, and its battle torn aftermath.

Countless injured and dead people line the streets of Atlanta in one of the film's most famous shots.

Countless injured and dead people line the streets of Atlanta in one of the film’s most famous shots.

One amazing sequence that shows off how much money they put into this movie and the advantage of the story’s scale and shooting it in color, is when Rhett helps Scarlett, Prissy (one of Scarlett’s slaves played by Butterfly McQueen), Melanie, and Melanie’s newborn baby escape from Atlanta, which is being overtaken by Union forces. The fire that is quickly engulfing the city is a menacing combination of dark reds and bright oranges that, when set against the bleak night sky, gives the scene a real danger and sense of pessimistic panic.

Fleming uses those same colors in the scene right after this. The difference is instead of those reds and oranges creating danger, they are set against a quiet country atmosphere in order to create a visually beautiful and warm intimate scene between Scarlett and Rhett. It demonstrates versatility and creativity from Fleming, who is able to use similar tools for a completely different mood and feel.

Victor Fleming using similar colors to create different moods. Left: The bleak fire in Atlanta. Right: The warm, intimate scene with Scarlett and Rhett that follows the fire.

Victor Fleming using similar colors to create different moods.
Left: The bleak fire in Atlanta. Right: The warm, intimate scene with Scarlett and Rhett that follows the fire.

With all these advantages, I was all set to place Gone with the Wind in the number two spot of Best Pictures. Then came the film post-intermission, which almost felt like a totally different movie in some ways. It still deals with historical aspects of that time, like the ending of the Civil War and Reconstruction, but slowly it sheds itself of matters of history. It instead focuses its last hour or so on the unhealthy relationship between Scarlett and Rhett. It’s a relationship that has been unfolding here and there throughout the movie and gets worse as the film reaches its climax. In effect, the film goes from the grand story of the Civil War via Scarlett and those around her to Scarlett’s postwar-woes with little reference to the bigger picture.

From what I understand of the book (I’ve never read it), neither it nor the film make any excuses for the fact that Scarlett and Rhett are horrible people. They’re manipulative, vain, and often put their own needs before those of others. In theory, there’s no reason we should sympathize with these characters or want to see them succeed, but the film, in its first half, manages to get us rooting for them. I cared if Scarlett was robbed by a Union soldier, I cared about her efforts to rebuild her family plantation, and I cared about her relationships with the other characters.

It’s too much of a story shift, though, when so much of that last hour is almost exclusively about Scarlett and Rhett with hardly any of the historical backdrop I had become accustomed to earlier in the picture. I love character development, but the point of view becomes too intimate and feels out of place when compared to the vastness of the story previously seen in the film. It also went on a bit too long. It filled the latter end of the movie with so much negativity and selfishness that I cared less about what happened to the two leads, and part of the experience was ruined for me. Maybe it’s trying to say your life isn’t necessarily perfect even if you do make it through terrible hardship. If so, it still doesn’t quite work.

Gone with the Wind is still a worthwhile viewing for people interested in that time in U.S. history and for film buffs wanting to see what all the fuss is about. It certainly fulfills any promises it gives about telling an epic story about an important era in American history through the point of view of one woman and her family. I just wish they went through with that until the end instead of changing the focus so drastically. So, not a perfect movie but one still worthy of its legendary status.


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