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80 Years Later: Gone with the Wind

28 April 20 words: Hollie Anderson

Hollie Anderson says this is a part of Hollywood’s history that needs to be viewed with caution...

Director: Victor Fleming
Starring: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard
Running time: 221 minutes

Gone with the Wind (GWTWis an epic story set during the American Civil War. It follows the life of southern belle Scarlett O’Hara, through violence, deaths, births, marriages and one of cinema’s most famous love triangles. 

I first watched the film as part of my studies a decade ago, and even read the whole 800-page book, too. Ever since, I’ve racked up hours with Scarlett and the famous Rhett Butler. Then, just months ago, I helped to promote the play Moonlight and Magnolias – a comedy about the writing of the screenplay. By rights I should be sick of GWTW

…and yet, I’m not. Margaret Mitchell’s writing does what only truly classic novels seem to manage; she creates complex characters that are hard to hate, but full of flaws. Vivien Leigh brings to life brilliantly the spoilt, meanspirited Scarlett who is redeemed by her iron-strong will. Olivia de Havilland is great as the feeble yet charitable and brave Melanie Wilkes. Hattie McDaniel plays nurse Mammy with sass that won her an Oscar. Clark Gable is fantastic as Rhett – dastardly uncouth, yet seamlessly melts into a besotted, heartbroken father.

The trials and tribulations of these characters had to be told on a massive scale – the Civil war spanned four years, with over 620,000 deaths, and a scar left on the land and mind of Americans even today. Producer David O. Selznick left no expense spared, and at the time GWTW was the costliest film ever made. It was worth that monumental effort; stunning costumes, glorious rolling countryside, bustling cityscapes, the burning of Atlanta, fields of wounded stretching as far as the eye can see – the film flawlessly captures both the beauty of the south and the horror of war. 

The ambition that went hand-in-hand with this production was a kind of madness, and it soon broke boundaries. The excessive nature of GWTW signalled a new leap in the way films were made. That doesn’t mean the creators always made the right decisions.  

Selznick and Fleming not only saw, but also encouraged the marginalisation of people different from themselves

The biggest and most obvious flaw of the film (and book) is that it takes the side of the racist, slave-driving south. It is not my place as a white, privileged, middle-class person to go into that. But I can’t gloss over it: the film tries to beautify the biggest and most hideous mark on American history. 

The other bone I have is its insipid treatment of Scarlett’s character. In the book Scarlett has two other children, but these are dropped from sight - heaven forbid we think of her as a mother when we should be eyeing her cleavage. When she’s raped, it is shot almost romantically.

When you remember Selznick was a sex predator, and director Victor Fleming slapped Judy Garland on the set of The Wizard of Oz, you realise that these questionable men not only saw, but also allowed and encouraged the marginalisation of people different from themselves. 

In its day, Gone with the Wind won nine Academy Awards. Deservedly so, given the performances and cinematography. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that now we have to approach this film with caution. 

GWTW is now a part of history, and should be viewed as a tool to measure how far we’ve come, and challenge us to do morally better when creating new art. 

Did you know? Clark Gable threatened to boycott the premiere of the film when he learned that Hattie McDaniel would be unable to attend due to racial segregation in Atlanta. She convinced him to go.

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