Gone With the Wind (1939)
Starring: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, and Leslie Howard
Directed By: Victor Fleming
Gone With the Wind. The highest grossing film ever ($1.6 billion when adjusted for ticket price inflation). The movie your (great) grandparents wax poetic about. The winner of 10 Oscars in 13 Academy Award nominations. Widely considered one of the best films of all time. Gone With the Wind is a movie made in a different era about a time that came before. It’s about a place and time largely forgotten by the history books and features one of the most polarizing characters to ever grace the big screen: Scarlett O’Hara (the wonderful Leigh).
Scarlett lives on a large plantation named Tara in Georgia on the eve of the American Civil War. She is a very good looking young woman and we immediately see that she uses this to her utmost advantage by wooing all the boys with the best of her ability. However, there is only one gentleman she would be with (Ashley as played by Leslie Howard), but she can’t have him as he’s engaged to his cousin Melanie Hamilton (the outstanding Olivia de Havilland). As this happens, war breaks out and all the men go off to fight the dreaded Yankees.
It’s at this point that we meet the extremely wealthy Rhett Butler (the dashing Gable). He is immediately taken by Scarlett’s spirit, though she doesn’t return the favor as she pines for Ashley to return safely. Scarlett goes on follow Melanie to Atlanta to work as a nurse just in time for Sherman’s March to the Atlantic, effectively cutting the South into two parts, burning everything in his wake. It’s here where she returns to Tara with Melanie (now toting a baby boy along), and she has to rebuild everything from the ground-up. By any means necessary, including marrying men that could help advance her status…yes, that eventually means Rhett.
There’s much more to Gone With the Wind than the very brief plot outline above would suggest (obvious enough with it’s bloated three hour plus runtime). It’s a very behind the scenes look with some amazing shots, like when Scarlett is walking through Atlanta with hundreds of wounded men laying in the street. Some of the men return from war, but most would meet their end as their loved ones would wait for the newspaper to find out the death tolls (seen in one moving scene). However, it’s also a very glorifying look at the South. The film suggests that the last bastion of chivalry existed here right before the war begins. It calls the slaves “hard working,” as if the had any choice in the matter, and brushes the issue of slavery off to the side. It’s ramifications barely touched upon.
This brings up a big issue for our “modern” world: the portrayal of the African American characters within the film. The character of Mammy (Hattie McDaniel, who go on to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, the first for an African American) is treated better than just about anyone else in the film. She has this regal air about her and is the only one who could put Scarlett in her place. Unfortunately, as with other characters (most notably Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy), it’s just an on-going parody of how African Americans are perceived, complete with mannerisms and speech patterns. For a better look at this, see the review on Bill’s Movie Emporium.
The most interesting aspect of Gone With the Wind is Scarlett herself. Vivien Leigh is simply remarkable in the role. Her Scarlett is a spoiled rotten brat. There just isn’t any other way to say it. She gets what she wants, whenever she wants. One could argue that this is the reason she stays in love with Ashley for as long as she does (even with better options available to her): he’s the one man she can’t have. She is stubborn to a fault and more or less heartless. However, she is a survivor. No one else could have rebuilt the Tara plantation as she does. It is in these moments where she’s admirable. Unfortunately, once things are done, she quickly reverts back to the selfish child she always had been. It takes a few tragedies for her to finally realize what she had in front of her, but by then it’s too late. Or is it?
For it’s drawbacks (which are interesting discussion topics), there’s plenty of great things going on. It’s a technical marvel. The cinematography, especially the burning of Atlanta, is superbly done. The colors are fantastic. The costume and set designs are some of the best you’ll ever see in any movie. The score is marvelous, albeit slightly melodramatic at times. The cast is great, Olivia de Havilland in particular. She plays Melanie as the exact opposite of Leigh’s Scarlett: Melanie is weak physically, but has a ton of heart with a good soul. The movie would be nowhere, however, without Gable and Leigh. Their chemistry is top notch as two flawed characters, but are somehow right for each other. Even if one of them doesn’t realize it.
Bottom Line: Gone With the Wind is a truly great movie. They don’t quite make them like this anymore. It’s a sweeping, well paced epic that focuses on one very human character’s ordeal during the Civil War and the following Reconstruction period. While the film has it’s flaws (the insane length, the treatment of African Americans, etc), it’s a piece that will always stand the test of time. It’s a film that evolves with the times. It makes us ask questions about history and about ourselves. At the very least, it has given us Scarlett O’Hara; a character that we can debate about until the end of time.
9/10 (Highly Recommended).