Movie Review - Gone with the Wind

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Victor Fleming
Selznick International Pictures

I’ll make a bargain with you. You make it all the way to the end of the review, and I’ll explain why Gone with the Wind earned a negative rating—without bringing up the racism, Scarlett’s selfishness, or even Rhett’s vocabulary. Fair deal?

Well, you already knew I wasn’t going to try to attack the movie by denying that it’s a significant film, so I couldn’t very well bargain with that, could I? This movie’s appeared in more Top However-Many lists than any other film I can think of at the moment, and it really was a tremendous success at the box office when it first came out… and when it second came out… and all the subsequent times it came out in theaters or showed up on favored television stations. Besides, it’s four hours long, which is significant all on its own. It’s got an overture and an entr’acte. It was epic and inventive, and I’m perfectly willing to defer to the judgment of everyone who has said that Gone with the Wind was brilliantly cast… But, eh, for a story about the land of “Knights and their Ladies Fair,” Gone with the Wind doesn’t give us a very complimentary view of humanity, does it?

Scarlett O’Hara has one father, two love interests, three husbands, numerous employees and countless beaux—and not one of them deserves a lengthy comparison to the virtuous manhood one associates with “knights.” Some of them barely merit a comparison to manhood.

Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard): The one man Scarlett was willing to devote her life to (and, incidentally, one of the few white, male characters she didn’t marry). He’s also one of the most inveterate milksops in epic film. For him, a world without the “civilization” of the Old South is “worse than death.” For him, the decision whether to abandon his wife and child for an adulterous relationship with his employer is a question of “honor,” not morality—and even that mystic sense of “honor” doesn’t give him enough backbone to put a stop to her advances, or her threats, or her crocodile tears.

Charles Hamilton and Frank Kennedy (Rand Brooks and Carroll Nye): Scarlett’s first and second husbands, neither of whom hold her interest or her respect—or the audience’s. Charles, a young and naïve man, fawns over Scarlett, and considers it the greatest earthly bliss to be allowed to bring Scarlett’s dessert to her. He dies of pneumonia during the war. Frank is an older man, rather boring and without much gumption, and nervous about the idea of a woman being in business. His marriage to Scarlett is one of the most impulsive actions in his life. The second most impulsive action gets him shot through the head, leading (at his wife’s instigation) an illegal raiding party to take vengeance on the Yankee carpetbaggers who assaulted her.

Gerald O’Hara, “Pa” (Thomas Mitchell): Scarlett’s father, the perfect foil for his wife Ellen, who runs the house (and her husband) in all matters—financial, familial and religious—with dignity and condescension. Pa is reckless and irresponsible, taking little interest in the affairs of Tara, his plantation, except insofar as, being an Irishman, he believes that “land is the only thing in the world worth fighting for, worth dying for.” He later loses his mind, and continues to humbly defer to his wife’s opinion, even after she has died. His recklessness results in his untimely death.

Rhett Butler (Clark Gable): The character with the best understanding of human nature, the deepest passion, the least attempt at a southern accent, and (apart from Scarlett) the most vices. A womanizer, alcoholic and duelist, Rhett loves Scarlett because of, not in spite of, the fact that she is no lady; and, after unsuccessfully trying to get her to run away with him, he determines to marry Scarlett “just for fun.” Except for a couple of brief interludes, when he devoted his attention to the lost cause of the Confederacy, and, later, to his daughter Bonnie, Rhett’s top priority is his own gratification. The film ends with the dissolution of his marriage to Scarlett.

Other male characters include the carpetbaggers (northerners living in the South during the Reconstruction; deemed “an invader more cruel and vicious than any they [the gallant cavaliers of the South] had fought.”) and “dirty Yankees” like Sherman, who gets a blazing backdrop, frightening music and exclamation points to herald his arrival, whereas the subject of death and eternal damnation gets only a casual, “You look pretty healthy. And maybe there isn’t any hell,” from the unconcerned Rhett. Southern civilization is portrayed as being destroyed—or polluted, rather—by the very presence of northerners (and free blacks who didn’t stay on their plantations, but we’re not talking about issues like that in this review).

Gone with the Wind’s female characters are a more mixed lot. A couple of them actually have virtue, but it tends toward legitimizing other characters’ vices—and, of course, a few of the female characters seem to have a superabundance of those.

Melanie Hamilton Wilkes
(Olivia de Havilland): The wife of Ashley Wilkes—the only female character in the movie who consistently behaves like a lady, and the only character in the movie who is not cynical about human nature—the opposite, in fact, of Scarlett O’Hara. Her optimistic view of mankind, however, approaches a denial of the reality of sin, at least in her acquaintances. She is somewhat frail, and, when she is expecting her first child is described by a frustrated doctor as a woman who “shouldn’t even be having a baby.” When she is expecting her second, a friend pleads with her that she “mustn’t” have this child, because “It’s too dangerous.” And, because in Gone with the Wind anything that sounds like a premonition must prove true in the end, a miscarriage ends Melanie’s life. Her dying requests are that Scarlett will look after Ashley and send her little boy to college when he’s old enough.

Belle Watling (Ona Munson): The most defended character in the movie—approved by both Rhett Butler and Melanie Wilkes. Also, the mistress of a brothel—visited by Rhett Butler from time to time, both before and during his marriage to Scarlett. Belle is portrayed as a decent woman, of better principles than Scarlett, and more praiseworthy than most of the female side characters. Her chosen profession is clear and obvious to all, but, by hiding Ashley and Frank from the law after that vigilante incident, she obtains the rank of someone Melanie “would be proud to speak to.” When Scarlett makes a derogatory remark about Belle’s lifestyle, Rhett rises to her defense and says, “If you were a man, I’d break your neck for that.”

Mammy (Hattie McDaniel): Scarlett’s faithful slave, later her servant. Mammy is knowledgeable about the protocol in Southern society (“You can’t show your bosom before three o’clock,” etc.), and careful of the family’s reputation. She is scornful of the “poor white trash”, but (unlike the reviewer) refuses to compare the dregs of society with her own, dear Scarlett.

Katie Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh): The main character. A woman who bitterly rejected the acquaintance of a brash neighbor woman who bore an illegitimate child (which “mercifully has died”), and yet who, herself, tried to get Ashley to commit adultery with her (kissing him passionately on more than one occasion after his marriage), and offered to sell her body to Rhett for the Tara plantation’s tax money. She occasionally dresses even less modestly than Belle does, and, after her daughter Bonnie is born, decides not to have any more children, to preserve her youthful figure—showing perfect indifference to Rhett’s “finding his comfort elsewhere.” Her previous husbands were won to her side by deliberate flirtation, nothing more, and Scarlett’s favorite pastime before her marriage was stealing beaux from her sisters and friends—an activity which gradually gave place to excessive drinking.
Scarlett is a superstitious, rather than a devout, Roman Catholic (the only form of religion portrayed in the movie), and after enduring real hardship for the first time in her life, she climbs a hill, makes a very epic silhouette against the sunset, and cries out, “If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill, as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”—a vow which, because it is (obviously) unlawful, amounts to taking the name of the Lord in vain. She later kills a Yankee scavenger, and takes a grim sort of satisfaction in saying, “Well, I guess I’ve done murder.” She and her sister stick their tongues out at each other.
After suffering a miscarriage, going through the deaths of her daughter Bonnie and Melanie, being rejected by a mourning Ashley and abandoned by a jaded Rhett, Scarlett experiences a repetitive train of audio memories of the most important men in her life telling her that “…land is the only thing that matters. It’s the only thing that lasts.”—that she loved her plantation better than she loved Ashley, though she didn’t know it—that she got her strength from the red earth of Tara. In short, the movie ends with every man in the movie having failed Scarlett—and she having failed every man—and none of it mattering much, when you compare it all to Tara.

“Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow… Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind.”

I’m inclined to think that’s all for the best.

Well, I fulfilled my end of the bargain. Racism, profanity and Scarlett’s selfishness didn’t come up in the review. What came up in the review was the feminism (see Ashley, Charles, Frank and Pa), the twisted sense of ethics (see Ashley, Frank, Melanie, Belle and Scarlett), the trivializing of relationships (see Charles, Frank, Rhett and Scarlett), the almost-worship of land (see Pa and Scarlett) and of “civilization” (see Ashley and Scarlett), the villainization of Yankees (see Ashley, Scarlett and misc. male characters), the legitimizing of sexual misconduct (see Rhett, Melanie, Scarlett and Belle), and the acceptability of godlessness (see above). Those were the things that earned Gone with the Wind a negative rating.

I passed over common arguments like the debatable racial issues and Scarlett’s personally-annoying selfishness for the sake of an objective review. And I think that, if we were also to pass over the historical significance and the epic quality of the film for just a moment, an objective glance at the worldview of this movie would conclude just as this review does: that Gone with the Wind isn’t worth watching.

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