Should I Watch..? 'Gone With The Wind'
What's the big deal?
Gone With The Wind is an epic period romance film released in 1939 and is adapted from the 1936 book of the same name by Margaret Mitchell. The film starred Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniel who became the first African-American to win an Oscar - one of ten the film earned at the Academy Awards, a then-record. The film details the story of Scarlett O'Hara, the headstrong daughter of a cotton plantation owner in Georgia and her experiences and ill-fated pursuit of Ashley Wilkes before, during and after the American Civil War. The film's epic production made it the third most expensive movie ever made at the time and the film had a troubled production with at least three different directors helming the project. Nevertheless, the film received positive reviews when it was released and went on to become the highest earning film in the world at the time, a record it held until 1966. It has since become a cultural phenomenon and is often cited as one of the greatest films ever made and a landmark of cinema in general.
What's it about?
On the eve of the American Civil War in 1861, Scarlett O'Hara is living a life of seclusion at Tara, a cotton plantation owned by her Irish immigrant father Gerald. Secretly in love with Ashley Wilkes of the nearby Twelves Oaks plantation, Scarlett is distraught to hear that Ashley is to marry his cousin Melanie Hamilton and the announcement is to be made at a barbeque at Twelve Oaks. Seizing the opportunity, Scarlett declare her love for Ashley but he turns her down saying that he loves Melanie. Scarlett is then further distressed when the conversation is overheard by Rhett Butler, a visitor from Charleston who finds Scarlett fascinating.
As war erupts and men everywhere rush to enlist, Scarlett finds her pursuit of Ashley complicated when he goes to join the Confederate forces. In order to stay close to Ashley, Scarlett agrees to marry Melanie's younger brother Charles - much to the disapproval of Scarlett's housemaid Mammy who knows her true feelings. But as the war rages on and the Yankees move ever closer on Atlanta, Scarlett's unrequited love for Ashley shows no signs of dimming despite the attentions of Rhett who finds himself falling for her...
Trailer for restored version
Olivia de Havilland
Sidney Howard *
Release Date (UK)
17th January, 1940
Drama, History, Romance, War
Best Actress (Leigh), Best Supporting Actress (McDaniel), Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Colour Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Editing, Best Film, Honorary Award (William Cameron Menzies), Technical Acheivement (R.D. Musgrave)
Academy Award Nominations
Best Actor (Gable), Best Supporting Actress (Havilland), Best Sound Recording, Best Special Effects, Best Original Score
What's to like?
Even today, you can tell that Gone With The Wind is a very special film indeed. Even the use of colour, which we obviously take for granted these days, feels exceptional as every surface seems to gleam with bright light and energy. It's a beautiful film to watch with sweeping shots of Georgia's vast cotton fields, stunning red skies with the silhouettes of trees and characters cast against it and terrifying towers of flame as Atlanta burns to the ground.
Performances are every bit as melodramatic as you'd expect with Leigh outstanding as Scarlett, perhaps cinema's original bitch. Manipulative and spoilt, she comes into her own in the second half as her character develops from prissy madam to headstrong businesswoman determined to leave her poverty-stricken past behind her. Gable cemented his place as one of cinema's great romantic heroes as Rhett, even if his character has some pretty strong flaws which are hard to ignore. Together, these two damaged individuals should be perfect if Scarlett were to realise this and her doomed pursuit of the goody-two-shoes Ashley would put her at risk of losing everything.
Beyond the two leads, the film is awash with talent both in front and behind the camera. McDaniels' performance might feel a little suspect these days but back then, she was a genuine rule-breaker and led the way for more roles for African-American actors in Hollywood - something that should be utterly welcomed. De Havilland also excels as Melanie, possibly Scarlett's only true friend in the world and somehow oblivious to Scarlett's googly-eyed stare at her husband. There are some surprising comic touches as well as genuinely moving moments such as the long panning shot of Scarlett racing to find Dr Meade (played by Harry Davenport) amid a sea of dead and dying Confederate troops lying on the ground. All of this was made long before CG made such moments commonplace and it demonstrates all the skill, confidence and technical abilities of the entire crew to make a film of this age still amazing to watch today.
- Fleming was actually the film's second director, replacing original director George Cukor shortly after filming had started. Fleming himself was later replaced by Sam Wood after he complained of exhaustion.
- The film still holds numerous records - McDaniel was the first African-American to be nominated (and win) an Oscar, it was the first colour film to win an Oscar and is also the longest film to win the Best Film award. Adjusted for inflation, Gone With The Wind is also the highest earning film in history with global earnings estimated to be around $4.4 billion.
- The first scene shot was the burning of the Atlanta Depot on 10th December, 1938. It cost $25'000 and actually destroyed old sets that needed to be cleared. It was so intense that residents of nearby Culver City jammed the switchboards, thinking MGM itself was burning down.
What's not to like?
As game-changing and revolutionary as Gone With The Wind was back in 1939, the film has not aged as well as one might think. For starters, the film is peppered with racist language and characters such as the intensely irrating Prissy, the simple housemaid played by Butterfly McQueen whose high-pitched voice makes every one of her lines a struggle to comprehend. The film also offers a highly controversial look back at the supposedly good old days of slavery - it makes for uncomfortable viewing these days, especially given the rising racial tensions in the US that refuse to go away. The film's narrative about the South's gallantry, knights and noble ladies doesn't ring that true, especially considering the fact that the Ku Klux Klan actually pop up in the book after Scarlett's narrow escape from a couple of would-be attackers.
Story-wise, the film is also rather uneven. The first half, covering the outbreak of war to Scarlett's return from Atlanta to Tara, is far more exciting and interesting than the second half which is more character-driven. Scarlett is a difficult character to empathise with as she is fundamentally unlikeable so the only reason to keep watching the film is to see her get her comeuppance. And because the film's ending has become so entrenched in popular culture, you don't actually give a damn what happens by the time the film ends. If anything, I felt relieved that the whole thing was over and I certainly have no desire to watch the film again.
Should I watch it?
There should be no dispute that Gone With The Wind has always been, and should remain, a benchmark picture and one of the most important films ever made. It stands alone on top of the pile of epic, sweeping melodramas Hollywood has loved to churn out over the years with arguably Leigh's greatest performance and Gable's iconic delivery. But the film's barely concealed racial undertones make the film an uncomfortable watch today for more open-minded viewers like yourself. It might also have benefitted from a tighter script and more aggressive editing to get the near-four hour running time down to something more manageable.
Great For: nostalgic cinema lovers, America's Deep South, setting and breaking world records
Not So Great For: younger audiences, people with small bladders, racially sensitive viewers
What else should I watch?
What else can you possibly compare Gone With The Wind to? For me, it marks the end of a long courtship as it has been on my "Must See" list since I started reviewing films more than a decade ago. Along with equally iconic films like Metropolis and Casablanca, the film stands as one of the landmark pieces of cinema upon which the entire industry now stands. It has been a privilege to see it and I haven't felt like this since I first saw Citizen Kane a few years ago.
There are dozens of classic love stories that have been adapted into movies such as Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet to James Cameron's doomed lovers Jack and Rose in Titanic. Other examples worth considering include Doctor Zhivago, the multi-Oscar award winning The English Patient and Atonement - all of which feature heart-wrenching stories set against the backdrop of war. Remind you of anything?
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Benjamin Cox