Get the Smelling Salts
Well, I’m tired.
Quite literally a 4-hour marathon. Not your typical marathon, sitting in my $20 folding chair from Target as opposed to running on a street somewhere, but nevertheless a true test of my ADHD (self-diagnosed).
Now where do you even start with a film like this? I guess I’ll just preface by saying that I actually quite liked it and, although it contains a lot of problematic imagery by today’s standards, it was still a highly enjoyable watch. After all, the only other movie(s) I’ve seen that even comes close to the same time commitment was the Lord of the Rings trilogy, except Scarlett isn’t a hobbit and there were no wizards . . . unless you read the book. Although I bet there’s a rather lengthy comparison of Scarlett and Frodo’s journeys on some strange Internet forum out there, I’d rather save my sanity.
Also, since the movie was so long and I don’t want to write my own book (yet), this review will be condensed quite a bit, mainly touching on the key points of the plot and its, say it with me, historical accuracy.
So, let’s get into it.
A Tale of Two Tales
The plot is broken up quite distinctly into two separate phases.
In the beginning, the film centers largely around the “chivalric” culture of Confederate Georgia. Plantations, dinner parties, dapperly dressed patrons, and an Irish immigrant with a questionable accent, it’s a picturesque look into the Old South. Save all the bad things, like the deplorable conditions of slaves and obvious human rights abuses, but I digress. I could instantly see why the film is so popular, even after almost a whole century. It really does ooze charm. However, there is some pretty dangerous propaganda.
For one, rebel soldiers are often labeled as “cavaliers”. They fought to preserve the ways of the Old South from those damned Yankees (not just from New York), and even if they were outnumbered or outgunned, they fought for what was “right”. Well, as we learned in Free State of Jones, there were plenty of “cavaliers” who probably could have cared less about the Confederate cause, especially by 1862-63 with such deadly encounters as Antietam, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg, all within a year of each other.
But our story truly begins with a dinner party at one Twelve Oaks plantation, home of the Wilkes family. News breaks that the War has officially started, and is met with jubilee by the male partygoers who proceed to sprint towards their buggies on the way to registration. Most of them are in agreement that they would be able to handle the Yankee threat within a matter of months. Two characters, however, are a little hesitant about the war, namely Ashley Wilkes (the main love interest) and Rhett Butler (played by Clark Gable), a mysteriously wealthy individual with an equally mysterious past. Ashley is more cautiously optimistic if anything, but Rhett understands what they’re up against. In comparing the North and the South, the North boasts many advantages in terms of overall manpower, industry, supply chains, and artillery. Although the Confederates boast an immense fighting spirit, they simply could not compete with the Union.
Before the men are sent off to the battlefield, our protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara (played by Vivien Leigh), begrudgingly gets engaged to Ashley’s cousin Charles Hamilton, possibly to try and make Ashley jealous. News from the frontline comes in mere moments later, informing Scarlett that Charles has died, but not in action. He apparently caught some sort of illness. This is actually quite insightful because about 2/3rds of all deaths during the Civil War were in fact due to illness and deplorable conditions in camps. This prompts Scarlett to, narcissistically, think about Ashley rather than mourning her recently betrothed husband. She would continue to worry as papers come flying into town with death reports from a skirmish in a small Pennsylvania town (Gettysburg), to which much sorrow ensues. This too holds a bit of truth, as Gettysburg was a sobering moment for both sides during the war. Shortly after, Ashley returns home, being met with glee by Scarlett . . . and his wife.
“The cause of living in the past is dying right in front of us.”Rhett Butler’s words of wisdom while examining the incoming casualties from Gettysburg.
Some more rebel propaganda follows, as the “gallant cavaliers” flood the streets of Atlanta in need of medical attention, which prompts the above quote from Rhett. Although kind of corny, it was probably the case for many Confederate sympathizers after the battle, seeing firsthand the effects the war had taken on their men. A similar quote would come from Ashley as he returns home, sitting in his office, mentioning how it could very well be the “end of our world”. I’m sure at least half the people living in the South would appreciate if that happened, sooner rather than later. But this also confirms Ashley’s correct suspicions, that the Union was probably much too hard to handle.
A while passes and suddenly General Sherman is at the gates of Atlanta, starting his now-infamous March to the Sea. We see more propaganda as the remnants of Georgia’s rebel forces line up oh-so enthusiastically to take on his army, looking all but. The mortars start raining down. A flurry of chaos and commotion commences, with Scarlett now pitted as a field medic with seemingly no medical experience. Aaaand queue the obligatory amputation scene, sans anesthesia. However, this might be more telling at this point in the war due to Confederate supply shortages, so most likely rebel wounded were treated without the appropriate means. During all the ruckus, a line of slaves begins marching down the street, but not because they’re running away. Instead, we’re told that they are “willingly” going to fend off the Union invasion along with their Confederate counterparts. I bet. To be fair, I’m pretty sure we did read of some instances where slaves fended off their master’s plantations, but this was most definitely rare. Then to make matters worse, Rhett abruptly decides to join the army, a clear sign that everyone is losing their minds.
Then curtains. We get some Star Wars-esque text on the screen with more B.S., and eventually the title, “gone with the wind”. At this point, I finally realized what it meant. What was gone was the Old South way of living, and the wind refers to none other than Sherman himself. It’s like the time I finally learned what Kanye’s “Through the Wire” meant.
And to be honest, the politics of the film end there. The last hour to hour and a half follows the misfortune of Scarlett O’Hara in the Reconstruction South, aside from some critical remarks about carpetbaggers and scalawags. Although carpetbaggers did come in droves after the war to try and seek economic opportunities, they were not necessarily malicious in their intent. Some of them even were trying to innovate the wartorn economy and revitalize the South. The 40 Acres and a Mule field order was briefly mentioned but in a political context more akin to Tammany Hall. Basically, the interpretation was “we give you land, you give us a vote”. Seeing how it was just a field order issued by Sherman after the war, it’s hard to believe this was actually used as a bargaining chip for political power rather than as a Radical Republican reparation plan as we know it. Nevertheless, the order was never executed in full thanks to Andrew Johnson, as Lincoln rolled in his grave. Much later on, Scarlett develops quite a lucrative logging business, but in scouting for employment options she chooses to take on a band of convicts from a local prison who are adorned in chains. Ashley, who’s in on the venture, questions the morality of the decision to which Scarlett retorts with their past use of slaves. Ashley then proclaims, “That was different, we didn’t treat them that way.” Pure genius.
Frankly, Not Bad
All-in-all, not bad.
I was obviously pretty shocked by the rhetoric of the film as a whole, but there was actually some really insightful pieces of history in there. Also, if you’re a person living in 2022, you should be well able to detangle and parse what they’re saying and still be able to enjoy the film like I did.
And, can I say, credit where credit is due. This is 1939 we’re talking about, the South is still ravaged by racism and segregation, and yet there are multiple incredibly memorable Black performances throughout the film. Whether it’s Mammy (played by Hattie McDaniel) with her clever quips and banter, Prissy with her (annoyingly) high-pitched voice but also a sincere concern for those around her, Pork and his gentle giant demeanor, and Big Sam who helped Scarlett escape the Union shantytown despite being a former slave of the O’Hara’s. Although there are some extremely stereotypical tropes used when portraying these characters, they not once paint them in a negative light in terms of violence or ill-will, which is quite profound for the time period.
For God’s sake, Hattie McDaniel even won an Oscar for her supporting role as Mammy, making her the first African American period to win an Academy Award, male or female, and 24 years before Sidney Poitier won his first. However, it didn’t come without great discrimination from both Hollywood and the Black community. Hattie wasn’t even invited to the premiere of the film, unable to watch with her co-stars (due to it premiering in a whites-only theater), and had to sit at a segregated table at the Oscar’s ceremony. Also, a perplexing mystery regarding her Oscar statue persists to this day, with the whereabouts of the award being unknown. On the other end of the spectrum, the NAACP heavily criticized Hattie earlier in her career as well as other Black actors in Hollywood. This is mainly due to the fact that the only roles Black actors could get were heavily stereotyped, often as slaves or house servants. Some went as far as to label her an “Uncle Tom” due to her “complacence” with the system, as well as her not contributing much to independent Black films (which she would eventually do later in her career). Despite this, she lived a moderately comfortable life in Hollywood, living in a two-story, 17-bedroom house, which is even better than a lot of people today could achieve.
Anyway, I think it’s about time to rap up.
I hope it wasn’t too long, I know it should be around 3-4 pages but this is an incredibly dense topic, and I had some really good notes to work with.
So I’ll leave you with this funny comment I found on YouTube, under a video of the scene with Confederate casualties in Atlanta:
“At the grand opening premiere of ‘Gone With the Wind’ in 1939, some old Confederate soldiers were invited to attend. When the movie was over one of them was asked what he thought of the movie. He said (referring to this scene with all the injured soldiers laid out), “If we had had that many soldiers we would have won the war.’”