Epic. What other word so sums up the film Gone with the Wind? With it’s almost four-hour running time, giant cast, gorgeous sets, and dramatic story lines, this film is well deserving in being at the top of the list. Despite the criticism the film faces now (for the treatment of African-American characters and glamorization of the South), it still stands as an example of the classic “road-show” epic that studios produced in 30s-40s Hollywood. It was also one of the first films to use a successful publicity campaign that would raise the bar for other films after.
The story, based on Margaret Mitchell’s novel of the same name, revolves around Scarlett O’Hara. We are introduced to her as a young southern belle who concerns herself with picnics and the man she loves, Ashley Wilkes. With the Civil War on the very brink of beginning and Ashley announcing his marriage to another, Scarlett’s world becomes turned upside down. As she is forced to deal with heartache, death, and struggles, the very world she knows burns down around her. In the aftermath of the war, Scarlett deals with the new world she inhabits and eventually returns where her heart always was: Tara, the plantation of her youth.
The character of Scarlett O’Hara was played by the beautiful Vivien Leigh. Despite the fact that she and many other actresses were considered for the part, what’s most known is the nationwide casting call that producer David O. Selznick held for the part. Despite the fact they had no real intention of finding their Scarlett by nationwide casting call, the amount of publicity that came from it was worth it. Even thought the movie wouldn’t come out for two years, the buzz this created stayed in the countries consciousness and would help to make the movie the success it is. In the role of Captain Rhett Butler, Gary Cooper was the first choice, but didn’t want the role. He felt the film wasn’t going to be a success and wanted no part in it. Clark Gable was cast as the role of Rhett and created one of the most iconic roles of his career.
Leslie Howard portrayed Ashley Wilkes, the unattainable love of Scarlett’s life. A quiet, thoughtful man, he marries his cousin Melanie Hamilton, played by Olivia de Havilland. The kindness of Melanie counters Scarlett’s more manipulative side. Even when Scarlett’s love for Ashley comes out, Melanie still stands by Scarlett’s side in the face of scandal and whispered rumors. One of the most talked about performances in the film is that of Hattie McDaniel as Mammy. Despite the role being a typical characterization of the “black mammy” character, she manages to break through in moments to add her own bit of humanity. Her performance won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar and was the first time an African American was presented with an Oscar. Thought it would still be decades before the film industry would start changing it’s casting views with African Americans, it was a small step toward the right direction.
Besides the memorable characters and performances, the film is also well remembered for the epic scale in which is is presented. The sets are almost always lush and large in scope. Even in the darker scenes, there is a sweeping aspect to them that is a staple of the film. Who can forget that moment with the injured soldiers as Scarlett runs out of the hospital and the camera pans out to reveal the hundreds upon hundreds of injured and dying men. When Atlanta is burning, it’s so vivid you an almost feel the heat jumping off the screen. Truly, this film was made to be experienced on a
big screen. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen the movie in it’s complete form (Overture, Entr’acte, Exit Music) in a movie theater and it is truly an awesome experience. Adding to the visuals is the sweeping orchestral pieces that heighten the drama of the piece. Possibly one of the more recognizable pieces of music, when you hear the music underneath the “As God as my witness” moment you can’t help but feel that determination that Scarlett has.
When the film was released it was well received by the public and went on to break box office numbers. Even to this day, the film (with inflation accounted for) is still one of the top grossing films of all time. It greatly benefited from the road-show style release; this was when a limited number of showings happened and tickets where needed to be bought in advanced. In fact, it toured in this style for a year before being opened to general release. Since it’s original release, it has had a healthy home video life, just recently being released on blu-ray special edition. It’s been shown on television each year and used as a teaching tool by both film and history teachers.
However, you can’t talk about this movie without talking about the modern criticisms the film receives. The biggest of these is, of course, the treatment of the African American characters. Despite being slaves, the characters are portrayed as generally happy with their lots. Even when going to fight for the South, they are shown as going to fight for what they believe. The film has been hit for glossing over this dark moment in history, much in the same way Disney would do with Song of the South almost ten years later. The glamorization of the South is another characteristic of the film that has received some flack of the years. The film shows the South as the underdog that was ravaged by the Yankee’s from the North.
While I understand where people might be quick to point out the flaws and glossing over of the darker aspects of this time, it is important to view this movie in it’s context. Every story has a side. Just look at the history books for proof of that. When watching this movie, it’s important to remember just who is telling us this story: Scarlett. The movie is from her point of view and therefore will be colored by how she sees the world. Of course the South would be shown in a good light; that’s the world that she grew up in. I always worry about films like these because I know that there is such a tight rope to walk when talking about some of the subject matter. I just can’t hold this film to the modern standard of “political correctness” because I don’t think it was made as a malicious piece of hate. It was made to entertain and, above all, make money. While not a film I would consider one of my favorites (four hours is just too long), it is important in the timeline of film history. Moreover, it helped to kick off the studio tradition of the Epic Road Show productions that would eventually lead to the downfall of the studio system.