REVIEW: Gone with the Wind [1939]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG | Runtime: 238 minutes | Release Date: December 15, 1939 (USA)
Studio: Loew’s Incorporated / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Director(s): Victor Fleming / George Cukor & Sam Wood (uncredited)
Writer(s): Sidney Howard / Margaret Mitchell (novel)

“All we’ve got is cotton and slaves and … arrogance”

For years I’ve thought Gone with the Wind some grand, epic romance. How else could anyone take its smoldering poster of Clark Gable ready to ravish Vivien Leigh as her dress falls helplessly from her shoulders? This advert proves as manipulative as the woman positioned at the film’s center because it’s Scarlett O’Hara’s (Leigh) tale from start to finish, complete with every tragic morsel of life’s lemons both unwitting and a result of her own doing. A spoiled brat believing she deserves things simply because she covets them, her motivation is for selfish gain even when she’s willing to dirty her hands and help those who care for her. Unapologetic and deluded with ideas of unearned grandeur and importance, she is the South—an entity possessed by an archaic way of life the Civil War necessarily destroyed.

The real love at the backbone of everything is therefore unsurprisingly between Scarlett and her plantation home Tara. It is the one thing she does not lose in the war and ultimately the one thing she didn’t know she truly loved. One could say the same about Southerners and what they lost whether it sanctimonious airs, unpaid labor, or the hubris they took as God given right. In the end those who survived the fight had their land if not the homes that once stood there. They were still Americans with the freedom to rebuild and adjust to the new world ruled by struggle and hard work rather than aristocratic lineage. Because like the brilliant line of dialogue, “You think that by saying ‘I’m sorry,’ all the past can be corrected” infers, words mean nothing without action.

Gone with the Wind is less a depiction of the Old South as a tragic tale of lost splendor or the bitter stories of a failed nation spewing forth bile at their oppressors in the north than it is an unapologetic look at everything that was wrong with it. From the juxtaposition of slaves working the land and home while the beautiful daughters and strapping sons of the rich dressed for barbecue galas of frivolity and political posturing as though they were God’s most cherished creations to the utter annihilation of Atlanta in a blaze of fire to the final acknowledgement that the dream of happiness once held was no longer valid and quite possibly never morally acceptable, we see vile creatures turn more despicable and a select few evolve into souls worthy of forgiveness and second chance.

Sadly for the film’s stars—and exhilaratingly refreshing for us watching—it’s the former who we see most. Their constant desire to go back to the way it once was breeds so much tragedy and hardship that you want to feel bad for them if not for how deplorable they are to their core. With each conniving maneuver meant to take and take without concern for those being taken or those being taking from, another nightmarish stumble is delivered until the victim somehow learns his/her lesson or simply continues to fall further into their personal infinite abyss. This is Scarlett’s road, one filled with empty flirtations to get her way, empty promises to those she can use, and an empty heart too stubborn to relent and admit wrongdoing despite knowing how much happier she’d be if she could.

What makes the drama so tragic too is that she is given ample opportunity to change. At one point she even goes against her instincts to save the woman (Olivia de Havilland‘s Melanie) married to the man she loves (Leslie Howard‘s Ashley), putting everything she has into becoming a hero only until the opportunity to lay down arms provides relief. She will do anything for survival to the point of marrying her sister’s fiancé. Where she sees this ruthlessness as strength, formidability, and courage, it’s in fact only another misguided deed proving how insecure, cowardly, and spiteful she’s become. What was first believed to have been the actions of a child soon reveal themselves to be those of a bitter soul refusing to let go until the two men she always thought would be there are gone.

It’s a sprawling tale of sacrifice in a world turned upside down that surrounds a woman caught in the middle born without the capacity to change. It’s about a way of life too evil to be real that got so ingrained in society no amount of argument or pleading could ever make a dent. Only war was able to stop it and even that wasn’t foolproof as any trip to the south today proves. Sometimes new tricks can’t be learned no matter how much pain and suffering is thrown in to provide karmic lessons about human decency. Greed and power give us the capacity to be vicious and when they’re taken away we battle to retrieve them and when we retain them we do whatever it takes to acquire more. The problem is that we’ll never have enough.

Some characters in Margaret Mitchell‘s novel and subsequently Sidney Howard‘s script discover this truth and some don’t. Those who do either portray the joy of selflessness or the sorrow of regret while Scarlett and for most of the story Rhett Butler (Gable) seize upon their apparent weakness. The unbridled and no-strings-attached love Melanie shares may seem naive and over-the-top at first, but it’s hard not to see the intelligence and pity in de Havilland’s eyes later on as she refuses to buckle under the weight of everyone else’s inability to be truly good. Ashley’s compassion and hope likewise arrives under the auspices of idealistic dream when Howard’s performance eventually shows how his honor just couldn’t allow his brain to overrule his heart. They are the epitome of strength while Scarlett and Rhett continuously hide behind vitriol and control.

No matter how sweet or funny either is to those they love—namely Melanie, Ashley, and the Oscar-winning Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) supplying a stern voice of reason within a world ruled by emotion—each of their actions are done with an endgame in mind. Scarlett and Rhett are the perfect pair in this regard since both would stop at nothing to survive—not to simply keep breathing but to also retain a certain comfort level their stations in life and amorality has afforded. War, marriage, parenthood, nor the death that ravages all three can give them reason to stop moving forward to the next plan. Or at the very least none can give them pause simultaneously so that one isn’t always still hidden under his/her defenses when the other’s vulnerability finally peeks through.

The tragedy’s unavoidable and the filmmakers beautifully ensure not even Hollywood can mask its pain with a happy ending Scarlett doesn’t deserve. There are so many instances where love could prevail—whether romantic or platonic—against the gorgeous Technicolor backdrop that you hope she’ll grab hold of one before it’s too late. Instead, every silhouette of Leigh and Gable readying for the soaring embrace of passion with an orange sky glowing around them ends up devolving into a hellish scene of destructive fire igniting them to continue going it alone in the thought things will get better. Things do to a point, but only until mortality rears its head to remind them how precious life is. Mammy and Big Sam (Everett Brown) know this and help her constantly, but they remain “darkies” no matter Scarlett’s love for both.

This becomes the most profound realization I took from Victor Fleming‘s movie—how the sense of superiority never evaporates despite its depiction of happy slaves and thoughtful masters. So while it can on the surface appear that Gone with the Wind is glorifying the South and all it was in a heyday before the Yankees unmercifully destroyed it, the truth is that it’s actually an exposé on the South’s transgressions. Just as Scarlett deserves the pain that lies before her after the Intermission, the South reaped exactly what it sowed. No matter how pristine and remorseful a mask shown, the darkness underneath is forever visible. That’s also why every tear Scarlett sheds must be questioned for validity due to the false pretenses her numerous quick glances to catch whether her crying has worked provide.

While it seems a simple message to need an almost four-hour extravaganza of the scale David O. Selnick financed—not to mention the craziness behind the scenes spanning three directors, multiple script changes, a two-year wait for Gable, a publicity stunt search for Scarlett’s actress, and the sale of distribution rights to MGM—and yet I cannot think of one moment I’d cut. For example: Part Two might be desperately overlong, but it flew by faster than Part One despite those first 105-minutes being close to perfect. In the end we need to see what the Civil War did to Georgia as much as what it did to Scarlett in order to understand why she is how she is and why everything that befalls her does. No one should ever be rewarded for his/her hubris, not even a Southern Belle.

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