This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Charlie Schufreider’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Beyond the second Godfather, Titanic, Avengers: Endgame, The Irishman, and Tarantino at his most indulgent (The Hateful 8) my experience with films over the 180-min mark is rather paltry. I haven’t seen many of those epic “classics” of days past, not because of disinterest, just lack of time. I’ll get to you yet, Doctor Zhivago! But that’s not the case for Gone With the Wind: I just never had any interest. Though I love Titanic, I never had interest in watching a four-hour love story from the 1930s. And for all it’s praise, I never knew anyone who had seen it, nor did I hear a lot of praise about it on online forums/websites. Perhaps because the internet tends to dominated by male voices who would rather tout gangster films than the passionate drama I was led to believe this film was. In sum, I just sort of took it for granted that Gone With the Wind was some all-time classic, but one which I would just never get around to seeing, and I was ok with that.
That changed in 2018, when Spike Lee used a scene from the film to start his own movie BlacKkKlansmen. Before this, I had never known there was ever any controversy surrounding a move that was supposedly as good if not better than Casablanca. Lee used the scene from Gone With the Wind (in addition to a scene from The Birth of a Nation) to criticize the way Hollywood has long served as a bastion for white supremacy, giving voice and platform to hateful speech and thoughts. In the case of Gone With the Wind, that means a work which embodies those hateful thoughts, and yet has been celebrated and praised despite doing so ad nauseum for 80+ years. At that point, I lost even more interest in the film, now not wanting to watch a racist movie.
Fast-forward to 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s murder (among many other Black people killed by police recently and throughout American history) when HBO is under severe controversy for first putting Gone With the Wind on its streaming service, and then subsequently under more controversy for taking it down. A debate took place about censorship, free speech, and the other bullshit conservatives use to sustain their own beliefs while hypocritically arguing against when things don’t go their way. Regardless, for myself, in order to enter into the debate informed I felt like I wanted to know what the hubbub was all about. Frankly, I was curious to see why a movie that was so obviously racist was so adored.
Three hours and forty-five minutes later, I’m not really that sure. On the one hand, putting myself in the shoes of an audience member in 1939, the first half would have blown me away, with the drama taking place in Georgia at the very start of the Civil War up through its grand destruction under General Sherman. The colors and cinematography capturing the landscape of Georgia are just downright beautiful , unlike anything that had been in films prior. Yes, it’s not the first movie to be shot in color (nor was the Wizard of Oz which came out just 4 months prior), but I can’t imagine films before this were as devastatingly beautiful. Everything from the colors of the women’s dresses to the multiple picture-perfect sunsets pops out and catches your eye, and not in the fairytale, bubblegum way of Wizard of Oz. Gone With the Wind captures the natural beauty and colors of our world, and put it on display in a grand way. The cinematography really deserves every praise it gets.
The recurrent motif of characters’ shadows being casted onto the wall behind them during key emotional scenes was one I never tired of. Not only are the shadows beautifully captured by the camera, but, especially in a movie where every character seems to have a secret passion they refuse to express, the shadows strip away all our external beauties (make-up, facial features, dresses, and all the stuff this film has in spades), leaving us with figures that are still obviously human and whose feelings are immediately understood. All that is needed to convey grief is to see two shadows with the heads hung low.
The other positives of this film? Clark Gable is a handsome fucking man. He walks the fine line of confidence and smug so well that few others than, say, Brad Pitt could have ever performed the role of Rhett Butler so well. I particularly loved how he portrayed his relationship with his daughter, and the genuine love he showers upon her. Yes, he obviously spoils the child, but he’s so charming and so sincere that rarely have I seen such devoting love from father to daughter on screen, even 80 years later. As one character says, “there must be a great deal of good in a man who would love a child so much.”
But Rhett’s also kind of a despicable human being. He’s a brutish MAN, who loves his daughter because she is someone he can finally “completely own,” (an interesting choice of words said by a Southerner just after the Civil War) which is indicative of his philosophy towards love. Yes, love should be reciprocal, but his idea that his wife should exist in strict subservient, obedient love to him is ridiculous, yet he pursues it like it’s his right. He is otherwise prone to petty jealousy and drunkenness, and he is emotionally abuse toward his wife, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh). It’s uncomfortable today to watch these scenes of abuse, like where he threatens to crush her skull to get the thoughts of another man out of her head, or where, after O’Hara makes abundantly clear that she never wants sex with Butler again, he in a drunken fit picks her up in order to carry her to bed, saying essentially “I know you said you didn’t want to but I’m going to fuck you.” After such deplorable behavior in a movie today, there would at least be ambiguity about Butler’s character or morality. Nope, not here. We see O’Hara the next morning essentially elated by the burst of passion that just a few hours earlier she was dreading and resisting. Throughout everything, Butler is held up as one of the film’s main heroes, growing from the film’s start as a noble rapscallion who values money too much and gradually evolves into a war hero who earns his people’s respect by protecting his people (and we’ll for argument’s sake just ignore that “protecting his people” means protecting men accused of doling out vigilante, lynch-mob justice which we can assume is the KKK). In sum, he’s a complex and charismatic character played wonderfully by Gable, but a character nevertheless that is problematic and would have been better served by a film as willing to highlight these problems as they are willing to highlight them in the film’s protagonist Scarlett O’Hara.
Yes, I’m a thousand words in, and I haven’t even started talking about the actual main character. The movie, for as much as it is discussed as being a love story between O’Hara and Butler or an ode to the Old South, is more a coming-of-age tale (in its first half) and a character study (in its second) focused on O’Hara. She starts the film out a vain, self-indulgent belle of the ball, but faced with the horrors of war and subsequent poverty, she becomes an embodiment of the rotten side of the American Dream: greedy, self-indulgent, and out-of-touch with the world she came from. I suppose that at the end of the film, abandoned by her husband, having lost both of her children, as well as her best friend, O’Hara’s revelation that she should return home to her family’s plantation is supposed to be suggest that she will seek redemption and give up her excesses. That’s fine with me, but I’m not sure the film deserves to just end it there and not allow us to see if she actually earns that redemption. I’m not saying I want MORE Gone With the Wind, just that the story feels incomplete in telling O’Hara’s full story arc.
Still, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy watching O’Hara’s tale unfold. It is always somewhat refreshing to watch film from decades’ past that refuse to present stories that are morally simple (not that I think people in the 30’s were incapable of complex morality, just that movies at the time tend to reflect more simple black-and-white values). To that extent, O’Hara is not a simple character, and is actually quite fascinating. She’s a ruthless capitalist and opportunist, much in the vain of her male counterpart, Butler. I’m curious to know how, for a country just starting to crawl its way out of the Depression and which in just a few short years would see the rise of Rosie the Riveter women, how O’Hara’s devotion to never be in poverty ever again (even if she has to “lie, steal, cheat, or kill”!) was perceived by audiences. Specifically, released at a time when gender norms were all but fixed, I wonder how men thought of her taking advantage of, and almost weaponizing, her femininity for her advantage, marrying three times not out of love but to better herself and survive. Yet, hypocritically she clings to the ideals of femininity of the past. Her use of her femininity to survive she accepts, yet she abhors the film’s stereotypical heart-of-gold prostitute for her moral licentiousness despite her good nature.
Throughout the film, especially in the later half, it was unclear to me how much we as the audience were supposed to like or dislike O’Hara. Yes, she’s hard-working, resilient, and acts heroically multiple times in the film. But she’s also kind of a child til the very end, obscenely jealous, while also cold and calculating, counting down the days til her best friend dies so that she can sleep with her husband. I liked that ambiguity. It made her feel like a real person. To some degree Leigh’s performance as O’Hara is undercut by histrionics and bouts of “hysteria” that were more common in film performances from that time, but which seem a little annoying and grating today. But damn if it isn’t a great performance, display the full emotional range in this film, from buoyantly bright and cheery, to desperate and despaired.
So yeah, I guess I do get why it’s considered a classic, or at least why it made such a splash in 1939. There was nothing like it! The cinematography is great, its characters are fascinating, complex, and engrossing, and the performances (by Gable in particular) are wonderful. But the elephant in the room, then but especially now, is that… damn… this movie is racist, like in its DNA. They double down on this at the VERY START! The fourth shot of the movie (FOURTH!), after first showing a sign announcing the studio who produced the film, then a look at the plantation-like building bearing the studio’s name, and finally some clouds at daybreak, is of slaves tending to crops. The image is set to a triumphant score while the overlaying text tells us that the movie will be based on Margaret Mitchell’s “Story of the Old South.” This is not done ironically. With the beautiful landscape and music, we as audience are to think, “Wow, what a great time this was.” At the end of the opening credits, the prologue text tells us that the antebellum South was the last in a long line of great lands. It’s the last time “gallantry” would exist, and “the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, or Master and of Slave.” Holy Shit. As if “Master and Slave” is something to celebrate?! “Those damn Yankees would destroy such a beautiful world!” the film argues. Again… not presented ironically. It’s pretty jarring.
That said, I do want to say that to a minimal degree that film is right when it just presents War (with a capital W) in general as a destructive force that either destroys lives outright, or destroys enough property to send lives to ruin. That’s a truth propagated by media as far back as the Iliad, and is sometimes shown effectively here, such as the oft-discussed slow-pan show of the countless Confederate bodies lying dead on the ground mid-way through the film. It’s a depressing sight on an apolitical human level. But, at the same time, the movie’s inability and refusal to address the reason those bodies are there in the first place (racist need to continue slavery), and instead obliquely suggest that the Antebellum South was without any suffering until those damn Yankees brought them ruin is, frankly, insulting and disgusting. It outright ignores the suffering of Black people in favor of highlighting the suffering of whites. A tale unfortunately told ab aeterno in America.
I know others can, have, and will say more about the treatment of Black characters within the film and how they serve only to reinforce negative stereotypes. Mammy, despite being wonderfully acted by Hattie McDaniel, and other house slaves are presented as being eternally grateful to have been enslaved to their white masters, so much so that even after the war they continue to serve them --- because why would they ever want to do differently?! (the film seemingly asks and answers). After the war, Scarlett is more than willing to accept that her lumber mill should be worked by convicts who will be paid less than other workers and suffer harsh treatment, arguing that it is no different than slavery and that has always been ok. WHAT?! And Prissy, the slave who reassures Scarlett that she knows everything about birthing babies, up until the point where her knowledge is needed and she turns out to be nothing more than an airheaded twit, has to be one of the ugliest depictions of a slave I have seen. Particularly, she serves little more than really bad comic relief… with the joke seemingly just being “wow look at how stupid and annoying slaves were.”
This is more than I intended to write, so I won’t go on, but I think everything I had to say has been said. It’s a beautifully shot film, with rich, deep, and complex characters that would be even better served in a movie more willing to dive into the moral ambiguity of their characters, and for Butler in particular not bend over backwards to make him look like a good guy. And I get why it made such an impact 80 years ago, especially in that first half where there’s all the excitement of war and some notable action set-pieces. But even taking out the significant problems the movie has with race, it’s hard for me to understand anyone considers this essential viewing for anyone today besides those with an interest in cinematography, film history, or interested in how race is presented on screen. Its proto-feminist Scarlett O’Hara and her role within an evolving economy and evolving societal ideas of what “love” is are interesting, but they certainly not things that are worth the average viewer’s nearly four hours’ worth of time. It’s a museum piece, one that captured the spirit of a time (and the decades beyond it) where Hollywood felt it was completely OK to romanticize life under slavery, and bemoan its destruction by Yankees. If you want to see this museum piece, go ahead, but don’t let anyone convince you it’s one of the all-time greats.