"Gone with the Wind" is perhaps the most successful film
of all time. It was the top grossing film until at least
"The Sound of Music", some thirty years of inflation later.
The story, and the characters, have become a part of
American cultural heritage.
The story begins in Georgia, just prior to the Civil War.
Beautiful and spoiled Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) schemes
to win the love of the honorable Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard),
who is engaged to his saintly cousin Melanie (Olivia De Havilland).
Scarlett fails in this effort, but wins the admiration of
dashing scoundrel Rhett Butler (Clark Gable).
Ashley marries Melanie, then goes off to fight the Civil War.
Scarlett moves to Atlanta to be with Melanie and wait for
Ashley's return. Eventually, Union troops siege and capture
Atlanta, forcing Scarlett, Melanie, and her newborn baby
to flee to Scarlett's home at Tara, which has been impoverished
by looting Federal troops.
After much humiliation and unethical behavior, Scarlett rebuilds
Tara and becomes a wealthy businesswoman. She marries Rhett
and has a daughter, but her marriage is stormy.
Is "Gone with the Wind" pro-slavery? In the pre-war scenes,
blacks seem content with their lot, and show devotion to the
white "masters" that control their lives. Pork (Oscar Polk) is a
shuffling, slow-talking stereotype. Prissy (Butterfly McQueen)
is described by Rhett as a "simple-minded darky".
But to its credit, "Gone with the Wind" has two very strong
and positive roles. The characters listen with respect
to Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), whose straightforward comments
make for sage advice. McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress,
an outstanding achievement during an era of segregation.
Big Sam (Everett Brown) shows great courage rescuing Scarlett
from grave danger.
However, my favorite supporting character is Scarlett's
exuberant first husband Charles Hamilton (Rand Brooks).
Also, Aunt Pittypat (Laura Hope Crews) gives an excellent
"Gone with the Wind" also won major Oscars for Best Screenplay
(Sidney Howard), Best Actress (Scarlett O'Hara),
Best Color Cinematography, Best Director, and Best Picture.
Fleming was credited as director, although four directors
were used. This was a clean sweep of all major awards
except Best Actor, which passed over Clark Gable. (Vivien
Leigh's husband, Laurence Olivier, was also nominated, for
"Wuthering Heights." The winner that year was Robert Donat).
"Gone with the Wind" clocks in at 222 minutes, more than twice
the length of an typical film from 1939. The story does sag
once or twice, but only in comparison with its best parts.
The film peaks midway, during the siege of Atlanta. The film's
best action scenes are here, and the devastation war is clearly
demonstrated by the horrific hospital scenes and acres of wounded
The film picks up again during a postwar sequence loaded with
suspense. Scarlett has narrowly escaped an attack on her by
lowlifes in a shantytown. A dangerous vigilante action is then
taken by the men in Scarlett's life, while their wives wait
anxiously for their return.
Scarlett O'Hara, the central character, is shrewd, manipulating,
and selfish. She is despised by most of the other female
characters. Yet she is presented to the audience clearly as
a heroine. Women identify with her determination, and she
shows positive traits helping Melanie to deliver her baby,
and saving and rebuilding Tara after the war.
Rhett Butler is a self-proclaimed scoundrel, but he keeps
performing heroic actions that contradict what he says,
just as his love for Scarlett shows despite his frequent
cruelty to her. Although he enjoys adventures apart from
Scarlett, one of the film's recurrent themes is his
return to her, and his determination to have her love him
more than Ashley.
One wonders at first viewing why Melanie is so nice to
Scarlett, who constantly schemes to steal Ashley from her.
But Melanie does not view Scarlett as a threat, and
perhaps she loves her more than Scarlett loves Ashley.
Of course, "Gone with the Wind" is a costume epic and a
soap opera. Because of its genre, and its strong appeal to
women (the story is told through Vivien Leigh's character),
there are naysayers (mostly men) who dislike the movie.
But there is no doubt that it an outstanding film. If the
costumes, the cinematography, and the script aren't enough
to convince (which they certainly should be), the leading
characters are extremely interesting and well defined.
Copyright © 1998 Brian Koller