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Gone with the Wind

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Gone with the Wind

Starring: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh
Director: Victor Fleming
Rated: G
RunTime: 231 Minutes
Release Date: December 1939
Genres: Classic, Drama, Romance

*Also starring: Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, Thomas Mitchell, Barbara O'Neil, Victor Jory, Ann Rutherford

Review by Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

There are few films that represent such thankless task for any reviewer like GONE WITH THE WIND. This epic melodrama, directed in 1939 by Victor Fleming, should be viewed less as a movie and more like an institution. Unlike any other piece of seventh art, it actually became the essential part of popular culture in this century. And this shouldn't surprise anyone, since GONE WITH THE WIND looks larger than all the other movies, almost in the same proportion in which an average movie looks larger than real life. Its epic 222-minute length (this is the longest movie the author of this review has watched in cinema) is only partly responsible for such impression. The images of this film are the most recognisable, the scenes are most memorable, the protagonists are the most iconic and the lines are the most quoted. Another example of its greatness is the fact that the official "making of" documentary has more than two hours of length. More than 60 years after its premiere, there are still new generations of viewers ready to be enchanted by its mythical quality. Thus the popularity of GONE WITH THE WIND is perpetuated and it remains the most popular and most beloved film of all times, almost destined to beat any similar competition in near future, STAR WARS and TITANIC included. Such enduring movie phenomenon also attracted attention of thousands of critics and film scholars in the last 60 years, so it is next to impossible to write anything original about it.

The plot of the film, based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell, begins in Georgia at the eve of American Civil War. Scarlett O'Hara (played by Vivien Leigh) is a 16-year old and stunningly beautiful daughter of wealthy slave-owning aristocrat, equally unimpressed by armies of young suitors and news about impeding crisis. Her heart belongs to Ashley Wilkes (played by Leslie Howard), young and handsome son of the neighbouring plantation owner. Scarlett is devastated when she hears that Ashley intends to marry his plain cousin Melanie Hamilton (played by Olivia de Havilland). This news coincides with the official declaration of war and Ashley, like all the other Southern aristocrats of his generation, decides to join the ranks of Confederate army. Scarlett, in the desperate attempt to stay close to Ashley, marries Melanie's clueless brother Charles (played by Rand Brooks) who would also join military ranks only to succumb to pneumonia before any actual fighting. Soon afterwards Scarlett decides to go to Atlanta and live with Melanie who would greet her with open arms, blissfully unaware of Scarlett's feelings towards Ashley. In the meantime, Scarlett has caught attention of Rhett Butler (played by Clark Gable), estranged son of Southern aristocrats, who, unlike the rest of his generation, seems unchained by the unwritten codes of Southern honour and conventional morality. He is convinced that Scarlett shares some of those traits and their relationship would be forged in the dark days following Southern defeat, Northern occupation and post- war Reconstruction.

GONE WITH THE WIND is often viewed as the best example of filmmaking in the Golden Age of Old Hollywood, the period marked by the lavish period productions, film studios resembling ancient empires and stars having god-like powers over the audience. There were certainly better or more important films created in this period, but none of them managed to perpetuate its magic through the decades. The main reason probably lies in the fact that GONE WITH THE WIND, unlike any other similar project of the period, gathered the best Hollywood talents and almost anyone tried to give at least some kind of contribution, starting with four different directors and four different screenwriters, all guided by the determined hands of producer David O. Selznick. It seems that all those Hollywood people subconsciously knew that their world is going to end in a decade or two, and were driven by the desire to leave the lasting mark on the motion picture. Result of their efforts is a film that is the everlasting monument to the bygone era of filmmaking.

The choice of talents for this film was nearly flawless. Two main actors seem almost born for this role. Clark Gable might have been not so enthusiastic about his role of Rhett Butler, but the audiences and the critics through the decades thought otherwise - his suave, cynical but charming black sheep of Southern aristocracy seems convincing despite not having recognisable Southern accent. British actor Leslie Howard, cast as Ashley, was even less comfortable in his role of Southern aristocrat, but he still delivers the goods, successfully hiding an indecisive wimp under the illusion of "noblesse oblige". But the greatest acting achievement belongs to Vivien Leigh, British actress being cast as Southern belle against all odds. Her skills in displaying various emotions in a character that changes through the years are evident, as well as her determination to master the Southern accent. Vivien Leigh's zeal for this role was awarded by "Oscar", and that zeal was again evident in another "Oscar" calibre performance in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE twelve years later. Olivia De Havilland was almost equally impressive as less complex but almost equally strong character of Melanie. Supporting actors were also very good, including Hattie McDaniel in the "Oscar"-awarded role of Mammy, Scarlett's slave nanny.

Superb acting talent was followed by superb production values. Costumes and architecture of 1860s South are painstakingly recreated, with William Cameron Menzies enjoying benefits of special effects quite convincing for that time. Suggestive photography and memorable images (Scarlett watching the sunset, panoramic view of defeated Southern army, destruction of Atlanta) follow the grand scope of emotions. And the music by Max Steiner is also excellent; its main theme is as legendary as the other elements of film, still very recognisable, unlike any other 1930s film with the exception of musicals.

Like any other great movie, GONE WITH THE WIND left at least some viewers unimpressed by its magic and some very eager to point to its flaws. The most common and most obvious objection to this film is its content, unacceptable for this time and age. GONE WITH THE WIND, a movie responsible for many popular misconceptions about American Civil War, gives rather biased and, in many ways, historically inaccurate portrayal of those crucial times of American and world history. Margaret Mitchell's novel, influenced by the romanticised and revisionist view of the Southern Lost Cause, paints the Old South as a fairytale land of old, chivalrous ideals and social harmony which fell prey to evil, materialistic barbarians from the North. In this film Southern blacks are quite content to have same rights as cattle, and the phrases like "simpleminded darky" don't seem insulting to them. Today's viewers, especially those who adhere to the dogma of Political Correctness are easily to tempted to look at GONE WITH THE WIND the same way they would look at Hollywood movie about Third Reich based on the writings of Joseph Goebbels. On the other hand, revisionist and racist elements of the film are at least toned down with the film's general humanism. Black character of Mammy works as Scarlett's conscience, and the actress playing her broke racial boundaries by being first black person to receive Academy Award. (Ironically, the same actress was legally forbidden to attend movie's premiere in the racially segregated Atlanta cinema, which should gives another reason to appreciate this film in its proper historical context.) GONE WITH THE WIND also partially accuses Southern aristocracy for the jingoism that contributed to the war and future Southern misery. And the scenes of hundreds and thousands of men being wasted in futile carnage suggest that nothing, not even the Lost Cause of the Old South, justifies war. This pacifist message, on the other hand, also corresponded with the isolationist sentiments, so dominant in late 1930s USA.

The less obvious flaw of the film is somewhat hidden by its epic length. In the first hours of the film, characters and their interaction is interesting because of the clear historical context and important events in the background. The plot doesn't simply revolve about Scarlett's romantic dilemmas - she has some more important task to perform, like staying alive and making sure that those around her survive the hard times. But once the war and post-war hardships are behind Scarlett, GONE WITH THE WIND in the last hour or so degenerates into pure melodrama, closer to daytime soap operas than to anything we usually associate with "larger than life" movies. Thankfully, the ending, despite all its sappiness, wraps it all up. Few memorable lines and the everlasting image at the end restore the epic character of GONE WITH THE WIND, great film so unlike its title.

Copyright 2000 Dragan Antulov

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