This weekend, I finally got to watch “Gone with the Wind.” I had seen bits and pieces of it on TV over the years—probably about 80 to 85 percent, here and there—but had never seen it the way it was meant to be seen: from beginning to end. As a student of film, it was something I’d been meaning to do and looking forward to for a long time now.
And you know what, now that I have seen it, I’m a bit disappointed. Supposedly one of the greatest films of all time, but I thought it was merely okay. Rather uneven, actually. I didn’t feel it lived up to the hype. Supposedly a “Civil War epic,” the war was over before the midpoint of the film. And it didn’t depict a single battle. The second half of the film was supposedly during the Reconstruction era, but there were only a very few brief references to Reconstruction. In fact, the second half of the film really dragged. The dramatic highlight of the film was the burning of Atlanta, but that was only one-third of the way into it and from there on it was all downhill. It degraded into a less-interesting soap opera. Themes of war and history are upstaged by a petty relationship square: Rhett loves Scarlett who loves Ashley who loves Melanie. Like high school: yuk! Not that there’s anything wrong with that if you like romantic love-squares, but to hold that up as an example of one of the greatest films of all time?
I realize that the effects, which pale by contemporary standards, were breakthrough in 1939, as well as the use of color. And in all fairness, the music and cinematography were very good. And I was particularly impressed with the romantic lighting, most notably in the scene where Rhett leaves Scarlett, Melanie, and the newborn baby on the road fleeing from Atlanta.
But the acting seemed melodramatic and stilted, although I suppose that was the style in the day (compare to the other two big hits of the year, “The Wizard of Oz” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” where the acting was also very much over-the-top). And I suppose the way African-American characters were treated, as either silly or steadfastly-loyal stereotypes, was also typical of the late 1930s. But it just seems so embarrassing from a contemporary view, that it’s hard to dismiss their simplistic treatment in a film about a war which was fought to end slavery. In fact, the entire war is presented from a rather skewed perspective. All the southerners were good and all the northerners were bad. (I think the mocumentary “CSA,” which I saw and wrote about a month ago, got much closer to the truth about the Confederacy than did “Gone with the Wind.”)
Another thing was I didn’t like the characters very much—particularly Rhett and Scarlett. Ashley and Melanie were a bit easier to like. Are we supposed to like Scarlett? Usually you want a likeable protagonist, but Scarlett is so shallow and bitchy and self-centered; her philosophy was, “Oh fiddle-de-dee!” What the hell is that supposed to mean? I interpreted the subtext of that to mean, “I don’t care what you have to say.” Her big moment comes at the very end of the first act where she finally grabs hold of herself and rather melodramatically vows aloud, with God and the audience as her witness, she’ll never be hungry again, even if she has to lie, cheat, steal, or kill. (And of course, she does all four in the second act.) This moment is not a morally great one. While I may recognize the human-created misery that brought her to that low point, and feel bad for her and the situation, it does not endear me to her as a character. And then after she does become comfortable again, she seems to forget the misery of her past and lives a more and more decadent lifestyle. Did women really want to be like her? Was she really considered an appropriate role-model for young movie-goers of the 1930s?
Scarlett marries for all the wrong reasons. She married her first husband to make Ashley jealous; she married her second husband for $300; and she married her third husband for a lot of money. Only halfway through that third marriage does she realize she really loves Rhett (almost as much as Ashley) after Rhett literally sweeps her off her feet and carries her upstairs and gives her rough sex. (We surmise.) Ironically, that’s right when Rhett decides to leave.
And it’s just as hard to feel for Rhett. He’s a scoundrel and a cad who oozes charm but is brutal, violent, hits Scarlett and cheats on her with a prostitute. (And why doesn’t he have a southern accent like everyone else in the film?) And why does he get all upset with Scarlett anyway? He knew going into the marriage that she loved Ashley more than him; it didn’t seem to bother him then. But that’s the very reason he walks out on her. Rhett only redeems himself in his relationship with his daughter Bonnie. Oh, by the way, speaking of Bonnie, when she’s killed in that accident toward the end of the film, it’s sad but it seems so anticlimactic compared to the great horrors and tragedies of the first act.
“Gone with the Wind” is suppose to be a great war epic, but by the end of movie the war is long forgotten. So different from the way it starts, when everyone is so excited about going off to war. In fact, there are only two characters that are opposed to going to war—Rhett and Scarlett—but neither because they think it’s wrong. Rhett because he doesn’t think the South can win; Scarlett because it will take away men and dances. By the midpoint of the film, we see the horrors those good intentions wrought, and everyone is wishing it never happened, but the view of the war is so one-sided, I wonder how the public perceived this film’s war message. Did they heed it as a warning not to get too caught up in war fever because it might end badly (hence US public opinion in favor of neutrality for first two years of WWII), or did they, like all the characters and the word-on-screen narrator, blame all the horrors of the Civil War on the North? Not the concept of war in general, but one specific, immoral side. I’d hope not, but that seems to be what the film is portraying.
Well, this wasn’t really meant to be a critique of “Gone with the Wind,” just my initial reactions to viewing it for the first time. It wasn’t really that bad a film; just compared to the immense praise it’s gotten for the last 67 years, it rings hollow to me. It’s really no worse or better than any of the big blockbusters of our own time like “Gladiator” and “King Kong” and “Spiderman” and “Gangs of New York” and “Revenge of the Sith,” but no one suggests these movies will be in the running for “one of the greatest films of all time” 60 years from now.
So why is this movie considered so great, 67 years later? I honestly cannot say. Maybe some of you can.
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