“Gone With the Wind” Still Has Staying Power

8 09 2008

“Gone With The Wind” 1939

Starring: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland

I watched “Gone With the Wind” for the first time as a little girl, and retained only bits and pieces from that viewing. I remembered Scarlett’s initial encounter with and subsequent rejection by Ashley at the Wilkes’ estate, that she eventually married Rhett Butler, and the tragic fate of their child Bonnie. I remembered nothing of Scarlett’s cruel and opportunistic persona, nor of her ongoing infatuation with Ashley. Ironic, as those are pretty much the two themes constant in the film, as the lives of others and the fate of the Old South-Georgia in particular-shatter and literally burn around the protagonist and her unrequited love.

I was shocked, upon viewing the film for the second time, of Scarlett’s unapologetic selfishness. How is it possible that a film often hailed as the greatest ever made was built around such an appallingly unlikeable character? Or that we are asked to sympathize with the Rebels who fought not for freedom but to keep men in shackles, because they lost their excessive plantations and lush landscapes? (I am lumping myself here with the film’s cursed Yankees, as I am from New York, the North, and in no uncertain terms have been taught that the Confederates were simply wrong where we were morally right in the fight to maintain the unity of our country and to end the exploitation of slaves).

I admit that nothing is ever as black and white, cut and dry as “they were wrong and we were right.” Many Confederate men suffered and died horrible deaths as a result of the Civil War, and were undoubtedly treated with as much disgust and discrimination as the film portrayed-or more-following Lee’s final surrender. Were they all morally compromised, hateful, exploitative? Of course not. But when you have lived your entire life in a moral climate where slavery equals shamefully bad and equality equals unarguably good, it becomes quite difficult to even entertain the notion that those Rebels fighting for the wrong side might actually have had a side of the story worth hearing, one compelling enough to elicit sympathy.

“Gone With the Wind” didn’t quite change my mind. But ignoring (okay, not ignoring so much as cautiously allowing) the political incorrectness makes it much easier to enjoy this film as much as you want to. It is a brilliant masterpiece of fiction, because it accomplishes everything an epic story should accomplish. It draws our attention from the opening credits and keeps our eyes firmly glued to the screen through nearly four hours of running time. The film is a spectacle sprinkled with colorful and unusual characters that fascinate, despite the fact that they aren’t entirely likeable people. As an exception, supportive character Melanie is unwaveringly pure of heart. But she cannot quite compete with the wicked Scarlett for our attention, for we are far too busy watching with horror and fascination as Scarlett tramples through life, taking without bothering to give back, to pay much attention to Melanie’s relentlessly selfless acts.

♦♦♦♦

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