Gone With the Wind

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It’s been 20 years since I’ve seen Gone With the Wind, the jewel in the crown of the Hollywood studio system, released in its pinnacle year of 1939. When I last saw it, in 1989, it was under the most ideal circumstances imaginable — a restored print, at Radio City Music Hall, on a screen 80 feet high. (And, it so happens, sitting next to director James Ivory. A coincidence let me hasten to add; he was not my date.) The impact of David O. Selznick’s lush, meticulous production was immediate and overwhelming, but the callow young writer inside me dismissed the plot as simple romance and soap opera. I’m happy to announce that I greatly shortchanged the value of this American epic. I used to say that Gone With the Wind was okay for, you know, girls, but The Godfather was clearly the superior movie because it contains a powerful socio-political subtext. Well, more fool me.

Scarlett O’Hara, as I’m sure even village children in Gambia know, is a stuck up, conceited princess on a plantation in antebellum Georgia. What does Scarlett O’Hara want? She’s very clear about it — she wants Ashley Wilkes, the dreamy, dewy-eyed aristocrat who lives on the plantation next door. The inciting incident of Gone With the Wind is that Ashley announces his betrothal to sweet-natured Melanie, thus throwing Scarlett’s life into imbalance. Into Scarlett’s newly-imbalanced life comes sexy, cynical Rhett Butler. Also, the Civil War. To compress the movie’s complex, sprawling narrative into a sentence, the war prompts a romantic crisis: who is the right man for Scarlett, Ashley or Rhett?

First: forget about Ashley and Rhett as men — they’re not real people, they are metaphors, they are opposing aspects of Scarlett. Gone With the Wind is, in a way, a drama of identity disguised as a period romance. The question is not "Who should Scarlett choose?" but "Who is Scarlett?" She seeks communion with one man or the other because she can’t make up her own mind about who she is. Ashley represents aristocratic notions of "honor" and "decency" while Rhett represents the practical, hard-headed realism of capitalism. Both stances are routes to wealth, but only the former is a route to acceptability, and in antebellum Georgia one is on its way out and the other is on its way in.

Then who does Scarlett represent? I would say that she represents America itself, a kind of national character personified. That’s why we like her in spite of her flaws: she is us. She’s vain, arrogant, stubborn, opportunistic, manipulative and not very bright, but on the other hand she’s beautiful, canny, shrewd, practical and unsentimental. She’s born into the aristocracy, but from the beginning she understands that notions like "honor" and "decency" are old-fashioned fiddle-faddle, they’re mere tools to get her what she wants.

When the Civil War happens along, the question becomes "Who shall she be now?" Which direction shall she go, and how shall she maintain her wealth? And, ultimately, where does her real wealth come from? Late in the movie, she comes to the realization that she never really loved Ashley because she never really knew Ashley, she was in love with an abstract ideal. She then throws herself at Rhett, begging him to stay with her. He leaves, and she becomes obsessed with getting him back, but then realizes that she’s better off back at Tara — the only thing of real value she has is the land itself. Ashley and Rhett represent different paths to wealth — one is inherited, the other is created through hard work and chicanery. Both paths may fail, but the land itself will always hold value.

Gone With the Wind, like all great American tales, is a tragedy of class mobility. Scarlett starts near the top of her society, then loses everything, then does everything she possibly can in order to regain her status. She’s a princess who becomes a laborer and then must struggle to become a queen. The rub is, the things she does to regain her status ensure that she can never truly do so in the eyes of her peers. To regain her wealth, she sells out all the "noble" aristocratic ideals of her vanishing society and tackles life as a bare-knuckle capitalist. As Ashley hangs his head and sighs, Scarlett grabs Reconstruction Atlanta by the scruff of the neck and shakes it like a rat.

"Honor" and "Wealth" are the two themes coursing through the narrative. Scarlett begins with both (although she holds honor at arm’s length), then loses one, then the other, then forgoes honor to regain wealth and no longer concerns herself too much with honor. Ashley begins with both, then loses wealth but maintains his honor. Rhett begins with wealth but without honor, then, near the end of the first half, suddenly decides he wants honor more than wealth, then later strikes a balance between honor and wealth, then, still later, decideshe desires honor more than wealth. At the moment Scarlett decides that she wants cheap wealth more than pricey honor, Rhett moves in the opposite direction.

There is, of course, an important symmetry here — Rhett’s wealth (and the wealth of Belle Watling, the town madam) is disdained by the "decent folk" because it comes from what society deems criminal activity — blockade running and theft. Rhett is little more than a pirate. And yet Ashley’s wealth, and Scarlett’s, also comes from a crime, that of slavery. Ashley and his ilk think of themselves as genteel folk of class and refinement, but their grand society of manners and poise is based on hundreds of years of blood and brutality. The only real difference between Ashley and Rhett is that one lives on his ancestor’s crimes and the other commits his own.



18 Responses to “Gone With the Wind”
  1. popebuck1 says:

    I congratulate you, sir. That is the best one-page summary of GWTW I’ve ever read. You’ve totally put your finger on it.

    (Of course, what has remained controversial about GWTW in more recent times is that the movie doesn’t explicitly condemn slavery as a blood crime for which the South is being punished. It’s definitely something audiences can take from the story now, but I don’t think it was ever intended that way by the filmmakers, or by Margaret Mitchell for that matter.)

    • I seem to remember a scene from the book where Scarlett is conversing with a couple of women from the Northeast (I think; it’s been well over ten years since I read it) and is baffled by their views of the horrors of slavery based on their reading of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Since it has been so long since I’ve read the book, I can’t tell you if the scene was meant to show how utterly clueless Scarlett is or reflects some genuine belief on Mitchell’s part that most slaves were generally well treated and loved the people who kept them as property.

  2. sailortweek says:

    I loved the last paragraph. I had brought up a similar idea to some friends of mine while we were tlaking about this movie. None of them saw what I meant. Probably on the account of my bumbling when I talk (*LOL*), but you really hit the nail on the head. This whole write up is terrific.

    This is one of my favorite movies while Scarlet is one of my least favorite characters. I’m more in awe of how the movie came to be, how it was made, and the hell-and-back of making this American Epic.

  3. craigjclark says:

    This is one of the gaping holes in my cinematic education, but I can never seem to justify setting aside the four hours it would take to watch it. Frankly, I’d rather spend those four hours watching two movies that I’m actually interested in seeing.

    • mattyoung says:

      You think right, sir. I think my life would have been all the richer by having just read the above summery and completely ignoring the film it spawned from.

  4. swan_tower says:

    I’ve never actually seen this film — tried the book when I was (probably) too young, gave up a little way in — but you just made me want to give it a shot.

    • Anonymous says:

      Well, you and craigjclark should wait until you can see it on a big screen. TV will not do it justice. And everything about how it’s shot (reinforces the thematic points Todd talks about in the narrative.

  5. musicpsych says:

    I watched this for the first time within the past year or two, and I walked away with impressions similar to yours on first viewing – I felt like I had just watched the inspiration for every soap opera in existence. I think what sealed that impression was the fall down the stairs that made Scarlett lose the baby. Everything else added to it, but it was that exact moment that sealed it for me.

    I still thought it was a worthwhile movie, though. In the first half, I thought it was great how events from the war affected the plot without overwhelming it.

  6. moroccomole says:

    That’s one of the richest recaps of GWTW I’ve ever read — and I grew up in Atlanta.

    (Minor edit: Belle’s last name is Watling.)

  7. Anonymous says:

    Great stuff

    Hey Todd,

    I’m usually just a lurker here, but this was a great write-up!




  8. samedietc says:

    Something I’m not entirely sure about

    Let me add my voice to the chorus: that thematic summation explains a lot about the work. But I’m not entirely sure about some of this reading.

    First: forget about Ashley and Rhett as men — they’re not real people, they are metaphors, they are opposing aspects of Scarlett.

    Now, the story, as you set it up, is a set of overlapping conflicts between honor & wealth, past & future, aristocratic inheritance & capitalistic production/profiteering. So, since Ashley & Rhett are “opposing aspects,” they should–and do–line up pretty nicely for most of the movie: Ashley is honor, past, aristocratic inheritance; Rhett is wealth, future, capitalistic production/profiteering.

    But, as you go on to note, while Ashley sticks with his side (honor), Rhett actually waffles and eventually ends up on the same side: both men are for honor at the end.

    So, both men are for honor at the end, and both fail / abandon Scarlett–so, you might think that would push Scarlett onto the side of wealth/future/capitalism. But no–she returns to the land, her family’s land, which seems to me like a return to an honor- (and inheritance-)based system.

    So, everyone–Ashley, Rhett, Scarlett–is on the side of honor, and there really isn’t that much of a conflict about what Scarlett/America should be.

    That’s just the way it seems to me.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Something I’m not entirely sure about

      Rhett makes two moves toward honor: one near the end of the first half, when he abandons Scarlett to join the lost cause of the Confederacy and another when he decides that Bonnie is his ticket to respectability. In each case, he represents Scarlett’s conscience, as it were, an intention toward honor. The point is not to create a pat statement about what America is or should be, but to create dramatic tension with our conflicting impulses.

      But Tara, I believe, does not represent an inheritance-based system, but rather “the land itself,” that is, a thing of real value, not a system of gathering and retaining wealth. It’s not the plantation that everyone harps on, but the red dirt itself.

      • samedietc says:

        Re: Something I’m not entirely sure about

        It’s been a while since I’ve seen the movie (actually, I watched it on July 4th a few years ago), but I think I see here the point about conflicting impulses and Rhett’s multiple turns toward honor. (That is, we can have conflicting impulses that all lead towards honor–just in different fields.)

        To rephrase my earlier post (in a hopefully helpful way), I would say that it seems to me that some of the dramatic tensions of the movie are ultimately resolved comedically rather than tragically/melodramatically: there’s certain melodramatic sacrifices that Scarlett makes between her conflicting impulses on the way (e.g., sacrifice sister’s happiness to save Tara), but that ultimately, some of the conflicting impulses turn out to be less in conflict.

        In short (and in ad-copy): don’t end up with either man in your love triangle? No problem–there’s always your female-named plantation!

        (We may disagree some still; but I’m always glad to get new movie analyses / a chance to disagree.)

        (Also: do you need synopses or treatments of any novels or short stories?)

  9. sheherazahde says:

    The Plantation in American Culture

    I recommend you watch “Moving Midway”. It’s documentary about a family moving their old plantation house because it is surrounded by shopping malls.

    I recommend it to you because it talks about the myth of the plantation in American culture and how “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind” reflected that.

    It’s also a encouraging look at how race relations have changed in the past hundred years.

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: The Plantation in American Culture

      Here’s an example of how they haven’t:

      When the minority children got in the pool all of the Caucasian children immediately exited the pool,” Horace Gibson, parent of a day camp child, wrote in an email. “The pool attendants came and told the black children that they did not allow minorities in the club and needed the children to leave immediately.”


      When you look @ films like “Transformers” et al, and the subordinate or nonexistent role minorities play in 90% of all film & television (there are only 30 writers of color employed on TV series airing this season), racism has possibly taken on a subtler context, but it still exists.
      The election of 1 biracial president doesn’t change that.

      I can’t watch “GWTW”. There’s too much unrestrained, glorified hatred (of blacks & women) in it.

      • sheherazahde says:

        Re: The Plantation in American Culture

        That’s sad.

        But “President of the United States” is a change from “slave”, and it’s one to be proud of.

        • Anonymous says:

          Re: The Plantation in American Culture

          It really is. & I’m proud to be part of the era that fought for & witnessed that change. But considering the examples I listed, not to mention the very evil Proposition 8, we still have quite a ways to go.