Directed by Victor Fleming, George Cukor
Gone with the Wind is quite the bloodbath, beyond the ways you might expect. Yes it’s set in the South against the Civil War, but it’s also structured around a love story that while grand is nowhere near as beneficial as in so many other romantic films. Maybe it’s simply that in the end Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh go their separate ways, but I think it also has to deal with the absurd turbulence of their courtship.
The film opens when the idea of Civil War is not much beyond a rumor. The men talk of valor and what it means to be a gentleman, but Rhett Butler (Gable) is there to put a damper on their wartime spirits. He’s a realist, and he knows that the North is better prepared for war. Right off the bat he feels like the prototypical Hollywood hero, self-assured and there to correct others’ misunderstandings of the world. He’s seen something to know just a little bit more than they do.
It’s at the same time that Rhett meets Scarlett (Leigh) after he spies her pining for the attention of Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). She will spend the rest of the film falling more deeply in love with Ashley while Rhett remains nearby, the obvious proper choice, simply because he’s Clark Gable.
Before, during and after the war Rhett and Scarlett will come back into contact, almost always meeting in new circumstances, with new factors they’re dealing with. He goes off to war, she works in hastily-made war hospitals, he’s in a military prison, she’s keeping afloat the charred remains of her father’s estate, etc. While Scarlett evolves in pretty astounding ways, Rhett always remains a bit of the same. It’s as if he’s waiting for her to catch up, and eventually she will but not until it’s too late.
It’s romantic in a way, but it’s also quite sinister. Scarlett is little more than a child when they first meet (the character about a decade younger than the actress), and Rhett looks to be pushing forty. That he toys with her as he does feels malicious and in a sense like he’s grooming her. Yeah, it’s a bit creepy, and this is without getting into the details of their marriage, him assaulting her, the death of their daughter and a miscarriage when she falls down the stairs after attempting to strike him.
So bloodbath indeed.
Despite all this trauma, in the end Scarlett will finally realize that her love for Ashley was never returned and that she has wasted all this time pining for him when she should’ve realized that Rhett was right there the entire time. She tells him she’s always been in love with him, he calmly looks at her, says the famous line, “frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” then walks into the mist in what has to be the best exit line in movie history.
In the waning moments of the film she seems to experience the entire gamut of human emotion, from despair to unbridled joy, or at least hope. She says that tomorrow is another day, we return briefly to one of the more memorable shots of early in the film, and that’s that.
There’s got to be something here about the juxtaposition of civil war with Rhett’s and Scarlett’s romance. The war makes almost literal the way in which so many movie romances begin, with the two lovebirds at each other’s throats. They meet in a way that forces them to loathe the other, whether because of personality, occupation or just their all around principles (examples being The Shop Around the Corner, The Philadelphia Story, You’ve Got Mail, When Harry Met Sally, Silver Linings Playbook and the very beginning of (500) Days of Summer). The idea, I assume, being that there is indeed a fine line between love and hate.
So setting a love story against a civil war could be a commentary on the tumultuous nature of movie romances. Maybe? Maybe not, after all this was released in 1939, before all the movies I could think of to connect it too.
At the very least it’s about changing times, set in a period of excessive change, with the characters often calling attention to the death of their ways of life. The title alludes to this same idea of departure, of things disappearing with little to no fanfare, just floating away. Not only that but onscreen text early in the film literally says as much, and it sets up a highly nostalgic atmosphere for the pageantry of the lifestyle we see onscreen. Whether that’s connected to the South specifically or meant to appeal more broadly, I’m not entirely clear.
Either way the film succeeds mightily in depicting “collapse,” both within this part of civilization and within Scarlett’s own life. She watches far too many people die, and the thing we assume will always work out (her relationship with Rhett) doesn’t. It’s all rather tragic, all the more so because of how much we see her grow and develop. It’s not just that the film covers many years in her life, but that she’s a completely different person at the beginning than she is later in the film. Her character’s evolution is as grand as any I can currently think of. You even feel like the character is being played by a different actress in the second half of the film.
Near the end of the film, when Scarlett realizes that Ashley doesn’t actually love her, she says, “I’ve loved something that doesn’t really exist, but somehow I don’t care.” The more I think about it that could be a statement about the film itself, about the hyper nostalgia of the opening scenes before the war. These moments are grand, lush and cheerful. They are something we should aspire to, in a sense the peak of civilization, at least as the film suggests. But seeing how this was set in the south, amongst a whole lot of slave owners, it’s of course kind of ironic, right? We’re meant to long for a time period before the abolishment of slavery.
So by the end it might be that the film is saying the thing these characters loved never truly existed. They wouldn’t think that, of course, but the audience should. It feels like pulling the rug out from under a certain segment of the population (mostly in the south) that might be thinking, “yeah those were the good days.”
I’m not sure, but I do know that there seems to be a lot of subtext here, about America, about movies, and about how we choose to remember things.
Up Next: My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)