Directed by: Victor Fleming || Produced by: David O. Selznick
Screenplay by: Sidney Howard, Oliver H.P. Garrett || Starring: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Hattie McDaniel, Thomas Mitchell, Butterfly McQueen
Music by: Max Steiner || Cinematography: Ernest Haller, Lee Garmes || Editing by: Hal C. Kern, James E. Newcom || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 238 minutes
The romantic epic to end all romantic epics, Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind, based on the 1936 novel of the same name by Margaret Mitchell, is known for, among other things, being extremely long (238 minutes), melodramatic, and more than a little racist. Its sprawling focus, juicy historical setting before, during, and after the American Civil War, its controversial subject matter concerning Southern plantation lifestyle and slavery, its gorgeous cinematography and direction, an unforgettable love triangle, and of course, Clark Gable’s awesome performance as the manliest man of all mankind… all these things contribute to making producer David O. Selznick’s project the most successful movie of all time. Like The Godfather (1972) and Citizen Kane (1941) after it, there is nothing quite like the story of Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara and Gable’s Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind.
If you’re new to American cinema, the touchy subject of Gone with the Wind is how its story, which spans the period just before, during, and after the American Civil War (a war fought primarily on the basis of slavery and its future), is told from a white Southern point of view. Margaret Mitchell’s life, and her novel on which the movie is based, were rooted firmly in white Southern history, and a major part of that family history revolved around the practice of owning African-American slaves.
While the film’s bias cannot be a foundation for devaluing the film alone, the fact of the matter is that a non-negligible amount of Gone with the Wind’s characterizations develop from this one-sided retelling of one of the most important periods in American history. What I mean by this is that several prominent characters of the film, namely the African-Americans as well as Union soldiers and “carpetbagger” re-constructionists, are reduced to caricatures. It is notable that Hattie McDaniel was the first black actress to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal as the energetic Mammy, yet even her character feels cartoonish and weird along with the rest of the non-white cast. This is a consequence of the adapted screenplay’s loyalty to its source material, where the focus of the narrative’s conflict centers around the white plantation owners of the American South, rather than on the slaves themselves, and not a result of the acting ability of the African-American cast. McDaniel has veteran acting chops and plays her one-dimensional character with relative ease.
The film’s jaw-dropping technical aspects, combined with the script’s pacing and drama, as well as the intricate relationships of its white characters, counteract its simplistic depiction of slavery and African-Americans. The juicy plot, filled with ever-shifting love triangles, is spear-headed by the idiosyncratic relationship of Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara and Gable’s legendary Rhett Butler. Leigh’s endless pining for Leslie Howard’s Ashley Wilkes, the man whose love she is destined to never have, is the primary drive for her protagonist throughout the film; conversely, the charismatic, handsome, well-educated, mature, and bourgeois Rhett Butler maintains an interest in the pretty yet obtuse Scarlett, and thus the main love triangle takes off.
The focal point around which the entire narrative revolves is this Scarlett-Ashley-Rhett dynamic. Everything else in the movie, including the Southern plantation setting and even the Civil War itself, is the backdrop for these characters and not the focus. Leigh’s portrayal as the spoiled, sheltered Scarlett, who fails to grasp the impact of her actions until the film’s closing moments, is unforgettable. It is captivating to watch her character evolve as she and her family survive the war to rebuild their estate in its aftermath. Her world is turned upside-down and inside-out after the opening barbecue scene at her family’s plantation. All the while, her primary desire for and strive to gain Ashley Wilkes’ affections are never rewarded, and her love-life remains hollow and unfulfilled even unto the story’s conclusion.
Her character’s hard-nosed endurance, her will to survive reveal true strength and determination in the initially spoiled, over-privileged upbringing of the young heroine. Even at her lowest point, as she and Butler severe connections once and for all, she remains as resolute and ambitious as ever to accomplish her goals and right all wrongs. With that said, her tragic failure to mature as a lover and realize the true compassion and dedication of Gable’s Butler is what paves the way for her emotional downfall.
As for Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler, he is also a legend in Hollywood history — nay, movie-history, period. His character is a powerful celebration and glorification of masculinity, yet his character’s depth and Gable’s amazing performance realize him as a flawed, emotional, and relatable human being. Rhett is a man’s man, to be sure, but he is in no sense a brutish stereotype. By the end, Butler emerges from his experiences that much wiser still, and bids his failed relationship with Scarlett goodbye with the single greatest line in cinematic history.
The rest of the cast does a great job, although they have a hard time competing with the monumental performances of Leigh and Gable. Much of the melodrama feels tastefully done and rarely boils over into excess. Leslie Howard does an admirable job as Leigh’s pining love interest, and his conflicting feelings between her and his wife, Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), is the dynamic that blocks Scarlett in her quest to win him over; her compassionate and understanding behavior toward Scarlett only serve to antagonize Leigh even further. Havilland’s Melanie also represents the better, more mature woman that a man of Butler’s respectable standards should be pursuing.
The direction of Gone with the Wind is outstanding. Sweeping visuals take in the glorious, warm-weathered Southern landscapes and beautiful plantation shots against a powerful, iconic soundtrack. The colors in the setting as well as the costumes bring out the marvelous life and passionate emotions from the characters and conflicts they undergo. The glamorous cinematography, costume design, and makeup feel reminiscent of a Bollywood romance, although perhaps that sentence is better described the other way around. From the dramatic opening title crawl that feels like a tribute to earlier black-and-white adventure serials to the iconic image of Gable departing into the mist, every scene is expertly shot and wastes no visual or sound FX. The lighting combines with dramatic close-ups to create powerful imagery and emphasize characterizations.
Perhaps my favorite shot in the whole film is the famous crane-sequence that begins with a tight tracking shot following Miss Scarlett. As she stumbles through the crowded, war-torn streets of Atlanta, the camera pulls back, ascends, and turns toward her eye-line, revealing thousands upon thousands of wounded Confederate soldiers. This one long-take summarizes the entire backdrop of the film, a selfish yet defiant and strong Southern belle dwarfed by the dying South and the consequences of its slave culture. Whether Fleming recognized the inherent irony interpreted in this sequence or the movie as a whole is anyone’s guess, but the fact remains that Gone with the Wind is one of the few historical epics to remain self-critical and self-reflexive with regards to its own characters, particularly from a visual standpoint.
From a technical standpoint, the only part of Gone with the Wind that hasn’t aged well are its rear-screen projections, which stick out from the memorable location photography and gorgeous matte paintings like a sore thumb. More or less the green and blue-screen technology of classical cinema, I have always hated rear-screen projection composite shots from the Golden Age of Hollywood, most of all in otherwise great pictures like this one and various Hitchcock movies.
While Gone with the Wind has its weaknesses, namely its simplistic portrayals of African-American slaves, none of its faults come close to devaluing the definitive movie love-story. It uses its four hours remarkably well and doesn’t waste your time with meaningless bullshit. Every character, every shot, every subplot, and even the majestic score has a part to play here, and all those parts come together to make a romantic narrative of epic proportions. There are few movies, let alone romantic movies, who can keep you hooked for 238 minutes, but Victor Fleming and David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind is one of them.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Gone with the Wind’s screenplay is a masterpiece of melodrama. Nearly every conversation and every tit-for-tat exchange between the fiery Scarlett and the cool, badass Rhett are engaging, and no piece of dialogue is unimportant. Excellent pacing and the characterizations of its two leads are what make the epic story so God damned epic. Victor Fleming’s deft direction and camerawork are a further selling point next to Sidney Howard’s masterful adaptation of Mitchell’s work. He brings the melodramatic excitement, juicy love triangle, and the colorful world of the Civil War era South to life in a way that does justice to its source material. His use of Max Steiner’s majestic score is commendable as well.
— However… the limited, or rather extremely biased white Southern perspective of the Civil War landscape reduces all of the African-American roles to caricatures of black stereotypes. Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Mammy is perhaps the only likable one of the slave roles. Being an older film, Gone with the Wind has its share of bad rear-screen projection shots.
—> Gone with the Wind receives MY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.
? I got through the entire review without quoting the best line!
Oh, but you forgot one of the most important points of this incredible movie–the soundtrack. I’d say hands-down it is one of the most recognizable and timeless soundtracks in movie history.
And, I’m glad you reviewed this one. It’s a favorite. I even have a half-finished sequel to GWTW.
I actually did mention the powerful score a couple times. I agree, it has quite a majestic feel that matches the epic scale and melodrama of the movie.
But still…not enough emphasis on it. Just my two cents!
That’s a fair point, and an acknowledged one. The film’s score is quite legendary, and one of the timeliest of all…well, time, haha.