Part three in a series
As the horn section carries Max Steiner’s score from its overture into the sweeping, now-iconic strings of its main theme, Gone With the Wind opens with haggard-looking slaves returning from a hard day’s work set against the first of many sunset backdrops. On-screen text immediately evokes a romanticized antebellum past:
There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…
The language, although overtly sentimental, suggests that this really was the way it was. The “pretty world” depicted in the movie overflows with all the “magnolias and moonlight” clichés: beautiful gardens, white-pillared colonnades, bulging hoopskirts, batting eyelashes. Characters start sentences with “Oh” a lot: “Oh, Ashley” and “Oh, Miss Scarlett!” The few slaves with any screen time are all loyal and well-treated archetypes, from the “old uncle” Pork to the voluminous bandana-wearing Mammy. This was the idyllic Camelot Southerners fought to preserve—and the idyllic Southern stereotypes Hollywood continued to preserve. Gone with the Wind was, to use Robert Penn Warren’s words, “the old inherited delusions which our weaknesses crave.” And if Hollywood does anything well in its quest for big box office returns, it’s that it gives audiences what they crave.
The word “gallantry” is an explicit part of Lost Cause vocabulary, and its use in the opening sequence immediately signals a Lost Cause lens for viewing the film. That interpretation carries through every other bit of on-screen text. For instance, the eyes of Atlanta turn toward Gettysburg “while two nations came to death grips on the farm lands of Pennsylvania.” The built-in assumption that two nations came to grips—rather than, say, two armies—is significant as an implicit acceptance of the Lost Cause perspective. So, too, is the mantle of victimhood the South gets to wear when it faces “another invader…more cruel and vicious than any they had fought…the Carpetbagger.”
Lost Cause ideology aside, the language serves an important aesthetic purpose first and foremost: it sets a tone for melodrama. Highly charged, romanticized language raises the stakes in the film, which is essentially little more than a soap opera in hoopskirts. Such interludes with text also serve as useful transition tools to jump forward in time while keeping the viewer caught up on the action. The technique might seem heavy-handed to modern audiences, but audiences in the late Depression, not that far removed from the era of silent films, were still used to movies telling as well as showing.
And does the movie show! The sets are big and the belles are beautiful. Atlanta burns in fearsome, memorable spectacle. Never do the fortunes of the Confederacy look so dark as when Scarlett goes to the rail station, which is being used as a field hospital, and the camera zooms out and pans across the dirt train yard to reveal thousands of Confederate wounded, ending with a tattered Confederate flag limply overseeing all. With film work like that, director David O. Selznick is clearly making art.
“You will leave [the movie], not with the feeling you have undergone a profound emotional experience, but with the warm and grateful remembrance of an interesting story beautifully told,” The New York Times said after the film’s release. Variety lauded “[t]he lavishness of its production, the consummate care and skill which went into its making, the assemblage of its fine cast and expert technical staff….” “If not the greatest movie ever made, certainly one of the greatest examples of story-telling on film…” says film critic Leonard Maltin.
As a result, Gone with the Wind “almost certainly has been the single most powerful influence on American perceptions of the Civil War,” says Civil War scholar Gary Gallagher. “More people have formed perceptions about the Civil War from watching Gone with the Wind than from reading all the books written by historians since Selznick’s blockbuster debuted in 1939.”
Couple that with the fact that the movie’s source material, Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, is considered on the most beloved examples of storytelling in print. “It’s been 70 years since the publication of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel…” wrote The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And in those seven decades, it’s been outsold only by the Bible.” In the first year of its release alone, it sold 1.7 million copies.
As in the movie, Mitchell’s South is still a Utopia where “raising good cotton, riding well, shooting straight, dancing lightly, squiring the ladies with elegance and carrying one’s liquor like a gentleman were the things that mattered.” Slaveowners like Scarlett’s mother “thanked God for the health and happiness of her home, her family, and her negroes.” It is a far cry from the prewar South depicted in, say, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
While the movie stays truer to the novel than most adaptations, it still had to, by necessity (despite its 233-minute running time), leave some things out and change others. In the novel, for instance, Scarlett has a child with each of her first two husbands before she marries Rhett. In the film, the children would have been nothing more than clutter drawing focus from the simmering hot attraction between Rhett and Scarlett. When Scarlett and Melanie give up their wedding rings during a fund-raiser to support the Confederate army, Rhett sends their rings back to them in the movie. In the book, he sends back only Melanie’s, with a note: “The Confederacy may need the lifeblood of its men but not yet does it demand the heart’s blood of its women,” Butler writes. “Accept, dear Madam, this token of my reverence for your courage and do not think that your sacrifice has been in vain, for this ring has been redeemed at ten times its value.”
The novel was clearly “not just a book” but “an answer, a clenched fist raised to the North, an anthem of defiance,” says author Pat Conroy in the preface of the 75th anniversary edition:
If you could not defeat the Yankees on the battlefield, then by God, one of your women could rise from the ashes of humiliation to write more powerfully than the enemy and all the historians and novelists who sang the praises of the Union.
Conroy called the novel “the last great posthumous victory of the Confederacy” and said it “shaped the South I grew up in more than any other book.” Journalist Tony Horowitz agrees. “Gone with the Wind had done more to keep the Civil War alive, and to mold its memory, than any history book or event since Appomattox,” he writes in a chapter devoted to the movie’s legacy in Confederates in the Attic.
Few people would mistake Gone with the Wind for actual history, though, despite its historical nature. It doesn’t concern itself much with facts: it shows no battles and its characters are all fictitious. Instead, it’s far more concerned with depicting a truth—one heavily influenced by the Lost Cause tradition. But it’s the depiction (the art) not the truth (the interpretation) that gets primary emphasis in the novel and the movie. “Hollywood’s overriding goal is to provide entertainment that will earn profits…” says Gallagher. “They focus on plots and characters that create and sustain dramatic momentum.” He suspects Selznick “almost certainly never issued these instructions to an underling: ‘Find me a good piece of material laying out the Lost Cause interpretation of the Confederate experience. The dramatic potential is important but will be secondary to our getting the interpretation right.’”
In both cases, novel and movie, the interpretation is strongly embodied in the creative work, but it always comes second. Audiences respond to Gone With the Wind because it’s good art, not good interpretation. It’s good nostalgia, too, for days gone by, real or imagined.
Next: Gods & Jacksons
Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War