It will go on forever, and how thrilling that is. It has this universal life, this continuing life. Every nation has experienced war – and defeat and renaissance. So all people can identify with the characters. Not only that, it’s terribly well constructed. Something happens every three minutes, and it keeps you on your toes and the edge of your seat, which is quite a feat, I must say. ~ Olivia de Havilland
One of the greatest masterpieces of all time is 1939’s stunning and riveting Gone with the Wind. This was the landmark film that brought the first Academy Award win to a black actress (Hattie McDaniel). It was the film in which Vivian Leigh, Clark Gable, and Olivia de Havilland played the roles that most defined their careers. It was also the greatest gamble (and greatest triumph) of producer David O. Selznick’s career. Far from a simple tale, this is a complex story that gets far too underestimated today.
Gone with the Wind is a multi-faceted story, comprising three predominate themes: love, survival, and personal growth. It tells of the undying love a group of people (the wealthy southerners) hold for their way of life, the unrealistic love that Scarlett O’Hara has for Ashley Wilkes, the realistic love that Rhett Butler has for Scarlett, the love between doting fathers and their daughters (which can sometimes harm rather than bless), and the pure love that a woman can have for a friend. It examines the effect a catastrophic event (war, in this case) has on people of varying personalities and values. Some characters, such as Scarlett and Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, are survivors, whereas others, such as Gerald O’Hara, do not have the needed temperament to survive. Finally, through its focus on Scarlett, the film shows how events can carry one from immaturity to maturity.
Two foundational scenes immediately establish the personalities of each of the central characters and set up the issues these characters will face. In the first scene, at Tara, spoiled, immature Scarlett reveals her unrealistic devotion to Ashley Wilkes and her dismissal of Melanie Hamilton, Ashley’s fiance. After informing Scarlett of the unsuitability of her affections, her father Gerald lectures her on the importance of the land (specifically Tara). By the end of this first scene, the two overriding influences and motivations for Scarlett’s actions are established: her obsessive love for Ashley and her connection to Tara. In the background of both this scene and the next is the uninformed eagerness of men for war.
The second foundational scene takes place at Twelve Oaks, the Wilkes’ plantation. Here the audience meets Melanie Hamilton, whose maturity, selflessness, and genuineness make her the antithesis to Scarlett (and Margaret Mitchell’s intended heroine of the story). While Scarlett is supposed to be napping with the other young ladies, she establishes a precedent for her future rejection of proper feminine behavior by sneaking downstairs to declare her love to Ashley. In the first of several similar incidents, he turns her down, yet does not do so in a passionate enough manner to convince Scarlett of his veracity. Rhett Butler overhears Scarlett and Ashley. In only a moment, Rhett understands Scarlett in a way which no one else ever has. Such insight into her character infuriates Scarlett, who is still in that immature stage of preferring fantasy to reality (a problem which will plague her for much of the film). In the end of the scene, Scarlett commences her pattern of marrying for the wrong reasons, and the Civil War begins.
Following the opening two scenes, the rest of this film is a series of incidents which chip away at Scarlett’s separation from reality, forcing her into maturity. Widowhood is the first blow, temporarily forcing her to grow up. As this growth is only on the surface, she rejects it rather quickly, demonstrated by her decision to dance with Rhett at a bazaar. The reality of war is the next major blow, forcing Scarlett to take care of first wounded soldiers, and then Melanie. When maturity is too much for her, Scarlett tries to flee home to her mother, only to find her mother dead and her entire world overturned. Scarlett must then become the provider and protector of her family. A second marriage illustrates her attempt to once more place responsibility and work on the shoulders of someone else. When widowed for the second time, Scarlett gets her first honest glimpse of consequences for actions, then turns to liquor to shield herself once again. It is not until she has lost her child, her truest champion and friend (Melanie), and the real love of her life (Rhett), that Scarlett finally grows into a mature woman. She is still selfish and flawed, but at least she is finally self-reliant.
Gone with the Wind is the ultimate producer’s movie. Members of the cast, including Olivia de Havilland and Evelyn Keyes, often told in interviews of the nearly-manic involvement in David Selznick in this production. He examined and approved every detail, even down to the number of ruffles on Melanie Hamilton’s grey gown.
His diligent work set the precedent for such respected future producers as James Cameron (Titanic) and Steven Spielberg (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial). It has been the trend, since the 1940s, for directors to be identified with films far more than producers. However, Selznick and the producers he influenced have gone against this trend with the result of several blockbusters.
Another noticeable influence this film has had on future films is in the portrayals of the two lead characters. Scarlett as a tough woman weathering events of historical importance and going against convention has influenced such portrayals as Kate Winslet’s Rose Calvert in Titanic and Jodie Foster’s Anna Leonowens in Anna and the King. Rhett as the rakishly handsome and cosmopolitan man viewed as romantic, despite his regrettable treatment of women, has likewise inspired a number of future performances. Most notable among these are Sean Connery’s portrayals of James Bond (Goldfinger, From Russia with Love).
For me, Gone with the Wind is a masterpiece not only because of the stunning cinematography and phenomenal storytelling, but predominately for the details. One aspect that I have always found intriguing is the masterful use of staircases during important moments in the film. It is while descending a staircase that Melanie and Ashley encounter Scarlett, whereas Scarlett encounters Rhett for the first time while ascending that same staircase (perhaps a symbolic commentary on two different types of marriage). At the foot of a staircase at Tara, Scarlett shoots a carpet-bagger, an important point in her process from childhood to adulthood. Bonnie Blue Butler shares a tender moment with her mother on a staircase at Scarlett and Rhett’s mansion, followed only moments later by Scarlett’s miscarriage and near death through falling down those same stairs.
I marvel also at the way in which minute scenes in the film express the brutal impact of war. In a powerful scene set in Atlanta, the citizens read the casualty lists from a recent battle. Immediately after learning of the massive number of deaths of family and friends, the camera focuses on young boys fighting back tears as they continue to play Dixie, rallying their fellow citizens to continue in the struggle. In another scene, little Beau Wilkes (Melanie and Ashley’s son) toddles unsteadily on his legs, learning to walk, while surrounded by returned soldiers who are too weak from fighting and near-starvation to be able to walk. One man has lost a leg, and will have to relearn this basic skill, perhaps doing so alongside Beau.
Many classic films have had profound effects on me, but Gone with the Wind is the only one to which I actually owe my existence. In 1967, my parents went to see a screening of Gone with the Wind on their third date. Swept away by the romance of the film, my father accidentally proposed to my mother that night. She, to her surprise, accidentally accepted. Eight months later, they married. My mother, still quite smitten with Rhett Butler, convinced my father to grow a mustache, which he still has. Forty-two years have passed since my parents first watched Gone with the Wind, but this particular “Rhett” and “Scarlett” are still very much in love.
After hearing my parents’ love story many times as a child, I became fascinated by Gone with the Wind. At age nine, I watched it for the first time. Although too young to fully appreciate the rich artistry of the production, I was still captivated. That same year, I read the novel for the first of several times (I highly recommend it, too). I credit this film with sparking not only my love of classic films, but also my fascination with film history. I have now spent twelve years studying film history, and will be pursuing it further for the rest of my life, I suspect. Though few people connected with the making of Gone with the Wind are alive today, their legacy is still a vivid influence in my life. Such is the power of a well-made classic.
*In case you’re wondering, the quote in the title of this post was not said by Scarlet. It was said by Melanie to her husband Ashley, and it is the line that most aptly summarizes Melanie’s character and her attitude toward every other character in the film.