‘If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.’ There is something deeply arresting about the moment when Southern Belle Scarlett O’ Hara lifts herself out OF the abyss. The Civil war has reached its tragic climax, her dress wears the ash and cinders of a crumbling Atlanta, her hands bear the dirt of digging in earth… and her heart bears the loss of a civilization now ‘gone with the wind’.
Adapted from Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gone with the Wind epitomises Hollywood Golden Age grandeur. The production, helmed by producer David O’ Selznick, was a cluttered combination of multiple directors, constant re-writes and extensive casting calls. ‘The Search for Scarlett O’Hara’ became a haphazard, exhaustive, near-movie circus in itself, with relative-unknown Vivien Leigh stepping into Scarlett’s shoes long after filming had actually begun.
Gone with the Wind begins in a land now lost: the plantations and power of the Old South. The spirited and beautiful Scarlett is sitting on her porch with two young beaus captivated by her side. There is talk of war and gossip of Scarlett’s secret love, neighbouring plantation owner Ashley Wilkes, who has announced his engagement to his cousin, Melanie. Scarlett’s heart is crushed; surrounded by a plethora of eager beaus, her spirit sinks as she notices Ashley and Melanie walking through the plantation grove. Following a tempestuous and unrequited confession of love to Ashley, Scarlett’s solitary reverie is interrupted by the rogueish Captain Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and his candid observations set the stage for a unique and voracious love affair.
Both appalled and aroused by the Captain, Scarlett is driven from his rakish but alluring arms with the outbreak of Civil War, the tragic background for the first half of Gone with the Wind. Permeated by interludes of romance, what O’ Selznick excels in is subtly transforming his selfish, vain, Southern Belle into a headstrong, plucky, near-hero, resisting defeat and victimhood as she flees Atlanta for safety amidst the omnipresent threat of war and destruction. One of director Victor Fleming’s greatest shots is one of harrowing simplicity, as row upon row of confederate casualties consume the central square of the city; a chilling and unforgettable image of war.
For the first time in her life, Scarlett is removed from aristocratic comfort, the land is all she has left, and it is from the land that she draws her strength. The return to her home, Tara, and her ruthless pursuit to claim back former prosperity, introduces the second half of O’ Selznick’s epic. Scarlett has a romantic rendezvous with Ashley, watches her father descend into mental illness, murders a thieving Yankee solider and manipulates a rich and clueless man into marrying her.
The second-half of Gone with the Wind could read a little like a soap opera. Widowed for a second time, Scarlett consents to finally marry Rhett, ‘If I said I was madly in love with you you’d know I was lying.’ Though masquerading as brash melodrama, the sensitivity of Scarlett and Rhett’s erratic and ever-changing love is the film’s most rewarding aspect. Convinced he understands Scarlett’s manipulative tricks (Leigh’s eyes flash ingeniously between untainted beauty and a delicious evil) Rhett fails to stop himself from truly falling in love with her. Scarlett, meanwhile, clings stubbornly to the belief that she loves the honourable Ashley, destroying Rhett as he descends deeper into the agonies of his indifferent and self-consumed wife.
The ending of Gone with the Wind is an endemic, often-quoted movie-line cliché. But it is also truly devastating. Scarlett O’Hara has spent her short-life marrying men that she does not love – and her too late realisation now threatens to destroy her only chance of happiness.
Gone with the Wind is a decidedly American story. It re-opens past-wounds and battle scars, reminding America of a time not too long ago when brother fought against brother. Though I revel in the hazy luxury of the Old South, this film is also quietly manipulative. Scarlett’s maid, Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), forcefully apprehends my romantic fantasy. Though Mammy is incredibly vocal, determined and endlessly wise, she is a slave, and therefore embodies the arrogance, cruelty, and violation of rights upheld by the South. Gone with the Wind is a luscious epic, but also a painful reminder of a benevolent past.