Victor Fleming | 3hr 58min
Before the late 1930s, there was nothing in the world of cinema that even came close to matching the dominant cultural force that was Gone with the Wind, which fended off every other film of 1939 to singlehandedly rule supreme as the highest-grossing movie of the year, the decade, and once adjusted for inflation, all-time. Studio moviemaking would never look the same again, strengthening powerhouse producers like David O. Selznick and asserting them as the most important players in a film’s success over the creatives working for them. It is hard to argue otherwise in this specific case too – Victor Fleming only claims director’s credit on Gone with the Wind since he took over from Sam Wood, who had previously replaced George Cukor, making this cinematic landmark very much the result of fruitful artistic collaboration from a huge array of great talents.
The other side of this sweeping historical epic’s cultural impact looms large in more recent years as a controversial, romanticised vision of the Old South, downplaying the horror of its white supremacy and slavery. Gone with the Wind is laden with historical inaccuracies and racial stereotypes which plant it firmly on the side of the Confederates in the American Civil War, making some scenes particularly difficult to stomach and consequently tainting its legacy in the eyes of the broad populace. Still, the truth of the matter isn’t so simple as that either – if Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara is meant to represent the qualities of that long-lost culture, then her character flaws paint a pricklier portrait than one might expect.
Scarlett’s introduction at her beloved family plantation of Tara sets her up immediately as a magnetic figure, peeling back the two identical suitors on either side of her in a forward tracking shot to dramatically reveal the beautiful woman wedged between them. Fleming’s camera will often find itself drawn towards her in scenes like these where crowds of men lavish her with attention, and while she happily indulges in these innocent flirtations, there is only one man she has eyes for. It is almost comical how obsessed she is with Ashley Wilkes given how plain he is in comparison to Clark Gable’s moustachioed, debonair Rhett Butler, and yet it is just like her to keep pining after what she can’t have.
The nationwide search for find the right person to play Scarlett O’Hara is a significant piece of history in itself, and the choice of British actress Vivien Leigh too would go down as one of Hollywood’s most inspired pieces of casting. Here, she does not just fill in the archetype of the Southern belle – she is the exact image that is conjured when those words come to mind, possessing a charming, hospitable front that only barely obscures her vain entitlement. Her wardrobe of hoop skirts, corsets, and wide-brimmed straw hats mark that privilege with incredible sartorial elegance, designed with great authenticity by Walter Plunkett according to the trends of the era, while complementing her character arc with costumes moving through white, black, green, and red palettes. Not everything here feels entirely traditional though, as while Scarlett is a woman of the Old South, she also possesses the attitude of a 1930s heroine, toying with men in such a way that at times virtually belongs in a screwball comedy.
As an actress, Leigh falls in line with the theatrical traditions of the day, and yet there is also remarkable subtlety in her expressions that frequently announce her displeasure and judgement with nothing but a slightly raised eyebrow. Opposite her, Gable offers a dangerously handsome challenge, frequently playing the devil’s advocate who is unafraid to call out others on their arrogance. The chemistry between the two is palpable, setting Scarlett and Rhett up as headstrong equals and potentially even soulmates were it not for her blind jealousy and wandering eyes.
If the character of Scarlett and the culture of the Old South make up two points of a three-pronged metaphor, then the third is represented by a physical location, Tara. Many of Gone with the Wind’s greatest motifs are attached to the O’Hara plantation, with the most notable among them being the blazing sunsets that silhouette Scarlett against matte paintings of burnt orange clouds, and frame her beneath a gnarled, twisted oak tree. Also evoking Tara’s warm homeliness is its instantly recognisable musical theme of soaring strings and dignified horns, composed by Max Steiner in what may very well be the greatest work of his distinguished career. Gone with the Wind is an artistic landmark in many ways, though certainly chief among them is its gorgeously sentimental score, rising and falling with each dramatic beat and running alongside us as we escape a burning Atlanta.
From the vividly passionate Technicolor cinematography to the ravishing production design, every element of Gone with the Wind is designed as a fantasy conjured up by pure, 19th century nostalgia, making the eventual fall of the South towards the end of Act 1 all the more devastating in its apocalyptic destruction. Even while Confederate armies buckle under the assault of the Union, many men continue to claim that Atlanta will never be conquered, but as Scarlett navigates its crowded field hospitals, her own faith in these affirmations begins to crumble. If Victor Fleming is to take credit for any of the film’s artistic innovations, then it should be for the immaculate crane shot which starts close on Scarlett’s search for Dr Meade and then slowly lifts up into the air, where we bear witness to the city’s main road packed with wounded and dead soldiers. Extras stretch into the distance, and finally the full scope of the South’s huge losses hits home, punctuated at the end of the shot by a Confederate flag coming into view, flapping in the breeze yet irreparably damaged.
Just like the apparently unsinkable Titanic, Atlanta falls faster than anyone expected. There is no faking the sort of ambitious, cataclysmic set piece which Selznick orchestrated through the burning of old studio lots, exploding gunpowder and collapsing structures around Scarlett and Rhett who continue riding past fires blazing several storeys high. As fierce orange hues leap up into the sky, a formal comparison is drawn to those vibrant sunsets that so often illuminate the landscapes of Tara, and it is indeed exactly there where Scarlett chooses to return when Rhett finally decides to join the fight in its last days. “Maybe I have a thing for lost causes when they’re really lost, or maybe I’m ashamed of myself,” he admits, with a sly nod to his own love for Scarlett. Even after witnessing such destruction, she too finds renewed strength, though for her it is the survival of Tara through hellish conditions which inspires an invigorating resilience, as she stands out in its fields where a few crops still miraculously grow and delivers a firm resolution.
“As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”
And indeed, how could someone as cunning, resourceful, and privileged as Scarlett ever break an oath like this? Act 2 of Gone with the Wind trades in a great deal of its epic scale for more intimate melodrama, though this is not to say it dispenses with its astonishing visual style. Rhett’s eventual proposal to Scarlett carries the hope that she will one day return the affection, while her acceptance is almost driven entirely by the prosperity and security that he offers, once again leading her away from Tara and into a new home of opulent wealth. William Cameron Menzies’ production design continues to shine here in the clutter of ornaments, sculptures, and chandeliers around the set, often catching the golden light shed by his candelabras and oil lamps to make for some exquisitely delicate compositions. This aesthetic takes a dark turn when Scarlett and Rhett’s relationship plunges to terrifying new lows as well, emphasising the deep reds of the fine carpet and splendid costumes as he threatens her and forcefully carries her upstairs, leading to what is implied as a drunken rape.
Indeed, much of Gone with the Wind’s second act continues to wallop us with one tragedy after another, revealing a deep depression in Scarlett’s life that persists even after securing the wealth she has promised herself. Eight years pass by over this period, and each one seems to poison their toxic marriage even more than the last, seeing Scarlett continue to flirt with Ashley and get caught up in scandals. In circumstances beyond her control, she suffers the death of her daughter, her unborn baby, and eventually her rival-turned-friend, Melanie. Where the film’s first act saw the decline of a civilisation, the second formally reflects that on a smaller scale, once again driving Scarlett to the pits of despair – and then, just as it seems as if the killing blow has landed, seeing her optimistically rise from the ashes with a reminder of where her true love lies.
In the film’s final minutes, Scarlett finally finds herself living out a nightmare from an earlier scene involving searching for something important in the mist, though it is only now, years later, that she finally realises what that is – Rhett. Dressing her in all black and consuming her in a grey fog as she runs to confess her love to him, the dour colour palette virtually warns us of his famous, dismissive response, immortalised as one of cinema’s great lines.
“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
The scene may not be as broadly cataclysmic as the fall of Atlanta, but it stings all the same, turning Scarlett’s own obnoxious self-regard against her and leaving no one else to blame. Her obstinance may be her greatest fault, and yet as she recalls the hope and security that the “red earth of Tara” offers her in times of crisis, it also becomes the foundation of her survival.
“After all, tomorrow is another day.”
Such is the spirit of the Old South, according to Gone with the Wind, that no amount of defeat can keep it down. Crushed once in battle, and for a second time in a cold rejection, it lives on through this Southern belle, refusing to cave in. Few films have matched the majesty and grandeur of this colossal Hollywood epic, and an era-defining character as prideful, stubborn, and thorny as Scarlett O’Hara deserves nothing less.
Gone with the Wind is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.