The term “masterpiece” is thrown around a lot more often in relation to recent films than it should be, particularly in how they place ownership to a director. One notable example was in the summer of 2010 when Inception was hailed as Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece, despite many reasonable detractors and the fact that it was only the director’s seventh film. The man will have plenty more beyond that, and more to the point is that “masterpiece” applies most in the perspective of an entirety of work. It’s an assertion that’s dependent on the person looking at the films, as all film criticism is. Most of all, there are plenty films that don’t fall sweetly under the hood of a single roof, that perhaps being what most compelled me towards Gone with the Wind.
To clear up on my history with Gone with the Wind, or rather lack thereof, it’s long been a cinematic blind spot I have been needing to fill in, but never felt in any rush to get there. At nearly 4 hours in length, it seems like such a significant investment is required, though anyone who’s seen it will vouch for it as light viewing. What most held me back from seeing it was pure lack of knowledge about it, and for some reason I couldn’t find a simple description from anyone. A love story set during the civil war is about as bare bones as you can cut it, and even that doesn’t quite do it justice. I’d almost go so far as saying it’s mindfully indescribable in a single compelling sentence, though not in a confusing way. It’s a film that’s meant to surprise, in spite of how old it is and long a time it’s had to have been talked about.
What surprises me is how very rarely I hear people discuss it regarding the greatest films of all time, especially given that it’s the most financially successful film of all time. The common argument there is usually “It was a different time,” and I unfortunately can’t put myself in the position of people from that time. Much less can I understand, given the subject matter of the film, how it became such a huge success. When it comes right down to it, Gone with the Wind is a darkly satirical tragedy with its feet planted ingloriously in the glamorous style of Hollywood excess. Pretty rarely does that play to such a wide crowd.
From the first moment, the film doesn’t at all evoke the kind of classic we’re used to hearing about, dealing in stereotypes and a pretty obnoxiously unsympathetic lead. Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara is not at all the kind of lady you would want to spend an afternoon brunch with, let alone marry. Fawning foolishly after a taken man, the peace seeking soldier Ashley Wilkes, Scarlett instead finds herself sought out by Clark Gable’s brazen and womanizing Rhett Butler. From that very first scene, the two of them hit it off like Tom and Jerry, so to say that they don’t really hit it off at all. Scarlett is an obnoxious and materialistic priss and Rhett is a scoundrel who demeans nearly every person he comes across. It’s not precisely the romance of the century we may thought at first.
Adding also to the film’s counter-intuitive inclinations is its look at the Civil War from the perspective of the Confederate States of America. Our noble union isn’t given a very glamorous treatment from the perspectives we’re shown, but even Rhett Butler realizes the foolhardiness of the confederate war endeavor. The north is much better equipped, better manned, and are generally fighting for much more honorable a cause, but the south isn’t entirely demonized either. “I just hope they let us secede from the union in peace,” says Ashley Wilkes as the lone soldier not seeking the glory of war. Both he and Butler seem to know deep down that it’s a lost fight before it’s been fought.
So too is the fight for Ashley’s affections by Lady Scarlett, who is never once given a cruel eye by Ashley’s beau Melanie. Early on, given the long runtime we still have to go, we expect her affections for Ashley to shy away, and yet they persevere beyond all reason. Even as Rhett begins displaying not exactly a fondness for Scarlett, but certainly a fascination with her way of doing things. Contemptible and irritating as Scarlett absolutely is throughout the film, she nonetheless manages to smote out the stereotype we place on her early on as a pathetic lady whose only dream in life is to get a man. And that’s even considering that she marries three times before the film is out to people she professes not to love. That only adds to her “resourcefulness”.
There are many difficult factors at work here, most noticeably is the implementation of African-American slaves. At first they seem almost stereotypical in their depiction, cheerily serving their white masters. The more I think on it, however, the less manipulated or manipulative they seem. In the context of the story, they are the least diminished characters in the film, not being cruelly looked upon as confederate whites. Perhaps due to habit, and even a little fondness, they stick by their weakened white masters throughout the film. Hell, they may not even realize what freedom is or may not care to have it. Hattie McDaniels’ Mammy is still shown as the most put-together and respectful individual of the entire film.
Of course I may be fascinated by these elements more than they ethically deserve, and the film could just be utterly contemptible, but I nevertheless loved Gone with the Wind‘s style. The signature shot of Scarlett, strong against the sunset, underneath an ever withering tree, overlooking her home of Tara, is merely one of several spectacularly composed images, no doubt made possible by an expert studio budget. The terror and glory of war is given its far share of time too, with an escape to Tara through a burning station being the height of such action.
Much more devastating is the shame of the losing side, with Scarlett standing most strongly with her own morally malicious underhanded dealings to ensure her family’s success, but mostly just her own. But rest the most drama upon the centerpiece romance, of anti-romance rather. As Rhett tries effortfully to win Scarlett over, she nonetheless continues to deny his advances in favor of Ashley. It would be an absolutely pathetic back-and-forth if we didn’t realize, in spite her opposition, how much the two truly love each other and are meant for each other.
Gone with the Wind does so many things that should be so utterly wrong, in rudely stereotypical depictions of different races and nationalities, morally horrible protagonists, and a romance that is never once absolutely fulfilled by both parties. It places us on the side of those who were wrong in what they fought for, and yet by the end of the film we care deeply about them. As Scarlett crumples alone and devastated at the film’s close, we still root for her.
The film manages the massive feat of getting us to hope that there’s a brighter future for the characters than it leaves us with. It doesn’t acknowledge any such success, saying simply and ambiguously, “Tomorrow is another day.” So too does the power of cinema endure, in spite of the all the falls that come with it. In short, I do not understand the recent declarations that “cinema is dead”, especially with so many ‘Blind Spots’ existing that many of us haven’t come across yet.