The Hollywood epic is probably one of the few genres to see a minimal amount of change over the decades that it’s ruled Tinseltown (and, by extension, the Academy Awards). From the affectatious costume design to the sweeping vistas of what I can only describe as “a backlot in Burbank,” the historical epic has been a staple of the moviegoer’s diet since the days of the silent film era. But just as a period piece can become timeless inherently by focusing on the past, some of these films have become reflective of their time as well; The Birth of a Nation, for example, shows the savage attitudes pervading Civil War-era society was also reflective of its audience, through the controversial and turbulent conditions surrounding its release. Likewise, we got a view into the window of an ancient culture’s view on race – as well as our own – with Martin Lawrence’s harrowing Black Knight.
Indeed, where would we be without the period piece? In this humble writer’s opinion, I have to turn to a favorite quote of mine by famed humorist Will Rogers: “I don’t know.” It’s pretty obvious that the epic as a genre has had its highs and lows in history; its waning popularity, while molasses-like, is ironically due to history itself. In the days predating the second World War, audiences were less hungry for the escapism and fantasy that movies offer today. The story du jour was typically based either in reality or, at the most extravagant, a well-known fairy tale. In an age of playing it safe, the film industry wore three protective cups. Audiences enjoyed lavish spectacle, most efficiently and effectively conveyed through stories that told of romance, loss, adventure, death, and redemption. The epic had something for everyone, at least until the War and its aftermath had audiences looking for greater levels of escapism. It’s refreshing to remember the halcyon days of yore when Hollywood had original ideas, and didn’t simply repackage every show, game, cereal commercial and book into a cinematic extravaganza. Take Gone With the Wind, a – oh, shit. It’s adapted from a book. Tupac was right!
Gone With the Wind is one of those films from the Golden Age of Hollywood that epitomizes what made it the Golden Age. The lavish sets, the gaudy costumes, the Mid-Atlantic accents – it all coalesces into a movie that, while kitschy at times, is easy to recognize as the forebear of Hollywood to come. Vivian Leigh plays Scarlett O’Hara, a young debutante living in the pre-Civil War days of Georgia. As she spends her days futzing about and flirting with every Southern dandy who calls on her (and boy, are they dandy), she becomes suffocated by the ever-looming threat of war and the ever-present need to find a husband. It’s only by chance that she meets a man who represents both: Rhett Butler has all of the confidence and charm of a politician and the rape tendencies of an affluent Ivy League athlete. While the city slowly burns around them, Rhett and Scarlett find love, then lose it, then find it, then lose it again, then maybe find it, then maybe lose it? It’s hard to keep up at times, considering neither of them seem to like each other that much in the first place.
Scarlett is a tempestuous woman, one who needs an equally stoic man as Rhett to complement her. Her character arc is the most fulfilling of any character in this movie, and that includes the dozen or so characters that die by falling off of a horse. She’s at once jealous, yet supportive; venomous, yet coquettish; silent, but deadly. She’s an enigma – the type of Southern Belle who can go from a comfortable lifestyle on a plantation to shooting Yankee soldiers point-blank in the face without so much as blinking. Her character is one that is curious from the point-of-view of the production itself; rarely is a great character hampered by its director, but Scarlett O’Hara is essentially smothered by the style and substance of director Victor Fleming.
The character of Scarlett is, from the outset, a total bitch. She stabs her friends in the back, flirts with suitors in front of other suitors, and generally has very little regard for anyone’s well-being but her own. While all of this may seem to be a turn-off to anyone but Rhett Butler, it’s the arc that she experiences throughout the films ungodly 4-hour running time that encapsulates her true character: she learns to handle crises in wartime; she goes to great lengths to protect those she loves; she learns to take responsibility – for both her plantation and her eventual child. All of these attributes make for a very prototypical feminist archetype to appear in Scarlett; in an epic film revolving around one of the deadliest wars in history, surprisingly few characters die onscreen, and Scarlett is one of the few characters to do the killing. She learns, through hardship and sacrifice, how to be a better woman. It’s unfortunate that all of her character work be undone through the lens of a director that just didn’t get it.
It’s well-documented that Fleming didn’t care for the character of Scarlett and viewed her as “an out and out bitch.” In Fleming’s eyes, like the eyes of a ‘nice guy’ who just doesn’t get why girls only want to date bodybuilders, Scarlett was incapable of change – refusing to see that she wasn’t the problem. It’s ironic that the director of the film had the very vision that a character like Scarlett was attempting to upend; Fleming’s vision painted Rhett as the smoother, more masculine type of gentleman. Rhett was a proto-James Bond of sorts: calm, cool, badass, yet still unafraid to show some semblance of emotion to those he loves. While all of this is well and good in an actual James Bond film, Rhett is far from a gentleman: he spends a chunk of the first act hanging around a brothel, he drinks too much, and he rapes his own wife in their home. If that isn’t enough, he’s essentially responsible for the miscarriage of the product of said rape. Throughout the course of the film, Rhett does less to help Scarlett and those close to her than Scarlett does in 20 minutes of screen time.
Surrounding Scarlett to help her are her friends and family, including Melanie, who is played by Olivia DeHavilland in my favorite performance of the movie. DeHavilland shows a dedication to her character, as well as a true respect for the craft of acting, that transcends the stage-play hamming that Clark Gable or many other costars were capable of. This isn’t to say Gable or anyone else turned in a bad performance; when the director of your film is on record as telling his actors to “ham it up,” it’s hard to argue that those actors could have done more. Is Fleming a bad director? Of course not. There is some amazing camera work present here, heralding what would become a signature style of auteurs like Spielberg and Scorcese, and many moments in the film could only have been directed by a technically adept filmmaker. It’s too bad that, alongside women, Fleming also shows plenty of disdain for the actors of color in this production: one scene featuring a conversation between 3 slaves appears to end as Hattie McDaniel is about to say a line. This can be attributed to a sloppy edit for runtime purposes or otherwise, but in a film that drags as much as this one can at times, it’s hard to see why Fleming made some of the choices he did.
Like any film from the pre-Civil Rights era, the black actors in Gone With the Wind get the shortest end possible of what I imagine to be the longest stick in film history. Amazingly talented actors like Ms. McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen and Oscar Polk are all reduced to caricatures of slaves; McDaniel comes closest to achieving some level of profundity with her character, but all of that is easily undone when any other character refers to her as “Mammy.” The motherly black woman, the strong plow-hand, the shrill house servant – all of these characters add up to equal less than any of their white counterparts. An entire 3 minutes is set aside in the film’s first act to show an older slave struggle to catch a chicken. There is no useful information present here, other than that being the last chicken; why, then, was it necessary to stop the movie’s progress for some physical humor featuring an old, battered slave? While inexcusable, it’s important to remember the movie as a product of its time: McDaniel was the first black woman to win an Oscar for her work here, and wasn’t allowed to attend the ceremony.
The awful treatment of its artists is what makes Gone With the Wind an incredibly culturally relevant film: we have to be able to see where we’ve come from to see where we’re going, cliché as that sentiment is. The dehumanization of blacks is played for comedy and plot progression. The lead female character is raped by a male lead (who, by the end of the film, gets to escape the codependent clutches of that woman’s claws, essentially leaving her crying for his return). Vivian Leigh, the lead actress, was paid $25,000 for 125 days of work, while Clark Gable received $120,000 for 71 days. Hell, we got John Wayne as Genghis Khan! A white guy playing a different race? Women making disparagingly less money for equal or more work than their male counterparts? Thank god we don’t live in those days anymore, right?