It’s strange watching Gone with the Wind for the first time 72 years after a low key release and a smattering of independant film awards. It’s a picture that is so revered and documented that it already feels like you’ve seen it inside out even on a first viewing. It’s epic in the true sense of the word, romantic like almost no other film, beautifully shot and filled with one line zingers stars today would crawl over barb wire to deliver. It’s also a film about a regularly skewed, racially atrocious period of America’s young and bloody history.
Hollywood is naturally about ten years out of date with it’s attitudes towards liberalism (whether towards women or different ethnicities, politics or religion, censorship or freedom of speech), but it’s still difficult to watch Gone with the Wind and not think about slavery. It tries hard, the slaves we do see are well fed, happy and generally content with their lot in life (even the ones marching off to war to fight for the right to keep slaves). They’re not (offensively) stereotypical in the whole, although Prissy (played by the excellently named Butterfly McQueen) is a clear forerunner of JaJa Binks and no less annoying for it. Hattie McDaniel is all bustling good nature and old world value compassion as Mammy and was well rewarded (sort of) with an Oscar for her effort. Any bad signs of slavery are swept firmly under the carpet so as not to get in the way of our classic “love story set against the backdrop of a world gone mad!!” which even in 1939 (1929 in Hollywood remember) is high class bullshit.
Right, that’s the politics out of the way, now what about the really important stuff, the Romance. The romance is there, it oozes from the film like so much molasses. Old fashioned, broken hearted, rote in the stars romance. Scarlett and Rhett are meant to be, it’s fate, you’d put your last dollar on them ending up in a sunset relationship as the crediits roll. Which is why the continual, will they, won’t they, should they, can they rollercoaster of their relationship still feels fresh today. It’s unconventional, laced with bitterness, loaded with baggage and stained with the present situations thay find themselves within.
What’s even less familiar to regular viewers of these old classics is the main characters themselves. They start off unsympathetic and remain so until the final frames. Scarlett starts out spoilt, heads straight for manipulative, has a few headstrong, business years before sinking back to her twisted, money grabbing, looking after number one ways.There is more than a hint of Scarlett in Cathy Ames, the chilling heart of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, written 13 years later. Rhett, on the other hand, is a veiled Byronic nightmare (dark, handsome man with a past), getting what he wants by any means necessary and rarely finding heart for the consequences. He’s louche, prone to violence (rape is insinuated), rashly jealous and carries a vulnerability andd weakness inside himself despite his smooth, confident exterior. The two performers (particularly Leigh) pick out their character’s flaws and strengths perfectly. Their skill is particularly evident between the lines, Leigh gives Scarlett a wounded disbelief that anything bad could ever be happening to someone like her whilst Gable (they don’t make them like him anymore) just about outacts hs own eyebrows (impressive) to lend Rhett an air of desperation that just about seeps through his natural charm, of which there is bucketloads.
Gone with the Wind has aged surprisingly well (think how bad Avatar will look in five years, let alone seventy). It’s sumptuous, primary colour (particularly in the ginger hair of the twins at the start) palette transmits both the extreme wealth of the plantation owners and the searing humidity of the deep south. It’s scope is staggering, encompassing the war and the rebuilding years of vast political change that follow it. Films as a rule don’t do large periods of time well, but here it’s handled perfectly simply by leaning back and letting it happen. Nothing feels rushed, plot twists feel natural and come at appropriate intervals. The war (rarely seen, like Wild Strawberries, Bergan fans) is rarely seen but is a hulking, shadowy presence in fecting every scene with a solidity and grounding in the horrors of what men will do to each other. There are moments of violence and murder but these are carefully held back to heighten their impact, which they do, sometimes shockingly so. It certainly doesn’t feel 3 hours and 44 minutes long.
In the end though, the hours fly by, allowing you to bask in a forgotten age of Hollywood, that like the era of the film itself, is so much dust and ashes, gone forever.