On Film: Selective Storytelling

Gone with the Wind was released last fall in a detailed 70th-anniversary, special-edition DVD. Being probably the quintessential Hollywood movie, I thought I’d take another look. As an Irishman recently relocated to the American South, I’m reluctant to say I understand it. While it’s visually astonishing, the politics are troubling.

Here the Civil War appears to have been fought over the fall collection of the local haberdashery, so well turned out are the men engaged in what the movie tells us occurred when “two nations came to death grips.” Mourning in Gone with the Wind is a fashion statement—you get to wear black and look snazzy, and when a man wants to buy you at a charity auction, you can get even more attention than at your husband’s funeral.

The film was released in 1939, when the Depression was ending and memories of widespread sorrow and premature death were fresh, but also close enough to the end of Lincoln’s war that surely some who saw it had been there when Atlanta burned. Some, also, were about to lose their lives in a war America did not yet want to join. It’s tempting to suggest that this, a film about trauma and epic violence, may have provided some closure while also nurturing the communal appetite for destruction.

“You can tell your grandchildren how you watched the Old South disappear one night,” offers Rhett Butler as consolation to Scarlett O’Hara, who is again weeping over how her privileged upbringing as an oppressor of humans trafficked from halfway around the world is wafting away like so many grains of sand. Okay, maybe she deserves a little sympathy—she is, after all, living in the aftermath of personal tragedy. But this is a woman who is obsessed with the survival of her house, Tara—not the slaves who live in it. There’s another version of this story that needs to be told, one in which slaves get to be individuals instead of appearing only as wallpaper, and where those silhouettes of Scarlett against the sunset are meant to indicate her shallowness rather than inspire a myth of national exceptionalism.

Yet nothing happens in Gone with the Wind that Scarlett can’t reinterpret as a melodrama with herself at the center. We last see her declaring her intention to return to the womb of Tara to “think of some way to get him back.” The best-known Hollywood romance ends with the revenge dream of a control freak. One imagines that another Southern writer might offer a one-line review: “The past ain’t past.”

Gareth Higgins, a writer and broadcaster in Saxapahaw, North Carolina, is author of How Movies Helped Save My Soul.

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