Two days ago N.Y. Post critic Lou Lumenick called for a shunning of Gone With The Wind, not because it suddenly stinks but because its “undeniably racist” attitudes are no longer tolerable in our current socio-political climate, particularly in the wake of the Charleston massacre and Gov. Nikki Haley‘s decision to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse, and everyone else calling for a similar banning. So it’s not as if Lou is standing against the wind here.
There’s never been any question that David O. Selznick‘s epic ignores and sugarcoats the realities of 19th Century slavery, and that its Technicolor depiction of the Old South as a fair land of cavaliers and cotton fields makes it in some ways a dark and odious fantasy piece — the anti-12 Years A Slave. Consciousness does evolve and for all its elan and polish, Gone With The Wind has become more and more of an unsavory antique in some respects. No argument there.
Lumenick notes that GWTW “isn’t as blatantly and virulently racist as D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which was considered one of the greatest American movies as late as the early 1960s, but is now rarely screened, even in museums,” but he’s suggesting that it may one day disappear from the cultural conversation and suffer a permanent downgrade when it comes to estimating the all-time great films.
Lumenick is not wrong, but I feel misgivings. I don’t believe it’s right to throw Gone With The Wind under the bus just like that. Yes, it’s an icky and offensive film at times (Vivien Leigh‘s Scarlett O’Hara slapping Butterly McQueen‘s Prissy for being irresponsible in the handling of Melanie giving birth, the depiction of Everett Brown‘s Big Sam as a gentle, loyal and eternal defender of Scarlett when the chips are down) but every time I’ve watched GWTW I’ve always put that stuff in a box in order to focus on the real order of business.
For Gone With The Wind is not a film about slavery or the antebellum South or even, really, the Civil War. It’s a movie about (a) a struggle to survive under ghastly conditions and (b) about how those with brass and gumption often get through the rough patches better than those who embrace goodness and generosity and playing by the rules. This is a fundamental human truth, and if you ask me the reason Gone With The Wind has resonated for so long is that generation after generation has recognized it as such. If you want to survive you have to be tough and scrappy and sometimes worry about the proprieties later on. Anyone who’s ever faced serious adversity understands the eloquence of that classic Scarlett O’Hara line, “I’ll never be hungry again.”
I think GWTW particularly connected with 1939 audiences because they saw it as a parable of the deprivations that people had gone through during the Great Depression.
On top of which the second half of part one of Gone With The Wind (the shelling of Atlanta to Scarlett shaking her first at those red skies) is undeniably great cinema. Max Steiner‘s music, the struggle, the crowd scenes, the panic, the burning of Atlanta, Ernest Haller‘s cinematography, the anguish, the soldiers groaning and moaning, Scarlett’s drooling horse collapsing from exhaustion, the moonlight breaking through as she approaches Tara…you just can’t throw all that out. Yes, the film’s unfortunate racial attitudes, which were lamentably par for the course 75 years ago, are now socially obsolete. And I wouldn’t argue with anyone who feels that portions of it are too distasteful to celebrate, but it just doesn’t seem right to lock all of that richness inside some ignoble closet and say “no more, forget about it, put it out of your minds.” Legendary filmmaking is legendary filmmaking.
On the other hand I distinctly remember Hillary Clinton saying seven or eight years ago in some softball interview that Gone With The Wind was her all-time favorite film. You can bet she’ll never say that again.