Review by J.T. Johnson
ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE: December 15, 1939
DIRECTOR: Victor Fleming
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Ernest Haller
WRITER: Sidney Howard
MUSIC: Max Steiner
“Gone with the Wind” is a film that is often regarded as one fo the best films of all time. It was released in 1939, a year that many consider to be one of the best in Hollywood with the release of classic films such as “The Wizard of Oz” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”. It often places near the top of most people’s “Best Of…” lists and contains memorable quotes such as the often used, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
With that said, all I can possibly do is offer my honest opinion of the film and I hate to say it, but I think it is slightly overrated. I think that most film buffs want to put on rose-colored glasses when they look back at this film and I think others “like” it because they think they have to. Don’t get me wrong, I do like the film as a film buff myself, but I think it is hardly the greatest film of all time.
Firstly, the movie is almost four hours long. While some have praised this, noting that this helps it stay true to the 1936 pulitzer-prize winning novel by Margaret Mitchell, I just don’t think it necessarily had to be this long. This is really a very minor complaint in the grand scheme of things, but I did feel like this film dragged during certain parts while soaring in other places.
My biggest criticism of the film, which is also something that others have noted before, is the obvious glorification of the Antebellum South. Granted, it was a time of considerable growth for the South economically, but it was built on the backs of slaves. The movie either depicts African Americans as living happy lives or it glosses over the fact that the “cause” that many Southerners fought for during the Civil War was a fight to keep slavery alive.
Now, one could successfully argue that this story is told from a certain point-of-view. Throughout the entire film, we see things through the eyes of Scarlet O’Hara (Vivian Leigh), a woman who lives a very spoiled life before the Civil War destroys that life. From here, she has to rebuild her home Tara from the ground up, showing a strong sense of independence. While this saves her home, the ways she goes about doing it are questionable, including marrying men that she doesn’t really love.
Speaking of love, through most of the film, she thinks she is madly in love with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), a man who ends up marrying Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland). The real love of her life is another man, Rhett Butler (Clark Cable), but the big question is whether or not Scarlett will give up her undying infatuation with Ashley in time to realize it.
Despite the film’s flaws, though, I did enjoy this movie due to the very reasons that it proves to be so popular to this day. The tragic love story between Rhett and Scarlett is one of the best ever depicted onscreen. This is because it is told in a realistic way and it doesn’t necessarily have to have a happy ending.
Another reason to like this film is the grand cinematic scale that the filmmakers used, making it a little ahead of its time. There are lavish parties being thrown at the beginning with hundreds of extras and highly detailed sets. There are action-packed sequences such as the one where Rhett tries to get Scarlett and Melanie out of Alabama as it burns to the ground during the war.
Beyond the elaborate sets and magnificent costumes (courtesy of Walter Plunkett), the movie also uses every other trick available at the time to make the film even bigger. There are massive and wonderfully done matte paintings adding a great deal of scale to certain scenes. Then there are more constrained scenes such as the ending when Rhett leaves in a veil of fog, perhaps a sign of Scarlett’s uncertain future.
The performances are also noted for their legendary status. Leigh has to pretty much carry the film on her shoulders more than anyone else and she gives a great performance as Scarlett. Due to the character’s spoiled nature and even some of the devious things she has to do to get her home back up and running, Leigh never goes too far to where you lose all sympathy for the character and you actually admire her sense of independence and sheer determination.
Gable also brings his signature charm as a leading man to the role of Rhett Butler. This is a disguise, however, as we slowly get to see more of Rhett’s roguish and possibly more dangerous side later in the movie. Even when he is at his worst, you find that you still like the guy mostly due to the fact that his meaner nature is not always without merit.
While I don’t think that the film should escape criticism for some of its storytelling flaws, I do think that the movie still deserves its status as a classic film. The movie has endured with audiences for almost 80 years and that’s worth something all on its own. Late film critic Roger Ebert was right when he summed up that the film is “a towering landmark of a film” and despite the aforementioned flaws, very few films have come together to offer something as lavish or as epic as “Gone with the Wind”.