Until this week, I had never seen Gone With the Wind. That neglect was one of the very few things keeping me feeling young at age 43. But then HBO temporarily pulled the movie from its streaming service last week to add an introduction that would provide vital context to a movie that is widely beloved but is also super racist. Well, of course, our finest Applebee-American citizens weren’t pleased to see the film get temporarily shelved by literally one streaming service among many, many others that have left it untouched. So they burned their Covid masks, strapped on their bandoliers, and made Victor Fleming’s 1940 Best Picture–winner the number one movie on Amazon in retaliation. Because these people must always be staging the least worthy protest they can possibly conceive of. #DeadRacistLivesMatter.
So, in the interests of journalism, and because I have nothing better to do, I decided to bust my cherry and watch Gone With the Wind with my own eyes. All four goddamn hours of the thing. Here are my findings. Please note that this article contains SPOILERS. Trust me: Someone out there will earnestly bitch about them.
I already noted that Gone With the Wind is super racist, and that’s not me being presumptuous. You know exactly what you’re in for the second the preamble starts scrolling. Read it for yourself:
There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South.… Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow.… Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave.… Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind.
See what I mean? It’s like reading the splash-page copy for Draper James. I figured I was subjecting myself to a Confederate monument in celluloid form, and that opening passage left no doubt. This is the fall of the Confederacy writ as tragedy. You can draw a direct line between it and dipshit Southern-pride folks who tag #heritagenothate at the end of every tweet. You can also see why HBO rushed to film a pre-buttal by African American film scholar Jacqueline Stewart, to warn audiences at home about the poison that lies ahead.
Of course, just because Gone With the Wind roots for the South doesn’t mean I had to. And I did not. If you’re down with schadenfreude, as I most certainly am, the hate-watching potential of Gone With the Wind is bountiful. I told you there would be spoilers, so here’s one: The South loses. EAT SHIT, REDNECKS.
But I’m gonna also go ahead and confess that, from a pure entertainment standpoint, Gone With the Wind is spectacular. There’s a reason that, adjusted for inflation, it’s the all-time box office champ. I was prepared to be bored out of my fucking skull watching this thing. And indeed, the opening scenes promised an old-timey slog: orchestral swells over everything, men in comically large trousers, grown women in pigtails, adult characters falling in love as quickly as middle schoolers, actresses directed for maximum histrionics, white people ballroom-dancing in formation, etc. I kept waiting for characters to bust out into song. But there came a point when I went from having to watch this movie to wanting to. Composition-wise, its cinematography is breathtaking. And its four hours of storytelling are not languid. It’s a soap opera and a war movie. Juicy shit abounds.
Don’t believe me? OK, well lemme run down a few highlights for you. First of all, our heroine is Scarlett O’Hara (Vivian Leigh), who starts out the movie in love with her neighbor, only to look on heartbroken as the neighbor marries his own cousin. (Can’t believe this story takes place in Georgia and not one state to the left.) Scarlett marries some random loser to make the neighbor jealous. Then the random loser dies. Then she marries another dude for money because—and this is true—Scarlett’s major crisis in the middle of the film comes when the Union levies $300 in extra property taxes on her family’s plantation. Three hundred bucks?! What will the Union do with that money? Fund schools? WHY, THE GALL OF THESE CURSED YANKEES, I DO DECLARE. Anyway, that husband dies, too. So then our white widow marries the now-iconic Rhett Butler (played by Clark Gable, 12 years older than Vivian Leigh and with eyebrows for a mustache) to preserve her lifestyle needs.
That’s where Gone With the Wind took me by surprise. Before this, I only knew a few iconic snippets of the movie. You know … the ones from every Oscar montage: “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”; “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” etc. I assumed the movie was an epic love story between Rhett and Scarlett. But it’s not. Their marriage is a loveless one, featuring alcoholism, abuse, Scarlett gargling cologne (!), rape, a stunning miscarriage that made me cry “Oh, shit!” out loud, and Scarlett’s daughter breaking her neck and dying after falling off a horse. And little Bonnie is the second character in the movie to die that way. Again, juicy.
But that juiciness is ultimately put in service of a love story between a woman and a fucking plantation. This is obviously unsatisfying when viewed with 2020 vision, but it’s also a letdown in storytelling from any era. Gone With the Wind keeps up its momentum far longer than a modern viewer might expect but then wraps its epic story up in a strangely abrupt and unsatisfying fashion. That letdown becomes even more pronounced given the movie’s naked yearning for the “gallant remnants” of the antebellum South. I was like, “Hey man, I sat through all this racism just to watch this lady go back to her fucking house?”
I haven’t even talked about the black characters in this movie yet, who exist in literal service of the white characters. They’re referred to as “darkies,” which is almost restrained given the movie’s political leanings. Scarlett beats a house slave (and her own horse … to death!). Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for her role as Mammy, becoming the first black person to win one. And while she’s great, Mammy became both a slur and a template role for sassy-but-loyal black characters that remains in place to this day.
Gone With the Wind tells on itself every five minutes. I thought the most unnerving instance of this was an early scene featuring house slaves on the plantation fanning the O’Hara girls all night long as they sleep comfortably. I had never thought about slaves being forced to do this, but naturally slave owners conceived of, and executed, every possible way to demean black people. In the movie, the fanning is portrayed matter-of-factly, which is almost better than if it had been laden with disapproving undertones. This is a raw look at how white filmmakers and white audiences thought, back in 1939. Going by that Amazon spike, this is what many white audiences want to watch right now. Being fanned by slaves represents the good old days for them. No wonder so many wingnuts rushed to prop up this Kentucky Derby party of a movie.
Gone With the Wind is also a war movie, and that’s where it holds up in a lot of places. Characters in the beginning of the movie are excited for war. War is a big party for them, as war ramp-ups tend to be in real life. Then reality hits, and the bodies pile up. In one scene, Scarlett is volunteering at a church-turned-makeshift-military-hospital when she has to watch a man get his leg amputated without anesthesia. It’s a perfect old-time war movie scene because you don’t see the amputation. Fleming lets your imagination do the work, which makes it all the more harrowing. Then Scarlett is like FUCK THIS SHIT, which is the proper reaction to war. Later, Scarlett shoots a Union soldier dead after he comes to loot the plantation. She coldly states, “Well, I guess I’ve done murder” (petition to make that line a meme, please). She’s dead inside. She’s clinging to a sepia-toned past that she cannot resurrect, but is willing to kill on the off-chance she might be able to. Remind you of other people you know?
The tragedy is that antiwar movies have stopped exactly zero wars. Gone With the Wind, which was released four months after World War II began, was similarly ineffective. And its antiwar messages are often either accidental or misplaced. As Scarlett walks through a fallen Atlanta, in a now-legendary crane shot, the camera pulls back to a ragged Confederate flag ruffling in the breeze. You’re supposed to be sad. No sane person would be. The overarching theme is that the Civil War was bad because it killed the Old South’s “way of life,” which is baffling because the South as it stands now is way cooler and better than it was in 1861. It’s still gorgeous, and it has no legal slavery. Plus there’s Cook Out! I wanted to scream at this movie, WHY DOES ANYONE MISS THIS SHIT?
Of course, the reasons why are plainly stated on the screen. In writing, no less. Gone With the Wind is a beautiful, compelling, four-hour lie of a movie. In an early scene, Rhett Butler tells a group of Confederate warmongers that, “The cause of living in the past is dying right in front of us.” It’s such a perfect line, but it ends up ringing hollow the second Rhett abandons Scarlett to enlist for that very same cause. It’s a film that continually betrays its own wisdom, which makes it both compelling and tragic.
But not without proper framing. HBO did the right thing by pulling Gone With the Wind and adding that introduction, even if some white people inevitably skip past it. Every other streaming service should do likewise. They don’t have to fuck with the film itself, George Lucas–style. But some preface is required. I could identify all the bad shit in Gone With the Wind because I’m a 43-year-old college grad who reads the news and what not. But viewed by more innocent eyes, it contains lessons that desperately need to be unlearned. When the Civil War gets whitewashed on-screen, you should be told so. The author Douglas Preston once wrote that, “People need history in order to know themselves.” But what if the history they write is a lie? Do they know themselves at all?