For the film’s 70th anniversary and the upcoming release of a newly remastered edition and Blu-Ray, Gone with the Wind was released in theatres for a one day only event today. Even if I was not the fan I am, I probably could not pass up this opportunity, and though it is a film that’s large financial success is at least in part due to numerous re-releases over the decades, I am not sure how many more times in my lifetime it will be shown on the big screen.
Gone with the Wind is a perennial favourite among American film fans, and still ranks very high in populist polls. In many ways, it is the Titanic of its day, blending elements that are widely appealing to both men and women, and surrounding it by a historic event recognized and romanticized by many over the years. Though the film certainly idealizes and yearns for a bygone era, it also recognizes that even before the war, it is a world that was fading, and those who held onto it were doomed to impending failure or death.
To adapt was to survive, and this necessitated abandoning or at least pushing away the ideals and dreams of a bygone era. What is so fascinating about Gone with the Wind, is that aside from Rhett Butler, it portrays women as far more capable of transformation then men. Even in their fashion, the female characters seem to be in a constant state of flux, adjusting to new awarenessness and ideals, while their male counterparts are left in the dust. No one adapted better than Scarlett O’Hara, whose name reflects both her passion and sense of violence…
Escaping from the hospital, where she was assisting as a nurse (the final straw is the prep work on a man who is having a limb removed sans anaesthesia or painkillers), Scarlett runs through the bustling streets of Atlanta. She has decided to evacuate, and is rushing home to pack. The scene is framed in an interesting way though, while everyone is moving in one direction, Scarlett is pushing through them. She is a singular force moving against the crowds of faceless people, and though it is simply a matter of geography, it is a moment that stands out as defining of her nature. It is also important to note, it is her countermovement that helps call her attention to Rhett Butler, who proceeds to “save” her… though she probably didn’t need saving.
Scarlett O’Hara’s selfishness is the key to her success, and surprisingly, she is never truly punished for her twisted lack of morals. Her love of money and her lavish lifestyle is the motivating force for all her actions. Yet, she is seemingly blind to her own corruption, looking down on women like Belle Watling who sell themselves to survive, when she does the very same with her opportune marriages and Southern Belle play-acting. If anything Watling stands above Scarlett, not only in her absence of hypocrisy, but in her empathetic nature. If there is one thing that Scarlett cannot do, is to put her in others shoes, and understand what others are feeling. If she can do this, she doesn’t care to, preferring to constantly indulge in satisfying her own base needs and desires.
Though, her APPARENT selfishness is also what was necessary for most women to survive during most post-war eras. They had no choice in the matter but to watch their brothers, sons, husbands and fathers go and fight, while they stayed home and continued living. Scarlett’s unhappiness that her lifestyle is changing seems childish and even disrespectful to the sacrifices being made. At the same time though, her opinion was never asked, and in the end, she and other women like her were the ones left to pick up the pieces, rebuild and care for the few men who return.
Selfishness aside, the only motivator in Scarlett’s life is her “love” for Ashley Wilkes. There is no apparent reason for this affection, for one thing, he never demonstrates any particularly sympathetic or interesting qualities worth pursuing, even Scarlett seems unsure of how to qualify her attraction. She sees him through rose coloured glasses, seems him as far more virtuous and important than he is, is she blinded by her own need to gather and have, and him once being the symbol of great wealth in the world of her childhood. All associations of bravery, honour and honesty she attaches to him are vague and quite frankly, values she shows no apparent respect or interest in. They seem to be remnants of childhood, or absurd justification for her need to collect him. Later in the film, he does seem to transform from being representative of wealth to a symbol of the life she lost, but as much as Scarlett says she wants her pre-war life back, she seems to have far more power post-war. She becomes a matriarch, she orchestrates Tara, starts a successful business, runs in, and wealthier than her wildest dreams with her marriage to Rhett.
What of her romance with Rhett Butler? He told her early on that they are cut of the same cloth, and in concept their marriage works remarkably well… until of course, Ashley comes back into play. Just as he is Scarlett’s only weakness, Scarlett is Rhett’s only weakness. Their romance is as violent as their personalities, and involves a surprising amount of ruthlessness, psychological and physical. Even as much as the film gets away with from it’s era, a lot of the most potent and “dangerous” scenes are recounted by witnesses rather than portrayed. The true nature of their relationship is barely touched upon, though it is quite clear that it is stormy, and the rampant indulgence only worsens Scarlett’s self-obsession. And yet, on the flipside, Rhett does provide her with what she needs on a level beyond materialism, though she seems unaware of it. He cares for her in a way that no one else could, except for maybe her mother, and neither loves her for the “superficial” airs she puts on, but her very real superficiality that she carefully hides from the world.
Is Scarlett a bad person? I wouldn’t say she is, she certainly isn’t a “good” one like Melanie Wilkes is, and does not even hold up to her apparent soul mate in depravity and greed Rhett Butler. She is at the very least one of the most fascinating and compelling characters of the screen, and is far more nuanced than even this little “essay” lets on. Scenes like her shooting the Yankee soldier, her discovering the death of her mother, and her miscarriage are only just a handful that only further complicates our perception of her.
The film is so much more than Scarlett, and I’m sure I don’t need to re-iterate the value of the production values, the iconic scenes and the strong performances. Though I am hardly a technical guru, and to take my opinion on remastered anything is pretty futile, the print I saw looked really good. The audience seemed pretty involved, and I was probably the youngest person there. I have to admit some of the race stuff is pretty cringe worthy, but it is also not quite nearly as bad as I remember.