Let Us Now Discuss Gone With The Wind

There are two ways this can go: desperate attempt to defend this oh-so 1930’s take on historical drama, or dump all over it as the irritation it is. I will do the second thing. I do not like Gone With The Wind and never have. I don’t know why anyone does. I shall give a set of reasons why, and then I will lament its erasure anyway, because it’s really not hard to do that if you aren’t a millenarian bookburner.

Why I Detest Gone With The Wind:

  1. Scarlett O’Hara.

The big problem I have with this film is the protagonist.  You see, the protagonist has to be someone we identify with, someone whose values and motivations are roughly on a par with ours. This way, when the protagonist encounters conflict in the story, we have sympathy for her. Sympathy is a Greek Word that means “feels with”. We feel what the protagonist feels, and thus we are involved in the conflict of the story. We want the protagonist to win and the antagonist to lose, or if there is no antagonist, to overcome the conflict.

But if the protagonist is someone whose motivations we either don’t understand or don’t respect, we can’t identify with that person. This doesn’t mean the protagonist has to be perfect and without flaw, but there has to be some desire or motivation that we share with that person. These can be, but are not limited too: love, success, discovery, etc.

As to values, the protagonist needs to be someone who has a set of ethics roughly in line with the audience’s. Otherwise, we don’t like the protagonist and won’t sympathize with them.

Finally, the protagonist needs to be someone who we could sit in a room with for five minutes without desiring to slap the living hell out of them. She needs to be a more-or-less likable person, or even if their motivations are clear and their ethics impeccable, we won’t want to see or hear them, much less root for them.

So, a quick protagonist checklist – the Protagonist needs:

a) a clear and reasonable motivation

b) a clear and acceptable set of ethics

c) not to be irritating.

And for me, Scarlett O’Hara fails on all three counts. Her motivations are murky and/or ridiculous, her ethics are at best questionable, and she has absolutely no personal charm that would balance that. She’s a spoiled little rich girl who spends the bloodiest time in our nation’s history angry that she can’t marry the handsomest man she knows, and she deals with everyone around her with a mix of high-handed contempt and vicious infighting. She’s Goneril in a green gown.

Far from sympathizing with her, I revel in her misfortunes and desire that she suffer more of them. The first time I saw the movie, even as kid, I kept watching because I dearly wanted to see her suffer. I wanted someone, anyone, to teach her that she wasn’t the center of the known universe. The only other time I’ve had this experience with a movie was when I first saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, when I wanted someone to do the same to Charlie. Just kidding. I meant Veruca Salt. But considering Veruca is supposed to be a villain, the fact that she and Scarlett remind me of one another is not a good thing.

2. Ashley Wilkes Useless Wanker

Neither can I stand the to-the-manor-born fopwagon Scarlett spends three hours obsessing over. It may sound odd an American like myself to use the insult “wanker”. It’s a word we generally associate with English people, especially working class ones. And that’s kind of the point I want to make about Useless Wanker, which is that some things don’t sound right in the wrong accent. 

So will someone explain to me why Useless Wanker is the only character in the movie who speaks in an English accent, even though he’s supposed to be from Georgia, just like Scarlett? This makes no sense, and is never addressed. They don’t even come up with a stupid cover explanation, like Useless went to finishing school in London, or is mom is English. They don’t give us anything.

Feed me no swill that Leslie Howard was English and couldn’t do a Southern accent. Vivien Leigh was English, and she trotted out her stage-southern “fiddle-dee-dee’s” just fine. I don’t know if anyone in antebellum Georgia ever talked like Scarlett O’Hara, but at least she tried. She helped us to suspend disbelief. Howard was just being lazy. Which is why I supposed he’s playing Useless.

You might argue that not everyone ostensibly Southern in the film has an ostensibly Southern accent. Gable doesn’t, even though Rhett Butler hails from South Carolina. You would argue fairly. However, Gable’s lack of an accent offends less than Howard’s, for a couple of reasons:

a) Gable was already an established star. American audiences knew what he sounded like. If he’d tried some rinky-dinky accent, it might have distracted audiences rather than helping them.

b) Rhett Butler is an outsider. Sounding different from the people at Tara or Twelve Oaks helps to establish this character’s first noteworthy trait.

c) Gable still sounds like someone from the United States of America. Suspend disbelief is easier on his behalf.

d) Clark Gable was cool. He’s the best thing in this movie. He gets a pass.

On the other hand, Leslie Howard was mostly known for playing – guess what? – stiff-necked Englishmen. So he actually needed that effort not to sound like himself, to resemble someone belonging in antebellum Georgia. Instead, every word out of the mouth of this belle idee of the Southern Gentleman announces to everyone with ears that he’s a foreigner, and again, this is never explained.

Since we’re on the subject of accents, I should point out the silly brogue that Thomas Mitchell throws on to play Gerald O’Hara, Scarlett’s father, an immigrant from Ireland. It’s not a dreadful accent, although I do find myself expecting him to fulminate that the Yankees are after his Lucky Charms. I am instead confused that none of his Hibernian nature seems to have rubbed off on any of his three daughters. Not one of them say anything like what their father says. Not completely implausible, given growing up somewhere vastly different from Ireland with rather strong pressures to conform, but still weird, and it adds to the difficulty I have with Scarlett. 

She seems completely unrelated to her father, despite the emotional bond the film takes pains to establish between them. Despite her name, Katie Scarlett O’Hara is about as Irish as everyone pretends they are on St. Patrick’s Day. This is another opportunity to give the protagonist depth that the film chooses not to make, despite the labor involved it making Gerald O’Hara the most Oirishest paddy what ever drank whiskey from a pot o’gold.

3. Fetishization of the Confederacy

I’m just gonna display my biases. I’m a Yankee. I had two ancestors who fought in the Union Army. I’m not a big fan of the Confederacy or the people who engage in apologetics in its name. I have never understood why anyone would want to honor it.

The Confederate States of America lasted a little bit longer than a presidential term. Every state in it has been part of the USA way longer than the CSA. The states on the Eastern seaboard were British Colonies longer than they were part of the CSA. The CSA was a failure in every respect.

Not only did the Confederate government lose the war, but it violated its own principles even as it fought for them. Far from being a libertarian haven, the CSA was a borderline fascist state by the time the war ended. Let’s go through the checklist:

  • Conscription – check
  • Assumption of dictatorial powers – check
  • Roving bands of terror squads seizing goods and executing those who resisted – check

In fairness, a lot of this stuff happened in the North, too. There was also conscription, and a pretty corrupt system of hiring substitutes to go with it. And Lincoln and the War Department certainly assumed dictatorial powers during the war. But the north didn’t go to war as a protest against the loss of liberty. The North went to war to put down a rebellion.

The only way you can possibly look back at this egregiance fondly is if you have grievances from that time that you cannot let go of. Which is exactly the problem that people who want to tear down Confederate monuments and to erase this movie have. But more on that later.

4. That Music

Look, it’s not a bad piece of music. It’s memorable, or hummable, or whatever. It used to be the CBS Million Dollar Movie Theme, when they had that sort of thing.

I even get the reason it’s repeated so many times. One of the themes of the movie is Scarlett’s profound and mystical connection to the plantation she grew up on – Tara. And the theme is called “Tara’s Theme” So, the idea must be that every time something significant is happening in the movie, Tara is all around her, swelling its heaving slave-flecked bosom in emotional catharsis.

Unfortunately, since none of these scenes ever indicate anything but plot points, and never actual moments of catharsis in the character, it just sounds like they’re turning on the music as a kind of punctuation, like the scene wipes in Star Wars.

Consequently, the theme is overused, overused, overused and I become numb to anything good about it. This isn’t necessarily the music’s fault, but I still come to hate it. It’s hardly great music, anyway. It’s a pretty simple melody, actually, and really only evokes one emotion, that of nostalgia, and considering what the film is nostalgic for, I’d just as soon not. I’d rather listen to someone torture a cat with a nail file, or someone playing harmonica with their rear end. I would rather listen to ABBA, than ever hear that theme music ever again.

So let’s do like HBO Max and erase it, so I can be happy. Down the memory hole with this trash! Right?

No.

Gone With The Wind is not a film to my tastes. The story it tells doesn’t interest me, and it’s full of the 1930’s being nostalgic for the 1850’s in a way that frankly offends me. But the solution I have for that is the one that occurred to many readers a good way through my rant:

I don’t watch the damn thing.

It’s that simple. I watch other things, which are too my tastes, instead. Gone With The Wind is not a requirement in anyone’s life. No one will be shocked that you haven’t watched a movie that no one under the age of 85 will remember seeing in a theater. You don’t need to have anything to do with it.

And by all means, correct the narrative that Gone With The Wind offers. Give us Twelve Years a Slave instead. Raising a voice to describe the horrors of our history is necessary and good.

But erasing voices is not. Healthy cultures do not destroy art. Yes, Gone With The Wind is art. Have you seen it? Whatever my problems with it’s characters and framework, it’s an epic piece of visual storytelling. Even I, who can’t stand the film, think the Burning of Atlanta is gloriously shot.

And that’s the last time there’s been a film that even touched on The Burning of Atlanta. Think about that. 150 years ago half of our country underwent invasion by the other half, and we can’t abide to look at how this was done. (Is this one of the reasons I wrote The Sword? You think?) We’d rather smash anything that reminds us of it.

And to no purpose. Erasing every last statue or rememberance of Robert E. Lee won’t change his place in the course of history. Commanding his name be slashed from the books like an Egyptian Pharoah won’t change that we are in the world he had a hand in making. His ghost remains with us.

You don’t like the fact that a sizable portion of your fellow citizens find Lee honorable, and Scarlett O’Hara an iron woman? You will not change their minds by attempting to crimethought it away. Quite the opposite in fact: The Blu-Ray Edition of Gone With The Wind is now the #1 Move on Amazon.com. That’s right, people are panic-buying an 80-year-old film because they think their cultural history is being destroyed by people who despise them.

Gone With The Wind deserves to be replaced by a better film. It doesn’t deserved to be removed from film history, or attached with a lecture telling us what we should think about it. The only way its unpleasant influence can be undone is by outdoing it. Make an epic about the Civil War that’s more entertaining, more satisfying, that stares our history in its face and balances the loss of the past with the joy of progress. Add to the art, lest we find ourselves repeating its subject.