This is part of a series of articles reviewing the American Film Institute's Top 100 Films, as unveiled in 2007. Why am I doing this? Because the damned cinemas are closed and I have to review something.
Director: Victor Fleming.
Cast: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel, Harry Davenport, Thomas Mitchell, Barbara O'Neil, Evelyn Keyes, Ann Rutherford, Oscar Polk, Butterfly McQueen, Everett Brown, Alicia Rhett, Rand Brooks, Carroll Nye, Laura Hope Crews, Cammie King Conlon.
|Never smoke in bed.|
Leaving aside the awkward analogy, Gone With The Wind is also fascinating, surprisingly funny, entertaining, and impressive. It's soooooo long but it's engrossing across its various chapters. Yes, some of its film making techniques have aged as poorly as its politics, but in the context of the time it was made and what it was trying to represent, it's a towering achievement.
It's hard to recommend this film to people. "Hey kids, wanna watch a four-hour-long romantic melodrama, told from the sympathetic perspective of the racist slave owners who lost the Civil War?"
But Gone With The Wind is good stuff. The love quadrangle of Scarlett O'Hara, Rhett Butler, Melanie Hamilton and Ashley Wilkes, set against the backdrop of their world literally burning to the ground, is riveting stuff.
Equally as engrossing is Rhett Butler, who is like a more self-aware version of Scarlett. He's as deeply flawed, but he understands, accepts and even embraces his flaws. He sees himself and Scarlett as kindred spirits that deserve each other and belong together. He's also the first in a long-line of louche anti-heroes that continues to this day - without Clark Gable's smirking selfishness, there would be no Han Solo, to name but one obvious descendant.
Watching Rhett and Scarlett circle each other, then seemingly connect, then fall apart is fascinating, hilarious, but ultimately devastating. All the while, the angelic Melanie hovers nearby, as her husband Ashley flits in and out of the picture. Despite being less interesting, Melanie and Ashley still intrigue. Ashley is easily the most boring character in the film but also the most potent symbol. He represents the Old South, but also inspires some of Scarlett's pettiest attributes - she wants him not out of love but a mix of spite, nostalgia and self-delusion.
These compelling characters are all the more compelling for their context. You'd struggle to get a film made these days with a sympathetic view of the South in the Civil War, but it's a world that's engrossing, even for all its historical whitewashing. The burning of Atlanta and the famous shot showing the town square filled with wounded soldiers are stunning moments, amid some truly huge scenes in the classic "cast of thousands" style.
|"Frankly my dear, that is a gun in my pocket."|
Some of its mattes, rear projections and additional dialogue recording have aged about as well as its obvious affection for the South and glossing over of slavery. Its regular melodrama - in particular Scarlett's "God as my witness" speech just prior to intermission, and Ashley and Melanie's reunion - also feel as dated as its politics and its brushing-off of Rhett's misogyny, domestic violence, and marital rape. Many pages have been devoted to this latter elements, and for good reason, and I'm not here to excuse them, merely to examine them as part of the rich tapestry of the story and the complexities of its protagonists.
Gone With The Wind remains a snapshot of Hollywood at perhaps its most successfully ambitious - it is the first peak of Hollywood's Golden Age. It's sprawling storytelling, and it boasts some of the richest characters in the classic cinema handbook, with no small thanks owed to Margaret Mitchell's source material.
It also features the great kiss-off of all time, and a last line up there with Casablanca's. No wonder so many people give a damn.