I’ve been writing this blog for the last eight years now, and in all that time, while I’ve reviewed some really obscure films, I’ve steered clear of reviewing many of the great classics—mostly because of a fear that I won’t have anything new to say. So much has been written (by people infinitely more qualified than I can ever hope to be) about films like Pyaasa, Citizen Kane, etc that there’s really no reason why anybody would want to read my musings.
But. A couple of weeks back, after years of putting it off, I finally finished reading Gone with the Wind. I’d seen the film when I was in my early teens, and remembered little of it besides the basic story. I decided therefore that it was high time I rewatched the film. Since the book was so fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but compare it to the film. And since the film is so beautiful (literally; every other frame looks like a painting), I ended up with a folder full of screenshots.
The end result? A review. Especially as I realized that 2016 marked the 100th birthday of Olivia de Havilland (she was born in Tokyo on July 1, 1916), and that I’d missed that event. So, better late than never: happy 100th, Ms de Havilland!
Gone with the Wind is so well-known that I’m not going to go deep into the minor details of the plot. Suffice to say that it stretches over a period of about ten years, beginning on the eve of the American Civil War. On the cotton plantation of Tara in Georgia, we are introduced to the teenaged Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh in what was, to me, the best role of her career): vivacious, beautiful, strong-willed—and also vain, ignorant, manipulative, and appallingly self-centred.
In the course of the evening and the following day’s barbecue and ball at the neighbouring plantation of Twelve Oaks, the other people in Scarlett’s life are introduced. Her father, the hot-headed Irishman Gerald O’Hara (Thomas Mitchell), from whom Scarlett inherits much of her impulsiveness. Her mother, Ellen (Barbara O’Neil), dignified and genteel, kind-hearted and the epitome of the chatelaine everybody looks up to and depends upon.
There are Scarlett’s two younger sisters, Sue Ellen (Evelyn Keyes) and Carreen (Ann Rutherford), Sue Ellen in particular a spoilt brat who throws tantrums whenever she’s thwarted.
And there are, as we see on the day of the barbecue, the young men of the county, almost all of whom are dangling after Scarlett. She is gorgeous, of course, and she knows it. She knows also exactly how to hold her head, how to flutter her eyelashes and flick her skirts. What to say. They hang on every word, scramble to fulfil her every wish, fight for each dance with her.
There is the soft-spoken gentleman, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), heir to Twelve Oaks, whom Scarlett really loves. Loves with a senseless, single-minded focus, so single-minded that it blinds her even to the idea that her love may be one-sided—or at least, not as fully requited as she would like.
At the event, too, is a man whom Scarlett meets for the first time. The disreputable Rhett Butler, whose life is wrapped in scandal and disgraceful dealings. The women whisper about him, the men look down on him for being a blockade runner. And when the men—all of them staunch supporters of the Confederacy—discover Butler’s opinion of their chances of winning an imminent armed conflict with the Yankees (he points out that all they, the South, have is “cotton, slaves, and arrogance”), they hate him even more. Enough for Ashley Wilkes’s cousin, the otherwise wimpy Charles Hamilton (Rand Brooks) to challenge Butler to a duel.
That never happens—but much else does, on that momentous day at Twelve Oaks. Scarlett hears, from Ashley’s own lips, a confirmation of the rumour that has been worrying her since the previous day: that Ashley is marrying Charles’s sister, Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). And Ashley, though he cannot bring himself to refuse outright that he has any feelings for Scarlett, also makes it very clear that he has no intention of marrying anyone but Melanie.
Scarlett discovers, too, to her mortification, that this humiliating episode has been witnessed by none other than the mocking, jeering Rhett Butler—and (though she does not know it) that it is going to be the start of a relationship that will define a large part of her life over the next decade.
And, this is when the Civil War begins. Within days, Scarlett has married Charles Hamilton (to hurt Ashley, a stellar example of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face)—and Ashley has married Melanie. The men, Ashley and Charles included, go off to war, and the women are left behind, to wait anxiously for them to return. To pray that they will return.
Gone with the Wind stretches to nearly four hours, and those four hours follow Scarlett O’Hara’s life as she goes from a spoilt, wilful teenager, to a woman desperately struggling to somehow survive, occasionally coming close to the edge of the precipice, but always managing to hang on long enough to pull herself back from the brink. To a woman who puts everything—her reputation, her dignity, her family name—on the line, just so that she may never have to go hungry again.
A lot happens along the way, and nearly all of it is part of the character arc of Scarlett O’Hara. Every episode helps build up our understanding of who Scarlett is, or of how she’s changing (and, sometimes, remaining the same, too, even though she may seem, on the surface, to be changing).
Plus, it is a story of the Civil War and its effect on Georgia. About how attitudes changed and did not change. About the heady early days, when the Confederacy was certain that it would whip the Yankees without any trouble. The descent from chest-thumping euphoria and extreme self-confidence to a realization that war isn’t all guts and glory, but also a lot of hardship, of hunger and poverty, and—importantly—of dear ones dying or being wounded. It is about women, usually kept shielded from the more brutal realities of life, suddenly being faced with them: having to tend to the wounded in hospitals, having to fend for themselves financially.
These two aspects—the very personal history of Scarlett herself, and the larger canvas, of the South and its people, both black and white, poor and rich—come together vividly in Gone with the Wind.
What I liked about this film:
Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara. She won an Oscar for the role, and you can see why: she’s brilliantly convincing—at every stage. From the flighty airhead who wants nothing more than to have the eligible male population of the county at her feet, to the hard-as-nails, unscrupulous and manipulative widow who will do anything to be rich, secure, with Ashley.
I remember, the first time I watched this film, I found myself hating Scarlett: how could anybody be so utterly selfish? This time round, an older (and hopefully wiser) me could appreciate in that not just Margaret Mitchell’s skill at characterization, but also Victor Fleming’s direction—and, most importantly, Vivien Leigh’s acting. Her eyes are so expressive that there are many scenes where, even without dialogue (or, worse, a voiceover), you can pretty much guess just what Scarlett is thinking.
Besides Leigh, I also like the rest of the cast. True, Clark Gable’s role doesn’t require him to be too different from the run-of-the-mill ‘hero’. And true, too, that Leslie Howard is a little too old to have been cast as Ashley Wilkes, but age apart, he manages to capture the essence of the man: upright, brave, too—yet, in many ways, spineless and indecisive. Olivia de Havilland makes for a perfect Melanie, sweet, kind, gentle, but with unexpected strength of character, too: a woman who will stand up against the rest of the town gentry to do what is right (to befriend a ‘bad woman’ because her heart is in the right place).
Then, there’s the look of it. Like Blood and Sand, this is one of those films I could watch and rewatch just because it’s such a feast for the eyes. Vivien Leigh, of course, is stunning, but so are the backdrops, all the way from the beautifully twisty and gnarled old tree standing tall against the sunset…
… to the staircase, extending up to the upper floors of Scarlett’s house.
The cinematography is excellent, and the lighting makes every other frame look like a painting. You can see, for instance, just how much effort must have gone into making certain parts of this frame look dark while providing just enough light, from just the right angles, to make this look so perfect:
What I didn’t like, and some comparisons:
I can’t, in all truth, say there was something about Gone with the Wind that I outright didn’t like (Prissy’s laziness irritated me, but then, that’s what defines her character). However, because I’d just finished reading the book, it was easy to see the similarities and the differences between the book and the film—and that made me think about why some things, some plot elements, were left out, and how they made a difference to the film.
Let’s begin with how well the film compares to the book. Brilliantly. I’d say that this is one of the best book-to-cinema adaptations I’ve seen. One advantage, of course, is that it’s a long film: squeezing a long, sweeping novel like this into two hours would have been an injustice to the novel, but four hours accomplishes the task.
Not that everything there is in the book is also there in the film. One major gap between the two (and which actually makes up a good deal of Mitchell’s book) is the description of attitudes: towards women, towards blacks, towards Yankees, towards white trash, towards the changing socio-economic and political scenario. Mitchell explains these in a good bit of detail, but you only see isolated incidents here and there in the film that touch upon these. For me, reading the book left me with a very vivid sense of the South just before, during and after the Civil War; watching the film left me with a picture of a woman, dauntless and strong. The focus changes. The book: Scarlett and society and war. The film: Scarlett, against a somewhat more blurred backdrop of the war.
There are only a couple of major differences in plot elements, the most important being that in the book, Scarlett has three children instead of just one. This hardly makes a difference, really, except that in the one scene in the film where Scarlett realizes she’ll have to act as midwife to Melanie, she knows exactly what she will need—the hot water and rags, of course, but also the twine, the scissors, and so on. Not something most gently bred young women would probably have known back then, but this is plausible in the book because Scarlett thinks back to when she was giving birth.
Also (spoiler ahead), Rhett’s disintegration when Bonnie dies is not quite as shatteringly complete in the film as it is in the book (was that a result of Hollywood not being willing to let its heroes shown to be weak?). In the film, too, Rhett is more directly responsible for Bonnie’s death: he has not just taught her riding and jumping (which is what he blames himself for in the film); he has allowed her to raise the bar to an unsafe level. In the film, Bonnie does it of her own accord, and defies her parents, who can’t even run down to stop her before she’s off, jumping a rail that’s too high.
But, all said and done: a great book, and a film that’s a worthy adaptation. If you haven’t seen this yet, do. It’s unforgettable.