Monday, December 5, 2011

#70 - AFI Top 100 Movies: #4 Gone With the Wind

Gone With the Wind is one of my favorite classic movies and #4 on the AFI Top 100 Movies List.

Not only is the acting fantastic, the story line engaging and the costumes fabulous, but it’s a truly beautiful movie to watch. The cinematography plays with shadows and silhouettes in a way that just isn’t done any more.

Not only that but the landscape itself is beautifully done, whether it’s the highly decorated halls of the colonial houses, the rolling hills of the plantations, the flames as Atlanta burns or the blackened husk of Twelve Oaks Plantation after the Yankees have passed. Every scene is filled with things to look at, little details filling the screen and drawing the audience straight into southern life, during both idyllic peace time and the hellish after math of war.

I could talk about a million different things I love about this movie, but I’m going to concentrate on the main reason I love Gone With the Wind: Scarlett O’Hara.

She is a tempestuous, hard-headed, stubborn, conniving, selfish and selfless gem of a woman. I’m sure that people watching the movie for the first time are appalled by her, as she begins the movie as an immature, selfish, flirtatious, unmannered hoyden and eventually grows into a scheming, grasping, materialistic, unbending and frustrating woman. But there is really one word that sums up Scarlett O’Hara best, and that word is gumption.

Gumption: noun Informal .
initiative; aggressiveness; resourcefulness: With his gumption he'll make a success of himself.
courage; spunk; guts: It takes gumption to quit a high-paying job.
common sense; shrewdness.

If you notice, the definition of gumption is a good thing, although it’s not something that was valued in a Southern Belle. However, I’m pretty sure that in any society, Scarlett O’Hara would thrive and make something of herself. Gone with the Wind was made in 1939, a time period when most movies were full of sexism, machismo and ridiculous stereotypes about women. Scarlett O’Hara fulfills every one of those: she’s petty, selfish, steals men – including her own sister’s beau, marries for money rather than love, lusts after a married man for her entire life and is the archetype for the movie fiction of “forceful love,” as evidenced when her drunk, jealous and angry husband carries her upstairs to the bedroom and she resists, kicking, all the way but then wakes up the next morning smiling and satiated. The movie poster displays the usual picture of a Hollywood Heroine:

But beyond that typical Hollywood portrayal of women, Scarlett O’Hara has gumption. Where weaker women and men would, and do, fall apart, Scarlett presses on. No matter what knocks life gives her, no matter how someone kicks her down, she rises up again and just keeps on going with her head held high. For every major fault, she has a major virtue.

Even though she loves Ashley Wilkes and is constantly trying to convince him to run away with her, she makes and keeps a promise to care for his wife and child while he’s away at war. Not only does she care for Melanie, but she puts herself into danger by staying in Atlanta as the Yankees march closer and closer, because Melanie is about to have her baby and can’t travel. This is not a promise a completely amoral person would keep, much less at such risk to themselves. But Scarlett stays till the bitter end with Melanie, delivers her baby with no help from the doctor, manages to find a horse and carriage to carry them both to safety (by going to Rhett Butler for help), and then goes through a torturous ride back home to the Tara Plantation.

Scarlett’s entire life is like that. No matter how selfish and willful she is, how materialistic and shallow, she will redeem herself with selfless acts entirely at odd with her seemingly immoral character. She goes to Atlanta to be near Ashley, she works in the hospital as a nurse. She abandons the men in the hospital, she stays in Atlanta for Melanie. She and Melanie are the strongest women in the movie, Melanie being very like Scarlett but made up of all virtues. They are both fighters in their own way, facing life unflinchingly, but Melanie also never has to face the hurdles Scarlett does; Scarlett’s the one jumping over the hurdles, dragging Melanie safely along with her.

I love watching Scarlett. Her tantrums are hilarious and thrilling, her dainty hands much stronger than they look, and her will to survive nothing short of heroic. In circumstances that would, and does, crush others, she emerges tattered and burnished, as if her trials were fires, burning through to the purity of her soul. Atlanta goes down in flames around her, and brings both herself and the invalid Melanie and her newborn baby through safely, determined to get all of them home to Tara where she is sure her mother will be able to take care of them all. Happily Tara survives, but it is not the homecoming Scarlett expected to come home to.

The Yankees have looted the house, left them no money or goods to sell, ate most of the food and took almost all the slaves. There is nothing left to sustain the household. Even worse, her mother is dead and her father has gone mad from the horror of it all. Scarlett collapses in tears and grief upon seeing her mother’s body, but she’s also the one who pulls through and saves them all. She works herself to the bone, without complaint, unlike her whining and sniveling sister. From that point on, everything Scarlett does, she does for Tara and their family. She steals her sister’s beau, basically prostituting herself, for the money to pay Tara’s taxes. She will beg, murder, steal, injure… whatever needs to be done to keep her family and Tara safe. If she was a man, her contemporaries would admire her instead of gossip about her.

At the end of the movie Rhett, the one man who truly understands and loves her when he marries her, finally leaves her. Her illusions about life and her fantasy of love for Ashley have all been stripped away, and she’s finally grown up… too late. Sadly, it’s not all her fault, a lot of it is miscommunication between her and Rhett, as well as his own lack of interest in interpreting her moods and postures – something he had been very good at initially. He breaks her heart and walks off into the fog, clearly done with her and their life together. Just like any female in the movies at this time period, she collapses and bewails her fate, wondering how she can win him back, knowing that she must win him back for her life to have any meaning.

Unlike other movie females during this time period, Scarlett stops crying. She knows that she must go home, to Tara and renew herself. She realizes that of course she can win him back, just as she has been able to accomplish every other goal she has ever set herself. There is no giving up for Scarlett, she gets what she wants. It’s not Hollywood’s typical happy ending, but you know that Scarlett will make a good ending for herself. All you have to do is look past the silly frills and fluff of her attire, to her stubborn chin, the strength in her face and the fire in her eyes to know that this is a woman who can face the world on her own terms.

She’s not perfect, but who is? As a model for feminine strength, especially during this time period of movie heroines, I find her exemplary.


  1. This is my favorite movie of all time. It is pretty beyond words and I too am a little obsessed with Scarlett.

    I don't know if you are aware of the Hayes Code, a set of rules that ultimately determined characters' fates up until Elizabeth Taylor ruined it in 1964. Essentially, the reason why Scarlett was unable to have a happy ending because she killed the Union soldier earlier in the film. Karma is a bitch.

    Another interesting factoid, 1939 is and will probably forever remain the best year in the history of film. Its other products include Stagecoach, Dr. Zhivago, and The Wizard of Oz, just to name a few.

    Great post!

  2. I didn't know that about the karma thing! That's hilarious and amazing. I actually recently watched Stagecoach for the first time and really enjoyed it, Dr. Zhivago is coming up soon! I still hate the Wizard of Oz though, traumatic experiences and nightmares about flying monkeys which have haunted me into adulthood =)

    Have you ever seen the play "Moonlight and Magnolias"? It's about the writing of the script for the movie, and it's AMAZING.

  3. Gone With the Wind was the first old fashioned movie I'd ever seen and to this day I can't stand Scarlett. It's like she possesses every terrible personality trait a woman could have. I had heard so much about how she's difficult in the beginning but then grows as a person throughout the movie. I didn't see that at all. She was just as nasty at the end as she was in the beginning and I was thrilled the movie was finally over.

    As for the movie itself, I honestly don't remember much of it. I think my strong dislike of the Scarlett character kept me from enjoying the plot, which is a real shame considering so many people consider it to be one of the best movies ever made.

    Interesting how we can share such different opinions of this character!