By Bea Harper
Frankly my dear, I DO give a damn!
Love it or hate it, “Meh” or “Eh”, ‘Gone With The Wind’ is and always will be a cinematic and literary phenomenon. Even in the 21st century, re-releases of both the film and the novel are constantly being churned out and people continue to lap it up despite all of its now taboo matters- slavery and it’s romanticisation in the South pre-Civil War. It is overrated, overpraised, and inflated, but above all, it is one of the most ambitious projects ever known to humanity for almost a century and will stay that way for perhaps another hundred years more. When you compare this against ‘Twilight’ and ‘Harry Potter’ I will bet dollars to doughnuts that GWTW will remain standing. But I suppose time will tell.
GWTW well and truly set the benchmark for the term ‘epic’- sweeping story, rounded (though not always endearing) characters, trials, tribulations, love, both idealised and unrequited, complete with an almost mythical sense of romanticism and melodrama. But perhaps the key aspect of the film that people look over when admiring its passion is that at its core, it’s about the most primal of human needs- to survive. Honestly, I could go on and on about the sumptuous production values, costumes, score and everything that helps make David O. Selznik’s passion project sing, but let me focus on the characters, the ones who are in the thick of it all. All of these characters are polarized to the extent of almost fancy, and yet, you can admire all of them.
Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara is not a nice person. When we first meet her, she is self-centered, spoilt, vain and proud. She wants every man chasing after her, but the only man she wants (or, THINKS she wants) is Ashley Wilkes, or rather, the version that she sees, not the man himself. When the gracious Melanie (Olivia deHavilland) remains her friend for thick and thin, all Scarlett can do is curse her good name behind her back. Despite these flaws of character and good conscience, she is also incredibly tough. She is able to let loose a few buckets of tears before she picks herself up and continues, stronger than before. While her more shallow traits are off-putting, it is Leigh’s determined nature that makes Scarlett not just a woman, but also a fierce force of nature that we all wish we could be in times of adversity.
Similarly, the character of Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), is quite the morally questionable rogue who takes a shine to Scarlett. He sees himself in her, and despite the fact deep down he wants to live an honorable life, he knows he is not that sort of man. All the same though, he appreciates genuine compassion when he sees it, although Scarlett isn’t one to give that… well, selflessly. For all intents and purposes, Rhett is indeed a bastard. He’s a loose character who is proud of the indiscretions he has committed and yet, like Scarlett, he has an indomitable character. He is a fearless blockade runner and hellion rogue who uses his wits and charm to get out of sticky situations, and he has a mostly nonchalant attitude when he is cornered. At one point he is playing cards with some Yankee guards in a jail, with the possibility of execution hanging over his head and here he is laughing and being completely chummy with them. He even has the audacity to shut the door to his cell in the face of an officer when Scarlett comes to him.
Scarlett’s opposite, the previously mentioned Melanie could have been boring and nauseously one-note were it not for deHavilland’s performance. When you look at deHavilland, you can’t help but think of her as an Angel of Mercy, ready to bestow forgiveness against all who wrong her. Even when Scarlett was caught kissing her husband, Ashley, Melanie stands by Scarlett, fiercely defending her honor, right to her grave. Yes, Melanie is a total pacifist and disgustingly selfless, but de Havilland captivates you- you may call her a sap, but you really must admire her virtuous nature and her unfaltering loyalty to her family and friends. Rhett Butler especially is grateful for her, and it is she who he chooses to confide in during his moments of doubt and personal pain. In a way, Melanie is the ideal woman. When I say that, I mean the ideal woman of the time of which the novel was written, not as women SHOULD be in the present. You may not agree with Melanie’s strong morals and unconditional love no matter how much it blows in her face, but you can admire her will to love as passionately as she possibly can and still retain her dignity.
The only character that I didn’t really care for was Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). Howard isn’t a bad actor at all, and he injects Ashley with all the nobility and stoicism that the character in the novel possessed, but character wise, he was weak. Scarlett sees him as gallant and strong, but in reality, he, like Melanie is submissive, despite his loyalty. Also, when I look at him, I think “This guy over Rhett Butler? Seriously? Come on!”. Once again, this is absolutely no fault of Howard’s, he is playing the character to a T, but the character himself is almost boring. However, when paired with Melanie, if the term ‘soulmates’ had been coined back when GWTW was made, it no doubt would have applied to the pair of them.
When you look at the contrasting relationships between the two lead couples, you can see a distinct divide between them. Melanie and Ashely’s relationship is based upon trust, dependence and domesticity, it is the idealised version of love that to this day, film continues to perpetuate. Meanwhile, the relationship between Scarlett and Rhett is unpredictable, passionate and wildness. Granted, their relationship goes downhill when they marry, but even so, Rhett is a man who knows what he wants and Scarlett is a woman who knows what she wants. They are, at least theoretically, a perfect match for each other because of their selfishness and desire to live. Although the relationship is quite fantastical and melodramatic, it also stands as a representation of love if it is not realised, something that is sadly quite common these days. Usually it takes a catastrophe to make people wake up to themselves, but in Scarlett and Rhett’s case (in the movie at least), it is far too late for them.
I know how anti-climactic this write-up has been for those of you hoping to get massive insight to the film in general, but I find that already, countless articles of literature have been composed dedicated to every facet of GWTW, and to have an amateur such as myself try to offer anything new might be considered old hat. However, honestly speaking, this is one of my favourite films for all of the reasons why it has been lauded. There is no such thing as an unequivocally perfect film, but if GWTW is as popular now as it was back in 1939, that is saying something. There is a timeless quality about this film that will no doubt continue to bewitch audiences to come.