The Greatest films of all time: 31. Gone with the wind (1939)(USA)


Since “The Birth of a Nation” by D.W. Griffith that still considered by some including the film critics and historians, as a shame and guilt for the depiction of US inception as a nation, no film had touched the subject until a quarter of century later by Gone with the wind”. The film while basically is about the American civil war and uniting a separated nation by force and ruling by North, and blowing the old south like gone with the wind, it is a story of love, suffering, struggle, and survival, so like the life itself. Adapted from the book of the same name by Margaret Mitchell, it is beyond a documentary novel, and with its special visuals and great acting for the first time on the silver screen, makes it one of the greatest American films of all time. The title originally from the book, was chosen by Mitchell from a poem by Ernest Dowson, meaning a “lost love”, that was reiterated in the film by Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) when her home in Tara plantation “gone with the wind which swept through Georgia”. The film directed by Victor Fleming who left “The Wizard of Oz” and handed it to King Vidor, to direct this film.


“Gone with the wind” stands out in the history of cinema for once again depiction of the American Civil war, but this time from a southern perspective that was gone with the wind, due to an imposed war of unification. But the film while it is the portray of a struggle for identification and survival of the south and her way of life, it is a struggle for love, regaining of a lost love, then replacement of the love and lastly when all were gone, the struggle for survival and staying alive. Therefore the film is historical, political, melodrama and a monumental epic. It is a bit of short lasting joy and glamour of aristocratic white life in the old south, living like in an empire of her own, then her fall in a home-made war with ultimate casualties and finally her total destruction and submission to the North, abolition of the slavery and reconstruction of the south to take on the way of North to industrialize and expand.

An American Epic:

The most successful film in the box office history after adjustment for the inflation, 13 nominations at the Academy awards, winning 10, a record not broken for decades, has been widely acclaimed as one of the greatest films of all time, on the top 10 of American Film Institute, and its preservation by the United States Library of Congress and National Film Registry, are all partial tributes to this American Film Epic. At the film’s premiere in Atlanta, 300,000 people came out on December 15, 1939 to watch the film and the stars and the governor of Georgia, declared December 15 a state holiday. President Jimmy Carter would later recall it as “the biggest event to happen in the South in my lifetime.” Premieres in New York and Los Angeles followed, the latter attended by some of the actresses that had been considered for the part of Scarlett, among them Paulette Goddard, Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford. From December 1939 to July 1940, the film played only by advance-ticket road show engagements at a limited number of theaters at prices upwards of $1—more than double the price of a regular first-run feature.


“Gone with the wind” is a great example of commercial and popular films with a major hit at the box office, and at the same time being a great artistic and cinematic achievement. The film was hugely received by the audience everywhere, such as in New York alone, it was averaging eleven thousand admissions per day in late December of 1939, and within four years of its release had sold an estimated sixty million tickets across the United States, sales equivalent to just under half of the population at the time. The films was also a huge success in Europe, and became a sensational hit in London while the city was being bombarded by Germans at the dawn of the second world war. The film was re-opened after the war in April 1940 in London and was shown for four years incessantly. By the time MGM withdrew it from circulation at the end of 1943 its worldwide distribution had returned a gross total of $32 million, only the studio’s share, making it the most profitable film ever made to that point.


Surprisingly the previous popular record-holder, “The Birth of a Nation” (being seen by fifty million people by 1930) was also about the American civil war, and both film were negatively criticized and not recognized by the critics of the time. The critics of such popular publications such as “The New York Times”, “The Nation”, “Variety”, and “Guardian” could only find ridiculous flaws in the film such as “being too long”, “dramatically unconvincing”, “while it was the most ambitious film production made up to that point, it probably was not the greatest film ever made”, “a film which is a major event in the history of the industry but only a minor achievement in motion-picture art”, “the film would have benefited if repetitious scenes and dialog from the latter part of the story had been trimmed”, “the film’s one serious drawback was that the story lacked the epic quality”, “Scarlett’s irrelevant marriages and domestic squabbles, mostly superfluous”, “drama to be unconvincing and that the psychological development had been neglected.”, “unforgettable imagery and dialogue are simply not present”, “the film to be a largely forgettable experience” etc.


Despite all their critics, perhaps while enjoying the film personally, most of these hypocritical critics called the film “interesting story beautifully told”, “a major event in the history of the industry”, “the single most beloved entertainment ever produced”, “undoubtedly still the best and most durable piece of popular entertainment to have come off the Hollywood assembly lines”, etc. While these critics were critical of the film, mostly for being lengthy (not used to such long films at the time), and irrelevant second part of personal lives of characters after the war, they all could not resist praising the unforgettable and not seen to that point, the great acting of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett and accolade it as “so perfectly designed for the part by art and nature that any other actress in the role would be inconceivable”, “perfect in appearance and movements”, “her acting best when she was allowed to accentuate the split personality, she portrays and she was particularly effective in such moments of characterization like the morning after the marital rape scene.”, “she was best in the scenes where she displays courage and determination”, etc.

As a matter of fact and psychologically, underlying any criticism is a personal core assumption and belief that the critic on that base likes or dislikes and try to justify his or her own interpretation of the subject of critic, film or else. As it happened in the case of “The Birth of a Nation” that first was liked by the critics of the time, but later on degraded due to the racism and segregation, “Gone with the wind” became the same target due to the same story content of the American civil war and the subject of slavery. But both films retell the true story of Americans’ forced union by the North imposed on the South through their bloodiest domestic war. Opposite to this reason that American critics did not want to see and face the truth of their history, the American people, the subjects of the history and both films, liked them both and felt them to their core.


But the story of “Gone with the wind” as a modern version of “The Birth of a Nation” and more melodramatic, pivots on the central lives of the characters or real people, such as Scarlett and how their lives were destroyed and gone with the wind by a central greed. Despite of the misunderstanding and dislike of the critics at the time and later on, that criticized the second half of the film for focusing on the personal life of Scarlett and others, the film was about the personal lives of real people such as her from the start to the end. The film is about how the war not only kills the physical bodies, the fathers, sons and husbands, it ruins the lives and the dreams of the mothers, daughters, wives and the young girls whose loves are gone with the wind of war.


Perhaps no films later on in the history of American cinema, touched like this on their civil war and its casualties, the death rows on the battle field, the burning of villages, towns and cities of the South such as Atlanta in fire and explosions,… As it depicts and declares in title cards such as in “The Birth of a Nation”, worse than the defeat and destruction of the South, came the Carpetbaggers, who brought more than misery to the people of the south, taking away their right of voting, imposed high land taxes and took away their homes and lands. That is why at the end of three struggling and failed marriages and never reaching her dream love, what matters the most to Scarlett is “Tara”, her land and her home!


In this political, national, historical and melodramatic American epic film, other than unseen before great Technicolor cinematography, comes to the silver screen, the great acting of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara. This great actress chosen by chance among over 1,400 auditions, opened a new style of acting not only for actresses but for actors, lasting for decades and still ongoing. She continues this great emotional dramatic acting role in some of her future films such as “A streetcar named Desire” that earned her academy award again as it did in “Gone with the wind”. She has been cheered even by the critics who were critical of the film as a whole and she was hailed as “pivot of the picture” and believed her to be “so perfect in appearance and movements”, “the best to accentuate the split personality”, “effective in moments of characterization”, “suited to the role physically and the best in displaying courage and determination.”


Other than Vivien Leigh, there were other great actresses in the film such as the black Hattie McDaniel as “Mammy”, the first African American to win Oscar for supporting actress, and Butterfly McQueen as “Prissy” who did not win any Oscar, and Olivia de Havilland as “Melanie Hamilton” who won the academy ward for the supporting actress. Therefore the film stands out in the history of cinema for great performances by quite a few actresses that is rare, opposed to the male roles such as Clark Gable who were just ordinary acts. Finally the film released at the verge of the second world war, as a reminder of the casualties and futility of the wars, was not sufficient yet to stop the greed to start the fire of war and destruction. The film has so many unforgettable picturesque scenes and words that joins the life and history with the art of filmmaking. “God my witness, I will never live to be hungry again.” Scarlett O’Hara.


In closing remarks “Gone with the wind” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality: ““Gone with the wind” was original, innovative and heroic in, once again portraying the misery of the American civil war on the silver screen as a bitter reminder of the casualties of war beyond the physical death on the verge of the second world war. The film was original in many filmmaking aspects, particularly cinematography and more so in acting, specially of the female roles, unseen before and opening a class of theatrical dramatic role acting for actresses and even actors for decades to come.
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “Gone with the wind” is in its cinematography, Technicolor and its great acting, not produced by a director alone, but by many cast and crews.
  3. Impact Factor:Gone with the wind” impact has been not only on the other films and filmmakers, but on the art of acting, actors and actresses on the silver screen. Many future films such as “Tess” of Roman Polanski, “The House of Mirth”, “Out of Africa” of Sydney Pollack, “Doctor Zhivago” of David Lean, and “Sophie’s Choice” of Alan J. Pakula are a few great examples of the impact of Vivien Leigh on the future great actresses such as Nastassja Kinski, Gillian Anderson, Meryl Streep, Julie Christie and Geraldine Chaplin.
  1. Survival:Gone with the wind” is still fresh to view and enjoy today, lest its many re-releases, but more so in its uniqueness not to please any sequel despite a few attempts and spending TV miniseries of Scarlett. So “Gone with the wind” is still one and will remain one as “The Wizard of Oz” and ““The Birth of a Nation” are.


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