Recently I watched the classic 1939 film Gone With The Wind, which I first saw nearly 30 years ago as a young teenager. Given my love for schmaltzy cinema, which has persisted into my adult life, it was a pretty important picture for me. I also read the novel on which it was based and re-read it again every few years. I guess I always treated Gone With The Wind as fantasy rather than history, but upon this recent re-watching of the movie it occurred to me that, as entertaining a movie as it was in 1939 and still is today, its portrayal of history is…frankly, my dear, pretty appalling.
Gone With The Wind takes place in Georgia during the Civil War and Reconstruction. The main narrative arc of the film concerns southern belle Scarlett O’Hara and two relationships in her life: one with the plantation she lives on, Tara, and the other with charming rogue Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), which itself is complicated by Scarlett’s persistent unrequited love for Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). Amidst all the romance and relationships, the film mentions a few specific historical events–Fort Sumter, the Battles of Fredericksburg (December 1862) and Gettysburg (July 1863), Sherman’s March to the Sea (fall 1864), and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House (April 1865). It’s interesting to note that these events are all mentioned but not shown. What we actually see is the frenzied Confederate retreat from Atlanta in September 1864, and then more diffused depictions of aristocratic life in the South both before and after the war.
Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) prepares to flee from the approaching Union Army with Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and Melanie (Olivia DeHavilland) in tow.
It’s these depictions where Gone With The Wind does its greatest violence to history. The issue of slavery is dealt with in a pretty offensive manner. The slaves observed at Tara and Twelve Oaks early in the picture are quiescent, jolly and simple-minded. A lot has been said about the portrayal of Mammy by actress Hattie McDaniel (who for this role won the first Academy Award ever given to an African-American) or Prissy by Butterfly McQueen, but the subtler depictions are worse. I was struck by the image of a young black girl fanning the rich white girls as they nap at Twelve Oaks during the barbecue or the field hands shown at Tara, calmly bringing in their cotton bags as their foreman cheerfully shouts, “Quittin’ time!” (Slaves generally didn’t have quittin’ time, for the record). Slaves in Gone With The Wind are generally used largely as set decoration or comic relief.
Actually I think the depiction of slavery in the film gets worse in its second half, during Reconstruction after slavery is abolished. The movie, which lavishes 45 minutes on the hardships of white Southerners after the Confederate surrender–before they conveniently become rich again–never mentions abolition even once. If you didn’t already know that slaves were freed initially by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and permanently by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, you could watch Gone With The Wind and conclude that slavery continued right on through into Reconstruction. Mammy is still around, still working as Miss Scarlett’s maid; Pork, the “house worker” from Tara (that’s how he describes himself–in the novel the term is “house n*gger”), also persists, evidently as Rhett Butler’s manservant. There’s only one subtle hint in the whole movie that slavery is abolished: when, during the “hell and famine of defeat” sequence, Scarlett and her sisters are depicted picking cotton themselves.
Scenes like this are typical of the racial sensibilities in “Gone With The Wind.”
This treatment posits the paradoxical suggestion that, while slaves and African-Americans were ubiquitous in the Old South whose passing the movie wants us to mourn, slavery wasn’t that big a deal in it. This is completely wrong, of course, but surprisingly this nonsensical view still has a lot of believers today–some people today, in the 2010s, claim wrongly that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War. Sorry, folks, it was. Slavery and its evils were by no means solely the creation of white Southerners, as it’s obviously true that Northerners participated in and benefited from the slave economy before the war. But to minimize or even glorify slavery in a movie about Civil War is simply bad history.
Of course, Gone With The Wind was never intended to show literal history, just as Braveheart isn’t supposed to be real medieval history. In fact when Margaret Mitchell began writing the novel in 1926 she deliberately exaggerated the romantic “Lost Cause” tropes of the old South to tug at the heartstrings of readers, who she seems to have expected mostly to be Southerners, particularly southern women. From reading the book it’s clear that her depiction of 1860s white elite Georgia society was intended to be surreal and glossed-over, kind of like the literary equivalent of romanticist paintings of the classical world. The producers of the movie seem to be either unaware of this deliberate surrealism, or assume the audience already knows it.
When she won Best Supporting Actress in 1940 for “Gone With The Wind,” Hattie McDaniel wasn’t even allowed to write her own speech. Here’s what they told her to say.
It’s also true that Gone With The Wind speaks more accurately about the time it was made than the time it’s about. In the 1930s Jim Crow laws were still in effect all over the South (and parts of the North too). Hattie McDaniel and the other African-American actors in the movie couldn’t even attend the December 1939 premiere of the film in Atlanta because local segregation laws wouldn’t allow them to sit in the same theater with white people. McDaniel’s Oscar acceptance speech was written by her (white) agent so as to avoid saying anything racially incendiary to white-dominated Hollywood. You can make an argument that the 20th century machinery of racism and segregation was far more sophisticated and fine-tuned than the rather blunt, brutal and literal racial hierarchy that existed in the South during and after the Civil War. Thus, Gone With The Wind is a product of its time.
Still, although it’s terrible history, Gone With The Wind is a well-made and entertaining movie. Its contempt for and/or indifference to African-Americans, and to a lesser extent women, are marked, but no more so than any other product of popular culture in the pre-Civil Rights era dealing with racial or women’s issues. That doesn’t excuse it, but it does place it into proper context. Gone With The Wind made in 1939 was a commercial triumph and a cultural sensation. The same movie made in 1969 would have been scandalous and irresponsible; in 1999 it would have been virtually a hate crime. This is how history evolves.