Frankly, my dear: the terrible history lesson of “Gone With The Wind.”

gone with the wind

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.

The poster image of Gone With The Wind is owned by MGM/Loew’s, Inc. (I think). I believe my use of it here constitutes fair use under applicable copyright law.
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11 Comments

  1. You are generally correct, but I have noticed something occasionally when rewatching GWTW. Butterfly McQueen does something in her scenes that suggests there is more to her interpretation of “Prissy” than that of the silly, foolish slave she is considered by the white characters (and I daresay most film watchers) to be. Look at her when she has that famous moment of admitting she lied about knowing how to take care of childbirth problems. She is in tears, and an angry Scarlett slaps her and Prissy starts screaming in fear. But due to the dire situation with Melanie, Scarlett (as Vivian Leigh portrays her) realizes that she can’t simply just punish this slave for lying. She tells Prissy to get bandages by tearing sheets, and to start boiling water, and then she goes out of the room and goes back to check up on Melanie. Butterfly McQueen is all alone at this time – and immediately calms down and starts humming and singing to herself. She’s forced the white woman to do what was expected she’d do. Calmly she saunters out to presumably rip up the sheets.

    It’s a small action, but it is telling. Prissy told the lie initially because she was about to be sent back to Tara (or to be accompanying Aunt Pittipat) had she been unable to stay in Atlanta. The audience realizes Atlanta is hardly safe, but it is not Tara – at Tara Prissy would be working a hard days work, not only under the eyes of overseers, and Mr. and Mrs. O’Hara, but under the watchful gaze of Mammy. There would be no escape from really hard work at the plantation for Prissy. This does not mean that she’d escape hard work with Scarlet and Melanie, but Scarlet will be more concerned about Melanie’s condition, and Melanie would be mostly bed-bound. Prissy would (comparatively speaking) have it fairly easier in Atlanta than at Tara. If she went to Savannah with Pittipat, well Savannah is not in immediate danger from Sherman’s army, and for all of Aunt Pittipat’s high-strung nerves, I suspect she probably would not put up with any nonsense from a slave in her possession.

    Prissy, by lying about “birthing babies” is not being silly or a stupid liar. She’s managing to make her hard life a bit easier for a few months. Actually, when we see her humming and sauntering away we are glimpsing at something that frequently occurred in quiet manners on plantations and town mansions throughout the south – a silent form of work slowdown and protest to stick it to the “master class”.

    About three years before GWTW was produced, another Hollywood film about the effects of the Civil War was produced and got some acclaim at the time – but in the wake of GWTW it’s been forgotten. This was the 1936 film, “So Red The Rose”. Also based on a popular novel of the day, it is set in Tennessee during the war. Walter Connolly is the father of a plantation owning family that will support the Confederacy. His daughter is Margaret Sullivan. She is romanced in the movie by Randolph Scott. There is also a wife and son in this white family, and we watch as the war destroys the family, the wife dying, the son dying, and the elderly and out-of-shape Connolly joining the war effort (Scott has also joined the war effort). It is all for nothing. Connolly dies shortly after returning from the war, from battlefield wounds and exhaustion. Sullivan has been the real backbone running the plantation, and hoping her father’s return would assist – but of course it does not. She still hopes Scott shows up. Suddenly, all alone, she finds the slaves gathered together in front of the house, considering what is going on. They are slightly reproached by Sullivan for not doing their chores, when one of them (a young female slave) says, why should they when in a day or so the Yankees will free them. Sullivan (rarely do you see Margaret Sullivan burst out in anger in any film) firmly slaps the female slave in the face, shouting “Why you ungrateful….!!” The slave sobs and the others look uncomfortable. Sullivan starts stating that the Yankees are not coming but that Scott will be there shortly to show them some needed discipline. But just then she is given a message – and in reading it is informed that Scott has been killed. Sullivan faints after reading this. The slaves look at her, then look at each other, and then they all walk away – and don’t return anymore. The message happens to be incorrect (Scott does come back) but the effect is remarkable because it was rarely shown in movies at the time: that once the physical threat of punishment was dead, so was slavery. No happy slaves here in “So Red the Rose”.

    1. This is really interesting, and a great interpretation of that moment in GWTW, which I had noticed but never really thought that much about. Some great insight here. I’d heard of “So Red The Rose” but have never seen it. I do know that its box office failure was one of the reasons that gave some producers pause, initially, about making “Gone With The Wind,” as the conventional wisdom from the 1936 Rose fiasco was supposedly that Civil War pictures were automatically box office poison.

      You have so many interesting and very detailed comments. Do you have a history blog of your own? If not, you should!

  2. Haven’t seen the movie myself in a long time, so I can offer no well-thought out comment. But I do agree that works of art like this are a product of their time. They deserve to be criticized as all others do, but it’s also important to remember the perception in which people were thinking back then.

    Great post, Sean.

  3. I too notice subtle bits in the movie every time I watch it. I would add the scene where “Big Sam” is reassuring Scarlett that they are digging holes “for the white soldiers to hide in”. He is also clearly a hero for Scarlett then and of course later on when he saves her from, not another black man, but a poor white cracker who is after Scarlett. “Big Sam” in the movie is a HERO and caretaker of the main character, a white woman.

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