gable and leigh gone with the windThough it’s considered one of the great love stories of all time, I’ve always been more amazed at how much of an antiwar film Gone with the Wind really is. When one realizes that the movie, which marks its diamond anniversary this year, was released prior to the most crushing conflict in world history, the perception is even more remarkable.

Amidst the spectacle, the emotions, the sheer volume of it all, the underlying “war is hell” theme can be easily overlooked; at best it usually doesn’t leave an overriding impression. In hindsight, however, Gone with the Wind can be incorporated as part of an important group of socially significant films which flourished during the late ‘30s and ‘40s — particularly those of Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) — that have yet to be equaled in their capturing of folk America with a populist comment.

I think of one scene that is forever etched as far as its depiction of the brutality of war. Shot in silhouette (a technique used often and effectively in the film), a man loses a leg by amputation without the benefit of chloroform, as a horrified Scarlett O’Hara, played by Vivien Leigh, looks on. Though more remembered is the famous panoramic shot of Scarlett as she makes her way through a vast landscape of dead and dying soldiers, the aforementioned scene is infinitely more frightening in its simplicity.  A less sensitive director may easily have deleted it; instead we are left with a moment that is timeless in its depiction of suffering. The depth of the emotional effect is shattering. Its crudity makes it hard to swallow, even in these days when one is inured to superfluous violence — and it’s done without the use of any graphic elements whatsoever.

Though many films since have played up the absurdist aspects of war (Dr. Strangelove  and Apocalypse Now come to mind), Gone with the Wind took a more basic, unadorned approach. There are no scenes of outright fighting or battles — only aftermaths, humbling in what’s left. War’s results are the only thing that matter, it seems to imply; who cares what it’s all about, or explanations. See this … and weep.

Obviously, the movie took Dixie’s side in the Civil War. The Northerners are portrayed as uncouth outsiders, an alien race incapable of beauty or tenderness; the Southern gentry are dreamers of grace and gentility. It’s a curious dichotomy, as their lifestyle, ostensibly, reflected the worst aspects of humanity: namely, greed, subjugation, and the perpetration of the worst crime of all — carelessness. Those Northerners were in the end the liberators, something never acknowledged in the film, and therein lay the South’s delusion, and its ultimate tragedy.

Gone with the Wind took on the “big” themes — war, race relations, and in its own way, feminism.

Gone with the Wind, inadvertently perhaps, took on the “big” themes — war, race relations, and in its own way, feminism. Scarlett O’Hara ranks as one of the magnificent characters in the realms of fiction and filmmaking. It’s a character of such strength that it’s sometimes hard to assimilate all her qualities in one sitting.

In the beginning, she’s all fluff — no concerns beyond the next big party, and making sure every man she lays eyes on is eternally smitten. In these early stages, Scarlett is irritating enough to be hung, but that’s the point. Her transformation would be meaningless if she had had any initial depth whatever. A feminist’s nightmare, the early Scarlett is every cliché version of the Southern belle.

Her latching-on to Ashley Wilkes is at first nothing more than the desire, common to femme fatales, for someone she cannot possess. Later on, Ashley becomes symbolic of the lost dreams of the Old South and Scarlett’s refusing to let go of her childhood.

Scarlett’s vacuousness is first startled by the responsibility of caring for Ashley’s wife Melanie, as per his request on departing for the war. Melanie’s saintliness provides moments of exasperation, being, of course, a trait she (Scarlett) has no interest in emulating. But it’s through Melanie’s selfless inclinations that Scarlett gets her first taste of the inhumanities of real life — by helping out at the local hospital where wounded soldiers lie in helpless dignity. And what a shock it is: it’s an exposure to a reality she has never known; one that never lets her return to the sanctum of a life of fantasy.

This is the watershed when Scarlett becomes fascinating. Several episodes later, she’s desperately on her own, sorting out the ruins of several lives (including her father’s) and the sorry remnants of the glory that was their home, Tara. Rather than crumbling under the weight of such disillusion, she takes charge — and it’s here we begin to see the solidity indiscernible in her days of magnolia and dogwood.

It’s really her rock-hard courage which forms the raison d’être for the others to keep going. The war sapped all the livelihood out of the misbegotten, hapless victims left in its wake; in Scarlett, it aroused a resolute determination to make things work. She pulls out all the stops in her unflagging will to survive, and prosper.

Scarlett O’Hara was quite a novelty for a female character in a story set in the mid-19th Century South.

It is, in fact, her savvy and keen business sense which puts her back on the road to recovery. By marrying a simplistic, unambitious Southern gentleman, she plants the seeds of a lumber mill which makes her financially solvent. Here’s Scarlett, ever-avaricious, merciless in monetary dealings, shocking the sedate townspeople with her drive and direction. Quite a novelty for a female character in a story set in the mid-19th Century South, where women traditionally served as no more than diversionary backdrops.

Unfortunately — but predictably — Scarlett’s marriage to Rhett Butler is conceived in a more conventional mode. “Give up the mill … we don’t need it,” Rhett intones, and the only reason Scarlett refuses is because it’s a link to Ashley — whom she set up in the business. Also to be expected, the old idea of sex as weapon is employed quite liberally here, and serves as a window into Scarlett’s uglier side.

But there’s an important statement being made. As manipulativeness continues to be regarded as one of the more tasteless traits of the “feminine” personality, you get the definite impression from the shades of this character that it’s an asset as well. Males, when using the same devices, are perceived as aggressive (admirable) and not looked down upon if the means achieve the end. Scarlett’s means achieve her end, and frankly, make her considerably more attractive by the end of the film.

The film’s conclusion probably left audiences a bit puzzled seventy and more years ago, and it’s quite a bit of a breakthrough.

It’s a tribute to producer David O. Selznick and company that they opted for something beyond the staid happy (or unhappy) ending for the movie, and focused instead on a concept apart from a love relationship. Facile, compromising — maybe; but it did convey that a woman’s heart can encompass matters beyond romance for finding a reason to continue. It’s a conclusion that probably left audiences a bit puzzled seventy and more years ago, and it was quite a bit of a breakthrough.

For most of us, Gone with the Wind remains an icon of Hollywood in its heyday, uncomplicated by “vision,” concerned, rather, with telling a highly romanticized story in the most lavish way possible. Those involved in its creation probably had no concern for its social ramifications, apart from making it the biggest blockbuster ever. It’s interesting to note that Star Wars, which eventually bumped GWTW off its position as the most lucrative film in history at the time, had little to do with human beings and emotion, and a lot to do with robots.

The timeless movies, like Gone with the Wind, do more than achieve sterile technical heights — they throw in a little food for thought as well.