Gone with the Wind – cinema, culture and context

I was surprised and highly gratified to see that HBO had (temporarily) pulled Gone With The Wind (the extravagant 1939 film directed by Victor Fleming) but not necessarily for the same reasons as those who are cheering the removal of a film that has such egregious depictions of slavery. I do think the film has egregious depictions of slavery, which is why the film is important. I welcome HBO’s move to remove the film so they can re-present it in its context.

What excites me is that this is the first time ever that Hollywood or the film industry in general has acknowledged that historical films actually do matter in the presentation of history to the wider public.

Many studies have shown that most people get their historical knowledge and information from films and television once they have finished compulsory schooling. That means that the majority of people don’t pick up a history book and certainly don’t pick up a historical monograph (produced by professors for professors), to find out about World War 2 or the Tudors. They are much more likely to watch Saving Private Ryan (or, even better, Days Of Glory by Rachid Bouchareb), Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII in The Tudors – or Charles Laughton in the same role, take your pick.

Fact is, many if not most historians and history graduates actually love historical films, even if we squirm and love to rant about the inaccuracies. We do understand that any form of dramatisation is going to need narrative structure and it’s going to need to fit into a specific viewing time frame. What we don’t like, of course, is deliberate inaccuracy that is meant to impose an ideological framework on the viewer.[1] Or films that are just silly in their inaccuracy[2]. But as I have been researching historical films, and teaching on an online history course, I’ve learned that much of the broader viewing public also prefers their historical dramas to at least make a decent effort to be accurate, even while understanding that total accuracy is not possible in a drama.

Historical films like Gone With The Wind made in 1939 are of course problematic and this is precisely why they are so interesting. Any created text like a book or a painting or a film is as much a product of the times in which it’s made as it is a product of the psychological condition of the author. What I mean by that is, it doesn’t really matter what the author’s intention is – that only goes so far – the lived experience of the author and the dominant mental framework of the society also play a role in creating the work. This is equally true for the audience: the film is an issue precisely now because many of us have decided to examine our cultural artefacts and re-evaluate them in the wake of racial awareness. This is why art works are so interesting, because we can always read them on multiple levels. Any artwork that can’t be read on multiple levels is probably not worth experiencing.

But historical films are so much more immediate than even historical novels. They play upon our emotions, constantly shifting us between an apprehensible, recognisable realism  (I can really imagine being on Omaha beach in Saving Private Ryan) and a terrifying sublime (every time I watch that sequence and the shots ring out, I’m ducking my head even though I’m sitting in the comfort of my living room). Because they feel so real, we are often inclined to embed the information we gather from them, even if we intellectually understand that ‘it’s just a movie’.

So, I am curious, will HBO call attention to the historical context under which Gone with the Wind may have been made? Could this also include calling attention to when a film may have important inaccuracies? As somebody who writes about and thoroughly enjoys historical films, I think it’s an incredible opportunity to invite historians and researchers to engage much more deeply with popular films than we are normally given the opportunity to do. It could be a simple as appending interesting trailers to the HBO, Netflix, Amazon etc screeners – these could also be shown in the cinema – and available online. BBC did something similar in the first two seasons of Versailles doing the Inside Versailles, series where historians Kate Williams and Greg Jenner  explained the history that was presented in each episode.*

Given the money spent on making lavish period dramas,  hiring historians to create the equivalent of DVD extras for a short 5 to 15-minute trailer to accompany the film should just be part of the overall film budget. Many historical films employ historians as consultants anyway.

So, what to say about Gone With The Wind? I think that the film is interesting for how it uses visuals to say things that are not in the text and definitely not in Margaret Mitchell’s original novel.

Gone With the Wind, 1939

Dir. Victor Fleming, DP Ernest Haller, production designer William Cameron Menzies

In this scene, the dead and wounded Confederate soldiers lie in the hot sun in an Atlanta square as the heroine Scarlett O’Hara searches in despair. But in this shot Scarlett is not important; Fleming wants us to feel the real horror of the war. It’s not just about one woman; we are all here, scanning this deadly ground. A tattered blood-red flag flutters over the muddy grey-brown ground. It’s not a noble sight. The colour symbolism of the blood-red and the earth brown act upon the view emotionally: the sight is grim, gruesome and overwhelming. Fleming’s dramatic crane shot makes no bones about what is responsible for the carnage: the Confederacy, symbolized by its flag.

Although the film is usually billed as a romance, it’s not really very romantic; the relationship between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara is constantly problematic and she is largely presented as a deluded and utterly selfish individual. The marketing of the film is very much about the romance but actually there’s a lot more to the film than that. It’s not actually a great love story at all. Most of it is quite dark, detailing obsession rather than love.[3]

At one point Scarlett is admonished by her father for her treatment of the slaves; he seems to exude a kind of paternalistic attitude (which is of course total ********) but he cautions her against her selfish and cruel behaviour. This is not really what we expect from a romantic heroine and indeed she isn’t. We see her come to depend on the people she is previously despised. Yet we see no resolution in the relationship between masters and slaves, because there was no resolution: after the civil war Black people were not ‘empowered’ or rescued from oppression. The film is honest about that, without actually overtly addressing the problem. Of course, for some people today the fact that the film does not address the issue of slavery and in fact treads on it very softly is a reason to avoid it, which is a fair choice. For example, I refuse to watch Birth of a Nation even though it’s sold in older film history books as a great innovator of film language (see Spike Lee on this). But I just cannot watch it, still less teach it. There are other innovators who are less toxic.

I’m less opposed to GWtW partly because there isn’t any evidence that David Selznick or Victor Fleming were active enthusiasts for Confederate nostalgia and the Klan, unlike DW Griffith. They were adapting a bestselling novel set in the antebellum South and needed to stick to the book as much as possible, not interrogate it in a postmodern way. Also, the shot of the field of the dead I described above seems to me to indicate that Fleming at least was critical toward the Confederacy for its wastage of lives. Active critique of slavery they left to a later generation of filmmakers.

Producer Selznick wanted to be historically accurate, but he did tone down the depictions of racism from the book and did not try to reproduce the racist climate of the real antebellum South. Of course the result was to soften the whole thing. In addition, the pretty dresses and (painted) landscape made the antebellum world look appealing. But I think that is important: why DO people romanticise the era? Is it because of films like this one, creating a dream world of the past? Or are the films made in response to a kind of wilfully-blind nostalgia?

As for Scarlett as heroine, as viewers of Joker and other recent antihero films know, we do tend to temporarily identify with the protagonist of any film no matter how reprehensible.  At certain points we do feel sorry for Scarlett, because she is clearly unprepared to cope with the world she finds herself in; she was raised for a world of privilege and plenty but this is denied to her, partly due to her own mistakes and also because that world which is always presented as a kind of fantasy anyway, in the beginning of the film – disappears.

Is the film racist? Well, yes. It gives a falsely mild depiction of slavery, for one thing. But it does show pretty comprehensivly how deluded most of the Confederacy was. And America – and Hollywood – in 1939 was still a racist society. Although the Academy was prepared to give Hattie McDaniel an Oscar, it wasn’t prepared for her to attend and take her place on stage at the ceremony; this is something that HBO must present when it restores the film to its screening schedule.

But we ought not presume that Selznick, Victor Fleming or any of the other cast and crew necessarily romanticized and valorized the antebellum South, or shared the views of race that the film itself depicts. They were the men of 1939, not 1861 and had the biases of 1930s Americans. Apparently in his early career as a cinematographer Fleming had worked with DW Griffith, but I am not sure  in what capacity or on which films. I will not argue against the racial and gender depictions in the film. But the flag scene makes it very clear what Fleming, and presumably the cinematographers and production designers who all got together to create this scene, thought. They didn’t need to include this shot of the Confederate flag flying over the field of its own dead. By doing so they were commenting quite directly upon history.

* For reasons not entirely clear the BBC cut Inside Versailles after series 2, which was a pity because the political history in series three really needed commentary. It was such a great initiative and I’d really like to see the BBC and other broadcasters bring it back. 


[1] Examples include the vile and unwatchable Birth of a Nation which used to be taught in film schools (not mine) as an example of great cinematography and innovative directing; or, less damagingly, the 1980’s biopic Lady Jane which presents Lady Jane Grey as an example of anti-establishment youth culture thrusting against oppressive parents, quite the manual of anti-thatcher rebellion.

[2] Silly: The Devil’s Whore, where the fictional heroine gets married to a sexy version of Colonel Rainsborough. The real Thomas Rainsborough, a Colonel in the New Model Army during the English Civil War, was a political radical, a Leveller (an early form of Communist) and the film does not really address that in any appreciable way, which is utterly ridiculous. I have no idea if the real man was as sexy as Michael Fassbender: history is silent on that subject. http://bcw-project.org/biography/thomas-rainsborough

[3] For example the film includes (veiled) sexual abuse and rape, among other things. It’s really not a love story.

See my book Art History for Filmmakers for more on this. I am currently preparing a new book on historical flims and visual storytelling