Turning Points: Gone With The Wind

December 15, 1939, marked a turning in interpretation and image of the American Civil War. Perhaps one could argue that the turning point had started earlier in 1936 when the novel that inspired the movie hit shelves across the nation, beginning a tidal wave that would eventually envelop the globe. That December night in Atlanta, thousands of people lined the streets and hundreds packed into the theater. As the movie’s title – Gone With The Wind – scrolled slowly across the screen against a background of a vivid Technicolor sunset, the moment had come when a story came to life and challenged the historiography of the Civil War.

This is an arguable turning point. It did not occur during the 1860’s. It was not a literal battle. It was not even pretending to be a comprehensive look at the conflict. However, Gone With The Wind influenced the way domestic and international societies view the American 1860’s, staged a battle of ideology and interpretation, and evolved into an education on the war and reconstruction. With epic influence, this movie managed to captivate audiences with its entertainment factors and teach them a one-sided so-called history lesson that continues to haunt many today.

“Gone With The Wind” movie poster (Public Domain)

As entertainment, Gone With The Wind, deserved many of its accolades. It was the Star Wars of its day – if that comparison is permissible – with crowds lining up around the block to get tickets. This movie drew millions to the theaters during the Great Depression era and showed them struggle, grit, and a vow that “tomorrow is another day.” Filmed in Technicolor on lavish sets, the motion picture thrilled the audiences. As Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O’Hara) flirted on the screen, she represented the capstone of a national “search for Scarlet” that had consumed the entertainment world and fan magazines for months prior to filming. Clark Gable (Rhett Butler), Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes), Olivia de Havilland (Melanie Wilkes), and Hattie McDaniels (Mammy) starred impressively in 1930’s filmmaking. Epically, Gone With The Wind grossed millions at the box offices, leaving many people delighted with the adaption of a novel that some had called The American Classic.

At the center of The Wind storm lived the author, the instigator: Margaret Mitchell. She liked to portray herself to the media as an Atlanta housewife who wrote a book in her spare time. However, she took writing more seriously than that, having worked for a local newspaper in Atlanta for several years, gaining popularity as a journalist before troublesome health forced her to live more secluded. Mitchell researched extensively in the Atlanta archives and remembered her youthful conversations with Confederate veterans and former Southern belles; she liked to emphasize that her story was accurate. Parts of it are. Other parts do not match further historical research. Clearly, Mitchell researched and wrote from a strictly Southern perspective, drawing on tradition and heritage for inspiration, too. The book includes painfully racist remarks (which were omitted or toned down for the movie version) and an incredibly sympathetic view of the Confederacy and the Southern situation during the Reconstruction Era, leading modern readers to wonder where the boundary lines lie in historical accuracy in fiction.

Whether the skewed perspective was intentional or not, Mitchell’s book of romance and strictly Southern interpretations became widely popular. Her publisher launched one of the largest national publicity campaigns, and book clubs, reporters, and other market and consumer influencers approved the book, pushing concerned or dissenting voices to the sidelines. When Hollywood entered the scene, director David O. Selznick reimagined the story – reducing the political and ethnic situations in the book – and created a “simpler” romantic story set during the Civil War and Reconstruction Eras.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh as Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With The Wind”

On the surface, it is easy to imagine that Gone With The Wind is just a story set during the 1860’s. However, the passing decades have shown the movie’s reinforcement and creation of myths about the Civil War. The ideas of happy plantations, contented slaves, flirtatious belles, and “cavaliers” play out in the movie, underscored by a large dose of Lost Causism. Ironically, Scarlett herself hates the war and Lost Causism, creating a strange conflict between what the book and movie actually present and what fans take away.

Because of the multiple Academy Awards, staring cast, and a plot that resonated well with people across the world, Gone With The Wind became the unofficial public history education source for many on the topic. As the drama played over and over on television and home entertainment, its grip on the mind strengthened. Clearly, with its one-sided portrayal, this interpretation of the Civil War did not qualify as balanced information, but in many circumstance, the entertainment value routed accuracy. Interestingly, in many foreign countries, Gone With The Wind is seen as American history – something beautiful, romantic, and charming. That veneer masks the other side of the story, the part that for decades was neatly kept hidden away: the horrors of slavery, the abuse of women, the positive efforts during The Reconstruction, just to name a few. The truth – as usual – tends to be found between the two extremes of the story and the dark side of history.

Gone With The Wind built an empire of a story that has wriggled its way into many topics related to the Civil War – battles, clothing, women’s studies, Black history, Southern image, Lost Causism, medical studies, blockade running, Reconstruction, and economics. This presents a double-edged sword for historians and educators and recognizing the threat and opportunity is crucial.

The famous Civil War movie threatens a clear understanding of the war because of its perspective and interpretation. Unfortunately, through the generations, many viewers accepted the film as relatively accurate, propagating many misconceptions about the conflict and mid-19th Century Southern society. Historians must delve into the book and the movie to be able to understand the perspective, be able to explain the ideology behind the plot, and be willing to discuss what other research has revealed, countering the myths.

On the other hand, historians and educators may find it useful to utilize the movie’s influence as a way to engage. Without endorsing the featured Lost Causism and suspect history, it can be used as starting point for a discussion. For example, I have had many foreigners approach during living history events and want to know if I am “a Southern belle like Scarlett” – rather than scolding, it has been useful to realize that their knowledge of Civil War women comes from that movie and then provide accurate (primary source based) information about the experiences of women during the war. I have also found that people don’t always know what blockade runners are, but if I mention Rhett Butler, Paris, and the green bonnet, it gives a little connection and then I can explain the historical details to an interested audience.

Gone With The Wind’s premiere in 1939 represents a turning point in how America and the world envisioned the Civil War. Some of it is accurate, other parts leave much to be desired in historical details. As historians, educators, or history enthusiasts, it is important to recognize the impact this movie has had, acknowledge the historical and ideological problems, and realize that the film’s influence can be used to teach accurate history to an audience who is obsessed with Scarlett’s version of “War, war, war!”

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
This entry was posted in Civil War in Pop Culture, Memory, Ties to the War and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Turning Points: Gone With The Wind

  1. Robert says:

    Well Sarah, your anti-southern attitude came through loud and clear with this article. It appears that the south is still the villain in all things southern in the liberal media. The south still can’t get a break. With the recent frenzy of destroying southern historical statues, monuments and flags, perhaps you can get Hollywood to remake the movie or just air-brush the Confederate flag out of all the scenes. The Southern people had their hero’s, their dreams of nationhood….as guaranteed under the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Many would call them traitors but that term would also apply to our founding fathers, whose government, by the way, no longer exist, being replaced with one they feared. Have a Merry Christmas Sarah.

    • John Foskett says:

      Tell us about how all of the actresses in the movie were invited to attend the premiere. You know – all of them.

  2. Douglas Pauly says:

    Hollywood distorting history has been the norm source Hollywood was created. Their version of a ‘good story’, or a ‘compelling plot’, will always trump historical accuracy and even perspective. There was a great line from a great movie that sums it all up: ”When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”. Facts and truth are quite often subjective, or at least are interpreted as such. Thus Hollywood’s propensity to make movies that have the words :”BASED on a true story”, which gives them all sorts of wiggle room to distort the truth and get AWAY from the real story.

    Here’s a relevant question to ask based on what is presented here: did the release and acceptance of GWTW result in or at least contribute to a surge of monuments and statues being erected? Did it provide fuel and fire to those ‘Lost Causers’ of the 20th Century?

    • Robert says:

      Most of these monuments were in place well before this movie came out

      • Douglas Pauly says:

        hi Robert. Yes, most were. But were ANY inspired by the movie? The implementation of the Confederate flag on some southern states flags and atop government buildings happened in the years after the release of the movie. Any connection? I certainly do not know. Just asking..

  3. Bob Ruth says:

    Sarah:

    Great post.

    I view GWTW more as a comedy than anything else. It includes almost every untruth (and there are multitudes) and cliche used by Lost Causers to defend secession and slavery.

    As I’m sure you know, GWTW wasn’t the first movie epic to distort Civil War history. Birth of a Nation, 20 years earlier, holds that dubious distinction. This silent film about the “heroes” of the KKK was even more racist that GWTW.

    • John Foskett says:

      Bob: I tend to agree. The racist aspects of GWTW were of the condescending variety. Those in BOAN were aggressively violent.

  4. Thomas R Place says:

    I agree with Robert .
    Bob R i see no comedy in the movie at all not only from the Southern side or the Northern one Guess you forgot the scene of the blessed yankee who forced his way in the house and tried to burn it down in your your eyes of course that never would of happened .
    Also secession needs not to be defended if you know your history . Why is the left so intent on accusing us on defending slavery as a good thing . When we only ask for history not to be erased. Because it hurts your feelings .we should destroy all of the UNITED STATES HISTORY .None sense . GENTLEMAN IT WAS A MOVIE FOR ENTERTAINMENT NOT A DOCUMENTARY. DO YOU WISH FOR IT TO BE BANNED NOW ? i BELIEVED THAT HAPPENED ALREADY IN MEMPHIS . Sorry Sarah i usually like your articles but a thumbs down on this one .

  5. Chris Kolakowski says:

    Great post, Sarah. GWTW influenced how the WWII generation and beyond saw the war, and that generation planned and executed the Centennial. For a long time it was *the* iconic Civil War film, arguably until Ken Burns’ documentary. It still has an impact today.

  6. Barry McGhan says:

    This conversation might be helped along by a time out, while fair-minded-but-not-fully-informed folk watch “12 Years A Slave,” “Free State of Jones,” the series “Underground,” and read “American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow,” and “The New Jim Crow.” Then return to an analysis of GWTW.

  7. David Corbett says:

    Lord spare us from the wrath of academics !!!

    • Robert Rainey says:

      Agreed David, now they attempt to insult our perspective on the war for southern independence. Not to lessen the horrors of slavery but the native Americans had it far worse, having been subjected to genocide.

      • Bob Ruth says:

        Robert:

        What’s your point? Because native Americans were abused, that somehow makes Southern slavery less horrendous?

        Lost Causers make the same argument about Northerners supplying the ships and financial backing that made Southern slavery possible. Sure, there was Northern complicity. But that doesn’t make the horrors of Southern slavery any less horrible.

        Thank God the North won the CW. Slavery was abolished and the United States of America remains the United States of America.

      • John Foskett says:

        I’m not sure I’d deflect criticism of slavery by changing the subject to the horrors which were visited on Native Americans. Some folks were actually good at both – for example, we have the forced eviction and resulting death march of the Cherokees as a way of working a giant land grab in Georgia, Then there was the removal of the Creeks and the Choctaw from – you guessed it – cotton growing turf.

      • Robert Rainey says:

        Slavery was a dying institution and would have done so without the loss of 800,000 Americans. What also was lost was the government our founding fathers gave us. What good is a government that can’t abide by its own constitution?

      • John Foskett says:

        Care to give us a date when slavery would have ended? For the record, slavery had actually become more profitable than ever in the 1850’s. Facts matter….

        https://studycivilwar.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/was-slavery-on-the-way-out/

  8. Pingback: ECW Week in Review Dec. 17-24 | Emerging Civil War

  9. Bob Huddleston says:

    Robert, since it was Jefferson Davis who started the War, not Abraham Lincoln, it would appear the blood is on the hands of Davis and the Confederates, including Robert E Lee.

    And read the CS Constitution: it corrected the errors, as they saw them, of the US version. For instance, no pussy-footing around about “persons held to service.” Show me where they authorized unilateral secession.

  10. Bob Huddleston says:

    John Viscount Morley was a British politician and pacifist who resigned from the Cabinet in late 1914 because England had gone to war with Germany.

    In 1917, he published his _Recollections_ (New York: The Macmillan Company):

    “Humanity fought one of its most glorious battles across the Atlantic. An end had been brought to the only war in modern times as to which we can be sure, first, that no skill or patience of diplomacy could have averted it, and second, that preservation of the American Union and abolition of negro slavery were two triumphs of good by which even the inferno of war was justified.” (p.20)

  11. DJP says:

    I have a question on one of the historical elements portrayed in the movie (I haven’t read the book). Right after the intermission, Scarlet stops a confederate soldier on horseback who tells her that the army must pull out quickly before Sherman cuts off the McDonough Road. Is that historically accurate?

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