Patricia Dawn Chick (born Acker) was my mother. Her favorite movie was Gone with the Wind. It might seem odd since she was from Indiana, but her roots went back to the Dossett family of Kentucky. They were ripped apart by the Civil War. They fought on both sides, veterans of Fort Donelson, Vicksburg, Tullahoma, Brice Crossroads, Tueplo, Franklin, Nashville, and Selma. Some chased John Hunt Morgan during his Kentucky raids. One rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest. Another was on the staff of William Loring before he deserted and ran off with the horse he was given. Their fates were varied, from death and desertion, to chronic illness, dishonorable discharge, and fighting to the bitter end. My mother was no doubt drawn more to the romance and sweep of the film, but the family lore was clear that the Dossetts had some tense family meeting in the decades after.
After Mom died in 2014, I avoided watching Gone with the Wind. Yet, a poster of it hangs on my wall. I had it framed as a Christmas present, a gift she never saw. As time went on I wanted to see it again, but then statues started to come down and a theater in Memphis decided to stop showing it. I worried if it would it now feel tired, dated, silly, and racist? It flies in the face of the current orthodoxy about the Civil War. It is considered a Lost Cause relic, and even a centrist historian like Jon Meacham thinks there is no value in this old interpretation.
The Prytania Theater, the oldest in New Orleans, did a showing on August 25, 2018. I half feared there might be some protest although there has been a bit of protest exhaustion after the statues came down. I wondered if anyone would be there. When I saw Chinatown and Escape From New York, neither film had a lot of people in attendance. Would I only see old white people? However, the audience was large, mostly white but not exclusively, and generational mixture was surprising. There were even teenagers who were shocked it did not end with Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara together. All in all, surprising for 10am on a Sunday, when most are at church, hungover, or eating brunch.
On the big screen it is a captivating film. The music has a sweep and grandeur and the images are powerful. It is one of the only films where the paintings do not seem like dated special effects but masterworks deserving a place in the Met. The acting is uneven, but the film had to be carried by Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh and neither disappoints.
Watching the film, I was deeply moved by the first half. Scarlett calls out for her mother while Atlanta is shelled. Eventually, she sees her dead mother. More than that, there are qualities to Gone with the Wind that few Civil War movies capture. For one, it has the odd structure of showing life before, during, and after the war. Only The Deer Hunter comes to mind as using the same formula, and both films do not quite feel like war movies even if they are. Gone with the Wind is compartmentalized into four parts: eve of war, war itself, reconstruction, and a failed marriage. I like parts of each, but the reconstruction section is the weakest. The war section is the most powerful and unusual in that it deals with civilians and not soldiers.
In Gone with the Wind, war is hell. It is a very unheroic film, in that way a product of its time, an era artistically dominated by the popularity of the novel and film All Quiet on the Western Front. By contrast, Glory and Gettysburg both generally adhere to a heroic conception of combat. The tragedy in each is that of defeat: Battery Wagner does not fall and George Pickett’s division does not break the line. I believe these are the parts that make each film among the best. By the same token, Lincoln is a heroic film, although it is expressly political. It too ends with a kind of defeat, as Lincoln fails to implore the South to give up in 1865. He asks “Shall we stop this bleeding?” only for the film to cut to Richmond burning and Lincoln riding among the dead, images that invoke Scarlett’s flight from Atlanta.
There is a mood of demise in Gone with the Wind that connects it more closely with one of the least talked about Civil War movies, but I believe among the best: Pharaoh’s Army. That is a story of moral ambiguity and bitterness, and in that sense the two are kin. Pharaoh’s Army though is about poor people and is a darker movie. Gone with the Wind is more about a civilization transformed, while Scarlett is transformed from a selfish flirt to a hard-nosed entrepreneur. Where Gone with the Wind always impressed me was in having a hero who is flawed, even despicable. Scarlett is not really that emblematic of the moonlight and magnolias view of Dixie. Indeed, there are precious few magnolias and the only time we see moonlight is to show that Tara still stands, but in a desolated land.
The film makes no bones that the Confederacy was a fool’s enterprise, encapsulated when Rhett Butler mentions the South has no factories but a lot of arrogance. Ashley Wilkes, the symbol of the old South, is depicted as weak, vacillating, and lost. Scarlett realizes only at the end she was a fool to keep any attachment to Ashley and therefore to a world that is gone. The film is in part a conflict between practicality and romance. Scarlett is practical, her attachment to the old South is an attachment to a past she rejected the moment she said she would never go hungry again, launching a personal war to save her home.
Death and destruction are not treated lightly in Gone with the Wind. To the bloodier minded the war was worth it since it ended slavery and saved the union. Yet, republics are not supposed to solve such things with death and destruction. When we cheer the North’s victory, and the falling of statues to common soldiers, we cheer the defeat of our fellow countrymen. Lincoln’s plea, which I quoted earlier, is itself a reply to Stephens asking a question often ignored in recent Just Cause scholarship: “How have you held your Union together? Through democracy? How many hundreds of thousands have died during your administration? Your union, sir, is bonded in cannon fire and death.” I do not come to say the South was right, only that the pain of defeat is treated too lightly as of late.
Gone with the Wind, better than any other film, masterfully depicts the shock of destruction, physical and emotional. It resonated in 1939 with a people still reeling from the Great Depression while across both oceans the fascists were on the march and a destruction greater than Atlanta in 1864 loomed. World War II even drew in the film’s actors. Leslie Howard died on a passenger plane shot down by the Luftwaffe while Clark Gable was nearly killed flying in a B-17 over Germany.
I recently read that Gone with the Wind was popular in Japan. Not when it came out. By that time anti-western feelings were on the rise and films were being banned. Yet, a few copies were found when Singapore fell and the people who saw it marveled at the technical skill and lavish production, some even doubting if Japan could win against an opponent capable of such feats. That technical skill produced the very weapons that would level Japan. In 1952, when the film got a formal release, it was a big hit. Japanese audiences admired Scarlett and no doubt saw themselves in her. They were moved by the scenes of Atlanta ablaze, drawing parallels to the destruction of their cities.
How one feels about war itself determines in part how you feel about Gone with the Wind. I became enamored with the movie during the lead up to the Iraq War. I watched Gone with the Wind and Tora! Tora! Tora! several times before the bombs fell on Baghdad. The big brash talk of war in the parlor of Twelve Oaks matched the same talk I heard in the cafeteria at the University of New Orleans. The Iraqis can’t fight. One American can whip ten terrorists! It was all brash stupidity. To be fair, few people are openly pro-war, but we do look for justifications to assuage our conscious. The idea that the South was “forced” to fire on Fort Sumter was the lie spread after defeat. So too is the myth that the war was inevitable and necessary and good. It is at heart a way to feel okay about killing each other 150 years ago.
Gone with the Wind resonated with me as a teenager because it was about the war. I loved the unusual story of a failed romance between two people of questionable moral character. Today, it resonates because my mother is dead and I know what that is like for Scarlett. Being from New Orleans, I also know what it is like to see your city destroyed and to rebuild in the wake of destruction, knowing that the world before the storm cannot be reforged. I at least though, unlike Gone with the Wind, do not rommantize pre-Katrnia New Orleans too much. It was wilder, cheaper, but also even less safe (if you can believe that) and very stagnant.
Recently, the time capsule in the pedestal of the P.G.T. Beauregard statue was opened. A reporter asked why there was a Confederate memorabilia stuffed in it 49 years after the war was over. It is a question, I dare say, steeped in ignorance and judgment. Some are appalled that anyone could feel sad the South lost or that they clinged to the memory of the war. If they do they must be racist. Yet, the answer lies in part in the graves across America and the shared regional experience of defeat. A woman I dated recounted that her grandfather worked on civil rights in the 1960s, but was proud of his ancestors’ Confederate heritage. What she saw as dumb and silly, I saw as a wonderful complexity that gives me hope. Hamilton Basso, himself a civil rights advocate, also wrote a sympathetic biography of P.G.T. Beauregard, who was himself an advocate for civil rights. One need not adhere to the current Manichean sensibility in our culture. I find the racism in Gone with the Wind a liability, as well as its class dynamics. The film is very harsh towards “poor white trash” which aptly describes my ancestors trying to survive in Tennessee poverty. I also recognize there is more to the movie than that.
I am glad Gone with the Wind still exists. It is not an accurate depiction of history, but nor is any movie. It is another interpretation, at times ridiculous, but we impoverish ourselves if we explain away its past popularity as some marker of backwardness. The scenes of death and destruction, the very waste that Rhett Butler curses in the wake of Gettysburg, cannot be dismissed. The sweeping camera in the Atlanta rail yard is one of the most stark depictions of war ever put to film.The war devastated the South. It left a bitterness that resonates even today with every condescending remark about how we should “get over it,” often coming from people obsessed with other past calamities. My ancestors on my father’s side survived the war, lived as Tennessee farmers for generations after, while my Irish ancestors scrapped by in New Orleans. The story of enduring defeat and deprivation is real, and talking about it need not eclipse or weaken the parallel story of civil rights. The two are not mutually exclusive and form the fabric of the South and of America.
I felt the sweep of war watching Atlanta fall in a dark movie theater. My heart raced and I was moved nearly to tears as Scarlett moved about a blighted land looking for her home and her mother and a world that never was. That world was never real, we only saw it from her point of view. The reality was the world she had to make for herself. She survived in that world, and although she made money, she never thrived. She lost two husbands, friends,family, love, and respect. In that way, Gone with the Wind is honest about what happened after the war. In the South, we survived but we never healed. We still cannot heal, and the pessimist in me says we are not likely to, so long as empathy is reserved only for chosen groups and not for others. Yet, when I cleaned my mother’s apartment in 2014 I found a Gone with the Wind music box that plays the main tune. I wind it up on occasion. Mostly it sits on my Civil War bookshelf, where I sometimes look at it when times are hard.