Gone With The Wind: Some Thoughts (Part 4)

Part of a Series

There are several ladies that I know who love Gone With The Wind. When I spent about a year researching the author, the novel, and the movie, I chatted with these women about why they liked Gone With The Wind so much, and I started noticing some trends.

  • First, they thought it was an accurate portrayal of the past.
  • Second, they admired Scarlett O’Hara’s strength to overcome and survive.
  • Third, they drew relationship lessons from the movie.
  • Fourth, they had very fond memories of watching the film on TV with their moms or sisters.
  • Fifth, who cares about the history or the plot? It’s THE DRESSES.
  • Sixth, forget all else…it’s CLARK GABLE.

I’ve been snooping around on social media and various chat boards in the last few days to get some ideas on responses to the current GWTW “crisis” among fans. Those six points seem to be holding true for the majority of GWTW defenders.

Are these wrong reasons to like the movie? Not really. Okay, the first point is problematic, but it has been presented as “true history” for decades.

How much is influenced by our own personal views. Just because I’m not a huge fan of Clark Gable (there, I said it) and have opinions on Scarlett doesn’t mean that others viewers don’t have valid, warm fuzzy memories about the movie or the kinship they felt with friends or family as they watched the epic long film.

Here’s the problem that I’m seeing. Those warm fuzzy memories have become part of the “defense” of GWTW. “How dare anyone touch that movie?” echoes with “How dare you wreck my fond memories of movie nights with my sisters?” I believe there is a strong culture around the movie that does not necessarily intend to be offensive or insensitive, but that culture is so deeply entrenched in how it views the movie (and personal memories associated with it) that it is hard to see how others might be offended by stereotypes or racist moments.

Thoughts and feelings, memories and maybe even life-changing moments have been associated with the four-hour marathon, imprinting an entirely “new” set of thoughts and emotions that are different than 1860’s history and different from 1939 views. Will adding a studio or streaming disclaiming and options to view some additional resources raise awareness of some of the historical challenges with the all-time favorite? Maybe. I hope so.

This is an area where I feel quite conflicted about Gone With The Wind. I have my feelings as a researcher. I have my feelings as a movie watcher. (Yeah, I still put those in different categories at the moment.) Here’s the catch, we are not going to be able to talk about the problematic areas of Gone With The Wind if we land like a ton of bricks. How is a grandma going to feel if someone bursts in and say, “Don’t you ever watch Gone With The Wind again, because it’s got problems!” (Basically, what I believe happened from HBO Max on June 10.) First, she’s going to stare in shock. Then, she’s going to get mad and insist that it’s an innocent story and people that are upset about the film are… (I’m sure you get the picture). We need to be sensitive to how this cultural icon has been an important part of “history” and influential for generations. Find out if/why Gone With The Wind is so important. You’ll probably find that it’s an implied or imprinted reason. Then the opportunity moment comes: validate that the movie has been important in that person’s life, but talk about how it has been troubling to other people. And why it has been troubling. In my personal experience, a lot of well-meaning people who intend no harm just don’t realize why the movie of their good memories is suddenly “under attack.”

Now, admittedly, there is another side to this: what about wanting to look at Gone With The Wind as a historically accurate salute to a bygone era where “cavaliers and ladies took their last bow in a lost civilization”? Some people see Gone With The Wind as a depiction of their heritage and an accurate portrayal of history, and to some extent, that’s what the 1930’s filmmakers intended.

Was the movie historically accurate? Get ready for some mental gymnastics. Yes and no. Two truths and a lie. It’s a very clever way to recreate history and myth in a blend that can be hard to separate without seeming “overly-picky” to the usual movie watcher. And so—strengthened with tradition—it becomes accepted and trusted.

Privately, Margaret Mitchell felt disturbed by some of the liberties Hollywood took with her north Georgia plantation. Mitchell had done meticulous research with the resources available to her in Atlanta and had put forth a solid effort for historical fiction in her novel. Certainly, her views were influenced by her location and the Lost Cause interpretations, but she did not have a white-pillared, happy plantation for Tara. That came in the writing room, back lot of Hollywood, and American imagination.

 “Since my novel was published, I have been embarrassed on many occasions by finding myself included among the writers who pictured the Old South as a land of white-columned mansions whose wealthy owners had thousands of slaves and drank thousands of juleps. I have been surprised, too, for North Georgia certainly was no such country – if it ever existed anywhere – and I took great pains to describe North Georgia as it was. But people like to believe what they like to believe and the mythical Old South has too strong a hold on their imaginations to be altered….”

Again, I advocate for discussions. In person, with your circle of acquaintance if possible. Do our friends think Gone With The Wind is accurate history? How? Which parts? Let’s be fair, Rhett Butler might be the one connection for the historic term “blockade runner” that some movie watchers have. Talk about the parts that are based in accurate history. Gently call out with cited sources the mythical parts of the film and story. In my observation, “happy plantations,” Southern belles, and the Reconstruction Era tend to be the most problematic areas.

The concern about racism and inaccurate depictions of the past are real and heavily connected to Gone With The Wind. How can we have constructive and kind conversations with our acquaintances about this classic movie? How can we find out why Gone With The Wind is so important (or so offensive) to some of our friends or family? We need to talk about it. This is an emerging discussion, but it’s also a conversation that needs to move out of the comments section of the blog. The discussion and debate over this movie is happening, really just a continuing of the 80 year discussion. How can we learn and listen to both sides of the arguments and bring our own views to the proverbial table? (With kindness!?)

It’s not going to work by landing a ton of bricks, heated arguments, or heavy history books. But it might work if I listen first, figure out why this movie matters to a person, and then move the conversation from there. Seriously, I’ve be surprised how often the attachment to this movie is actually a long-time crush on Clark Gable…or Vivien Leigh.

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 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Gone With The Wind: Some Thoughts (Part 4)

  1. The strongest emotional attachment to the film that I have is that my husband bought it to watch on our honeymoon over 7 years ago. We watched it while snuggled on a couch in a cabin on top of a mountain in Tennessee.That was the first time either of us ever watched it and we wanted to share something as a newly married couple. But it took a few watches for me to grasp everything because the actors were talking too fast! I’ve never taken it as pure historical fact and loved it (and the book) for the way the story was told and no further (except Scarlett annoys me as no other fictional heroine ever could). I totally understand that it can be offensive for some audiences and I respect that. Yes, I like the “strong southern woman” view of it, but once you get into the real history, holes start getting blown through the story like grapeshot. Again, I like it solely for those fictional aspects. Not as a verbatim account of “heritage” or a legit example of what life was like in the south.
    Have any other movies come under fire lately? North and South maybe? Or just the ones that depict the false “happy plantation” image?

    • Sarah Kay Bierle says:

      Awww…that’s a neat memory. Thanks for sharing your perspective, Sheritta.

      A dear California neighbor of mine loves the movie and collected a lot of collectibles and that was an interest we often discussed; while I’m not sure I would claim a particular personal attachment to the film, I definitely used it as a conversation piece with a friend and learned a lot about her life as we talked about Scarlett’s struggles. So that’s a positive memory I associate with it.

      I have not noticed any other particular films “under fire,” but I might be missing something, too. I can only spend so much time sorting hashtags and going through the news. :/

  2. Stephen Recker says:

    Thanks. I appreciate you point of view. I think it is very true to the time, and I think that means different things to different people. I also think that if the movie offends someone, they shouldn’t watch it. There are lots of movies out today that I won’t watch because I don’t want to be offended, but I would never want one banned just because it bothers me.

  3. Long ago, I gave up on “truly” accurate history movies. But, will settle for 80-90% accurate. same with movies about lawyers and soldiers, two things I know a bit about. Within those limitations, I can generally appreciate GWTW. In fact, I write a blog on CW history and came across a wonderful story about Roberdeau Wheat and how he befriended two young girls who happened to be Jewish. he was so gallant with them – not at all different than what one would see in GWTW. Some things really did happen.

    Tom Crane

  4. Joe Jurdana says:

    Is it too complicated to say if you don’t believe you’ll like then don’t watch it, or if you begging to watch it and don’t line it stop watching. Don’t feed people your woke propaganda telling them how offensive the movie is.

    • Joe Jurdana says:

      Corrected

      Is it too complicated to say if you don’t believe you’ll like the movie then don’t watch it, or if you beginning to watch it and don’t line it stop watching. Don’t feed people your woke propaganda telling them how offensive the movie is.

  5. John Pryor says:

    ?????? Frankly my dear, I do give a damn. And pass some more popcorn!??????

  6. scott s. says:

    It’s probably a guy thing (and a northern guy thing in particular) but I found in the main the movie was too darn long and by the end, I didn’t give a damn either. From that perspective, I don’t look to the film for any sort of historical instruction, and wouldn’t have any interest in being fed some re-education on what life was really like. I mean, for me I didn’t have any problem with the Atlanta burning scene, regardless of how it really happened. It was more of a “served them right”.

    • Sarah Kay Bierle says:

      It is loooooong! It’s interesting that Hollywood was going for the long films in that era. I read somewhere (I don’t remember the source off the top of my head – sorry!) that the longer films acted as an escape from the Great Depression and those difficulties That may be one reason that GWTW resonated so strongly with many audiences; it was an era when “tomorrow is another day” has deep meaning.

  7. Robert Denney says:

    Interesting observations Meg. Unfortunately,you raised more questions than answers, and the answers will always be highly opinionated.

    To me GWTW is a movie produced for ENTERTAINMENT purposes. Seems like your lady friends view it that way too. It was not meant to be a DOCUMENTARY, and should not be criticized and evaluated like it was.

  8. Chris Utterback says:

    When are the American people going to stand up for our history. Each year more of our history is taken away, due to our uneducated Adults and children. This is caused by our Schools and Colleges Not teaching our History. We should not be punished for what happened in the pass.

  9. Sue Burkey says:

    My late mother was firmly in the category of women who loved Gone With the Wind, but I do suspect it was because she had a crush on Clark Gable. She would have first seen it as a teenager in the 1940s. She failed to impress me with it—-by the time I saw it on the big screen, also as a teenager, I thought it was unbearably corny and hated every one of the characters,

    Years later, I got around to reading the actual book and found it engaging and entertaining. (Typical—“the book was better than the movie.”) But is it gospel truth? Of course not. Is it slanted? Absolutely.

    Should it be censored or outright condemned? Well, as you put it, it’s a movie not a documentary.
    There is a lot of art that offends someone or other. I think putting a disclaimer on it was a fair solution to the problem. I also suspect its rating will go up. People will watch it, or watch it again, just to see what all the hoo-haw is about, so it may have backfired.

    Thanks for a thoughtful article about it.

  10. John R. Graham says:

    One thing that has always puzzled me is that when Scarlett and company are fleeing Atlanta viewers somehow assume the fires were set by Yankees. The characters are fleeing as the Yankees are poised to capture Altanta c. Sept. 2, 1864. These fires were set by Confederates to keep war materiel out of Yankee hands. The Yankees didn’t burn Altanta until Nov. 12, 1864, long after civilians like Scarlett and company had departed.

  11. John R. Graham says:

    BTW, my father was a student at Georgia Military Academy in 1939 and the Corps of Cadets served as an honor guard at the Atlanta premiere. My father got to see the movie stars in person. This is one reason why the film is special to me.

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