Gone With The Wind: Some Thoughts (Part 5 – Conclusion)

Part of a series

Want to know one of my secrets about Gone With The Wind? Okay…here goes: I really, really want to see it on a movie theater screen. Because I choose to see it as art, not a history lesson. (And now in the eyes of some readers—to quote Scarlett and Rhett—“After this dance, my reputation will be gone forever.” “With enough courage, you can do without a reputation.”)

Can we see Gone With The Wind as art? What does that mean? And what does that mean if we have historical reservations or uncomfortable feelings with certain scenes? These are a few of the questions we need to grapple with, and I’ve seen a variety of answers in the last few weeks.

For tonight’s ending thoughts, though:

Question 1: what is art?

Question 2: does context help us appreciate and keep art?

Three years ago another ECW author wrote about history and art: “I would argue that a work of art that finds new meaning and new audiences over time meets one of the criteria for “great” art. That’s why we keep lining up to look at the Mona Lisa, why we keep reading Shakespeare, and why we keep grooving to Louis Armstrong…” Is that why we have kept lining up or switching channels to Gone With The Wind for 80 years?

Is film art? Is theater art? I think so. Serious critics think so, too.

So, should we see Gone With The Wind as art? I argue: yes. A film that wins eight Academy Awards makes us take notice. It’s still the highest grossing film of all time (when adjusted for inflation). And it’s in the top 100 most historic films of all time (historic in the sense of movie history).

Now, just because something is art doesn’t mean it should be left running wild and unexplained in society and pop-culture. But, if Gone With The Wind stays as cultural reference or work of cinematic art, why shouldn’t it have a label? A proverbial museum sign? Something that explains a little about the era when it was made and why it gives this version of Civil War “history” mixed with a tumultuous love story.

Just because something is or can be acknowledged as art, does not mean it does not need to be explained. Personally, I think that’s where we are at with Gone With The Wind. It might be a good thing to see it as art that needs to be explained in context. Art without explanation can quickly become a propaganda piece.

Is Gone With The Wind the so-called “hill to die on”? How much conflict should be raised about this effort to contextualize the movie?

In a spirit of kindness and boldness, I offer a few suggestions for the future weeks and months:

First, I think the storm will pass. There is a lot of loud discussion at the moment as this movie trends. (However, the book was back on Amazon’s top-seller list in the last couple weeks, according to some reports.)

Second, HBO Max has said the movie will come back to their listings with some sort of “disclaimer” or contextualization attempt. Let’s wait and see if that happens. As previously suggested, I think some context might be a good thing. It would be helpful to make sure viewers realized this is not a documentary and not everything in it is an accurate depiction of the Civil War or Reconstruction South.

Third, if the case can be made that Gone With The Wind is art—albeit flawed history—perhaps it is easier to make a cause to keep it around. As a teaching tool for Civil War memory. About Civil War historiography.

Fourth, perhaps there should be more discussion about how to find appropriate ways to remember the courage of African-American entertainers in early Hollywood and show business. If we erase their work, will it be harder to have a discussion about what they accomplished and what they endured in a segregated, racist system? The accomplishments should not be used a means of justification for what they endured, but rather as an understanding of the ceilings they shattered and the courage they showed in difficult and unequal situations.

Fifth, and finally, is Gone With The Wind where historians make their stand? Everyone will answer this question differently. That’s okay. But I ask: is a 20th Century depiction of the 1860’s, where Civil War historians and history buffs need to concentrate their arguments and energies? I realize there is a lot of irony in that question since I just spent 5 days presenting details and arguments about the movie. (I started writing and then just got “blown away” into a long series. Oops!).

In the end, though, my personal conclusion is: Frankly, my dear, let’s get back to the 1860’s history and leave the 20th Century novel and movie as pieces of antiquated literature and cinematic art, keeping them around with some new contextual references. As we continue to pursue studies of primary sources in the antebellum, war, and reconstruction and seek a deeper understanding of what happened and how it has been influenced by memory, Gone With The Wind will hopefully fade as a historical reference for the Civil War and be seen as a moment of cinema history with its own set of complexities, struggles, and triumphs.

BREAKING NEWS: HBO Max has returned Gone Withe Wind to their streaming list. Here’s the report and a link to the new introduction. (Just saw it as I was publishing the blog post this evening.)

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.
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17 Responses to Gone With The Wind: Some Thoughts (Part 5 – Conclusion)

  1. Meg Groeling says:

    My oh my! I love that movie, and have watched it several times during my lifetime. I used to think Ashley was so dreamy and felt just like Miss Scarlett about him. Then I grew up. I maintain one can tell when that happens by GWTW–it is the exact moment when Ashley is replaced in one’s affections by Rhett Butler. Now I know none of this has a thing to do with the problems inherent in the film itself–but that was my reaction for years. That and actually seeing Ward Bond as a younger actor than he was in “Wagon Train.” I am confident it will all iron itself out–fiddle-dee-dee–tomorrow is another day, after all.

    Good job Sarah–I look forward to seeing the film through different eyes now. Thanks.

    • M. J. Waters says:

      No, no, wrong Meg, Miss Scarlett was the dreamy one, if only she could acted more like sweet Cousin Melanie…

      • M. J. Waters says:

        I love the movie and have seen it through 3 times I think in my lifetime. I first read the book last year though. It was an excellent read, Southern propaganda, sure, but a gripping story none the less. Anyone reading this article that hasn’t read the book yet, find a copy. There’s a lot more to the tale in the book than is portrayed in the movie. Nice work Sarah!

  2. John Pryor says:

    And Gerald O’Hara falls off his horse, to be reincarnated as a boozing newspaperman in Mr Smith Goes to Washington. I love recycled supporting actors! Thank God we aren’t Soviet Russia yet, and all art has to reflect the “dominant” ideology.?

  3. dridds says:

    I watched it back to back in a theatre in 1970.

  4. Robert Denney says:

    First of all my apologies to Meg and Sarah for mixing you up in my earlier post in Part 4.

    Secondly, Sarah I thought you made a great “comeback” in part 5 by emphasizing the artistic aspects of the movie. In my mind, art is another form of entertainment, and as stated earlier let’s view entertainment for what it is, no more, no less.

    • Meg Groeling says:

      I saw that! I really laughed! Both of us are ardent Civil Warriors, but Miss Sarah is young, thin and a beauty. I look much more like Aunt Pitty-Pat nowadays. I’ll take it, though! ECW gave us both the chance of two lifetimes to write history, and we are grateful.

  5. THANK YOU SARAH FOR A GOOD WRITTEN PIECE SEEING BOTH SIDES EVENLY AND LETTING US DECIDE HOW WE FEEL .
    MR DENNEY I AGREE WITH YOU “VIEW ENTERTAINMENT FOR WHAT IT IS ,NO MORE NO LESS ..” IF ONE IS OFFENDED SIMPLY DO NOT WATCH IT . DONT TAKE IT AWAY FROM THOSE WHO DO ., BECAUSE THEY DO NOT SEE IT YOUR WAY ..STILL AMERICA LAND OF THE FREE. .

  6. Diane Mcvey says:

    We can learn from this movie what was accepted at the time.Birth of a Nation was applauded at the time it was released and deserves much criticism for promoting the Klan as if they were Knights of Columbus.Remember Hattie McDaniel said ” I would rather play a maid then be one” and she won the first Academy Award to a black actor.That was pretty progressive for the time too

  7. Ed Flanagan says:

    Thanks for the great series of articles. When I ever I think of Gone With The Wind movie’s opening line “Land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South,” I can’t stop thinking about what Mary Boykin Chestnut wrote about plantation life:
    “God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system & wrong & iniquity. Perhaps the rest of the world is as bad. This is only what I see: like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives & their concubines, & the Mulattos one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children-& every lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in everybody’s household.”
    As for the book and the movie, it’s a product of its place and time, too long and badly dated. But neither should be banned and dismissed, only intolerant narrow-minded authoritarians act in that fashion.

  8. scott s. says:

    Not a film archivist by any means, but from this series I took a look at the sciences part of motion picture art & sciences.

    GWTW was shot in three-strip Technicolor. This process was first used by Disney animation in 1932 (example “Three Little Pigs”) and in live action in 1935 “Becky Sharp”. The late thirties were when Technicolor became audience’s expected color experience, including “Adventures of Robin Hood” and “Wizard of Oz”. The film was released on 35mm in academy 1.33 aspect with a mono soundtrack. In 1954 it was given a re-release and reproduced at 1.75 for a more widescreen look and the “Perspecta” sound system used to create a stereo effect. This release caused some damage to the original elements due to cuts. Then again in 1976 the film was used to create a 2.21 version printed on 70mm “widescreen” prints for roadshow special showings. I think most people find this one kind of difficult to watch if they are familiar with the original.

    It’s been out on digital formats for a while, and I think the 70th anniversary BD edition is considered the most faithful to the original.

    • Sarah Kay Bierle says:

      Thanks for adding this interesting information! There is certainly a science side to the art, too. 🙂

  9. scott s. says:

    Then again there’s always “Here’s Lucy” Season 4 Episode 1 “Lucy and Flip Go Legit” for a different take on it. (and I “Don’t know nothin bout birthin babies”).

  10. I saw it on the big screen in 2018 at the Prytania Theater, one of the oldest theaters in America. It was pretty breathtaking.

  11. Well, you inspired me, Sarah. I purchased a copy of GWTW. I have not watched it in 40 years or so. But, one scene has stayed with me all these years. As Atlanta burns, Scarlett and Rhett watch as the Confederates evacuate the city. A boy is marching, but falls asleep, her is so worn out. A much older soldier picks up the boy with no word and carries the boy across his shoulder. The boy objects, but the older soldier marches on without a word. None of the other Confederate soldiers take notice. Exhaustion is writ large on their faces. That scene has stayed with me these 40 years. During that 40 years, I served my own 28 years in the military and have read hundreds of military history articles, books and treatises and have written a few military articles of my own. That scene rings true. Soldiers so worn out, yet so familiar with one another that they communicate without words. The book and film are fiction, but you cannot tell me that scene is not based on reality. It is superb story-telling on many levels.

    Tom Crane

  12. Alton Bunn says:

    The American Film Institute sponsored the showing of classic movies in the theater several years ago. GWTW was one and it was awesome seeing it that way. (Also saw Easy Rider in the theater a few weeks later). Like all history based movies GWTW is art not accurate history and that should be remembered. As for race relations I remember a scene where Rhett Butler expressed a desire to have Mammy’s respect or esteem. I wonder if that gets any mention.

    I really don’t like the CYA culture that rears its head whenever an issue is in the news. It’s born of fear and my first thought is always disdain instead of admiration for whoever does it.

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