Today's Motion History is going to center on a historical setting over a historical story. So far, all but one of the films I've picked have had some historical figure or story at the core, even if the stories ended up largely fictional. I don't intend to just stick to real people and real stories, because I think historical fiction is worth examining too. It can be just as powerful as a true story, and it can be just as illuminating about the time and place in which it was made. It can also be quite damaging to people's perceptions of history, culture, race, and politics.

Also, I just really wanted to write an piece about Gone With the Wind. I love this film, even as I understand what's grievously wrong with it. There's a tendency now to politely ignore this film, as with so many other troubling racial stories, because we've "evolved" passed it. Well, we haven't. Not as moviegoers, and certainly not as a country. Some of the recent fanboy casting flaps indicate that much, and the root of the Tea Party movement is inherently the political belief that's at the heart of Gone with the Wind: Give us our country back. This country that, to quote the opening crawl, can be found "only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered."

You see, this isn't a movie about the Civil War. It's about America's perception of the Civil War, particularly down South. And it's all about the 1930s.
The Film

Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) is living a life of magnolias, moonshine, and bliss on the eve of the American Civil War. She lives on a palatial plantation. She's surrounded by plantations that are even more grand. Nothing troubles her except the love she bears Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), and that's only upsetting because she's doomed to lose him to his cousin, Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland). Even the dashing Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) can't sway her in her stubborn affections. War comes, and Scarlett holds true to Ashley despite one marriage to Charles Hamilton, widowhood, Gettysburg, the fall of Atlanta, the attentions of Rhett Butler, and the loss of her parents, Tara's wealth, and the Confederacy. Scarlett struggles to keep everyone fed and together, even throwing herself into a second marriage with Frank Kennedy to pay off taxes. Eventually, she succumbs to Rhett's affections and his wealth. But their marriage sours over her inability to let go of Ashley, and the loss of their daughter, Bonnie. Melanie's death is the only thing that jolts Scarlett out of her daydream, but by then it's too late. Rhett leaves her, and Scarlett vows to return to Tara, and think of someway to get him back. Tomorrow is another day.

The Historical Background

It's the American Civil War. You know the drill -- slavery, states rights, secession, Abraham Lincoln, Fort Sumter. This is stuff you learned in numerous history classes, or should have. I know I went into massive essays prior to this, but there's so much finer ink spilled on the Civil War (as with any topic I've addressed -- but this is even more massive than the Tudors!) that I don't feel like I should muddy the waters.

Instead, I'll talk a little more about the novel. As awkward as the book reads now, Margaret Mitchell's book is quite a piece of folk history. Much of what Scarlett experiences during and after the war was drawn from stories she'd heard from elderly relatives and friends, and it reads (and views) true. Sure, Scarlett is pining over Ashley the entire time, but she's also starving, and fearful that the entire O'Hara family will end up homeless and begging. Mitchell also researched exhaustively -- the Fall of Atlanta is far more terrifying and accurate in the book, and she portrays the postwar world as even more bitter and poor than the film does. It's also very explicit in introducing the Ku Klux Klan. While Mitchell paints slavery as a real form of noblesse oblige (at one point, a slave cries and begs to be taken home because he's had enough freedom), she's also careful to stress that her characters aren't racist enough to join the Klan. Rhett and Ashley even have the honor of breaking it up. Scarlett may say and think hideous things about "negroes" (please understand I'm quoting here, and don't condone that word), but no one shares the Klan's view. It's very schizophrenic, but it's also valuable. As I said, it's folk history. You don't have to like it, and you can't overlook its offensive language and attitude, but as a document of how Southerners perceived the war, it's crucial.

I should hasten to add that Southern civilians did suffer. There's a lot of homefront diaries of the period you can read. One example that's online is that of Julia Johnson Fisher, who talks about the "many deprivations" they've suffered since war broke out: "Our main living has been pork, rice and hominy -- parched grits for coffee without milk or sugar. How often we talk of the good things we once enjoyed and wonder if we shall ever enjoy them again. A slice of bread and butter and a sweetened cup of tea would be a treat indeed, such a treat as we have not enjoyed for more than a year. Our severe trials appear to be just commencing. Thus far war has been in the distance, now its ravages are becoming tangible ... We feel completely bound -- there is no way of escape."

Is It Accurate?

Well, yes and no. The film is based on the book, but it makes some surprising choices that actually upholds Southern and American mythology far more than Mitchell's book does. While the film does a lot right (the hospital and amputations, the train station full of wounded soldiers, civilians being in the line of battle, the poverty), it does a lot wrong.

The first is the portrayal of the plantations. They're enormous. While some did look this elegant (Oak Alley in Louisiana is one of the most iconic, and has been used in so many films) they were rare. They certainly were never as gilded and ornate inside as Tara or Twelve Oaks. It's Hollywood's oversized love for set decoration at play, to the point that they look more like Versailles than any historical plantation. Even Mitchell was aghast, and refused to visit the set or advise the film: "I grieve to hear that Tara has columns. Of course, [in the book] it didn't and looked nice and ugly like Alex Stephens' Liberty Hall [in Crawfordville, Georgia] ... I had feared, of course that [Twelve Oaks] would end up looking like the Grand Central Station, and your description confirms my worst apprehensions. I did not know whether to laugh or to throw up at the TWO staircases.... God help me when the reporters get me after I've seen the picture. I will have to tell the truth, and if Tara has columns and Twelve Oaks is such an elegant affair I will have to say that nothing like that was ever seen in Clayton County, or, for that matter, on land or sea .... When I think of the healthy, hardy, country and somewhat crude civilization I depicted and then of the elegance that is to be presented, I cannot help yelping with laughter." To be somewhat fair to Hollywood, though, the society the book presents isn't that crude. The houses might be, but the Southern food and Scarlett's dresses are so lushly described that it can really only be described as "antebellum porn."

American history loves the idea of the plantation. We may have been extremely proud of ending slavery, but we hated the idea of feudal kingdoms disappearing. The antebellum South is inevitably pictured as the place where chivalry really did take its last stand, instead of a vaguely frontier region that was largely farmed by the middle class. There were massive plantations, but they were in the minority. The majority of the South was made up of middle class farmers who owned a handful of slaves. My American history professor once told us that if we ever wanted to be famous and wealthy with grant money, we should write a doctoral thesis on yeoman farmers, because no one ever did. Historians concentrated purely on plantations because it was so utterly decadent and romantic, or the lower classes because they liked arguing that the hoop skirts and mint juleps were utter fiction. I don't know if this was actually true, or if it's still true in academia but it made me laugh. Yes, I actually contemplated writing about yeoman Southern farmers for awhile. (Hey, I like money. Just like Scarlett!)

This mythology has been evident ever since the Civil War ended, but had a resurgence in the 1930s. Though you had the "Southern Renaissance" going in literature that sought to get rid of all that Lost Cause romanticism and replace it with bitter realism (William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams) you also had the Depression. The South had also transformed from a rural economy into a more industrial one after World War I. They were nostalgic for an golden age, and wanted to believe that had existed. You also had the last Confederate veterans passing away. It was powerful stuff, ripe for Mitchell to spin a novel out of (she herself admitted she was ten before she even knew the South had lost). Gone with the Wind looks back to the good old days, when everyone lived on massive plantations and were waited on by kindly Mammys. Slaves were beloved members of the family. The Yankees were bloodthirsty rapists. Audiences ate it up. It was better to believe your grandparents and great grandparents had lived this way than to believe you or your people resembled the family in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying or Erksine Caldwell's Tobacco Road. Caldwell was controversial. Mitchell was not.

Why did Americans in general respond? Well, I suppose because we all love knights and ladies, and cherish the idea that we once had that in our own country. There were probably many who were sorry they destroyed the gallant South. Plus, the Depression hit the entire country. Americans were hungry for escapism whether on page or screen. Hollywood had no interest in portraying the historic South. People needed beautiful and glittery images to escape in. They also needed to see some dashes of hardship to be reminded that they would overcome again, as they had before. If you watch The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind back to back, you'll notice a lot of tonal and stylistic similarities. The Deep South might as well be Oz for the sheer fantasy it spins and wraps the audience in. Unfortunately, what seemed fun and harmless at the time has kept up a pretty damaging myth of the antebellum South, one that I suspect some political rioters still cherish and bank on.

David O. Selznick knowingly softened the political overtones. The "attack on Scarlett / revenge of Southern gentlemen" scene is still there, but he omitted any mention of the Ku Klux Klan. His intentions were good -- he didn't want to remake Birth of a Nation, and hoped screenwriter Sidney Howard would "agree with me on this omission of what might come out as an unintentional advertisement for intolerant societies in these fascist-ridden times. . . ." Yet the sentiments remain, as does the patronizing attitude towards slaves and freemen and women. It's good that they didn't want to endorse intolerance, but like Mitchell's book, it straddles the fence, and doesn't condemn it. (Add that to the story of the Atlanta premiere, and Hattie McDaniel being banned and wonder just how they could be so careless and glib.)

But what I'll say this for it's Depression-era artificiality -- it portrays Southern women as the warriors they were and are. Glenda Riley's Inventing the American Woman indicates a lot of upper and middle class women were like Scarlett, holding everything together, sleeping with pistols under their pillows and doing hard physical labor themselves. Many men came home like Ashley -- weak, broken, and miserable. Their obsession with protecting "white women" (seen so violently within the film) was born out of the loss of the Confederacy, and their determination to keep some shred of the old patriarchy going. Remember, the women's movement had been going strong in the North and South before switching its focus to slavery -- and now women saw it taking a backseat to Reconstruction, and found themselves pawns in a racially charged war. (Don't think I'm absolving them of all blame, though.)

In an eerie way though, Gone with the Wind manages to evoke the war that was on the horizon. The film came out in 1939, and yet you'd swear it was about World War II as much as the Depression. There's the tender homefront scenes. Saintly Melanie works in the hospital, hoping someone is doing the same for Ashley. Scarlett is Rosie the Riveter, doing a man's work to keep everyone fed and clothed. Lest you think that's fiction, this is a weird fact which was actually true in North and South. Many women took to working in munition, arsenal, and textile factories just as they would in the 20th century. It's no wonder the film was so popular in England during the Blitz, as British women were guarding and running the UK just as fiercely.

Obviously, Gone with the Wind is an old film, and one that's had its mythology dissected over and over again. I doubt I'm adding anything new to the discussion. As intelligent filmgoers, this is probably stuff you already know. But it's always possible that it's new and interesting to someone, and I've always wanted to write it. As I've said, I think we're seeing a real resurgence of Lost Cause mythology in politics and pop culture. Political meetings and rallies are filled with cries demanding their country back. Politicians are currently running in primaries with unsubtle taunts of rebellion. Even something as fun as True Blood carries hints of stars-and-bars romanticism (Bill Compton looked so dashing in his Confederate gray) while having characters denounce it. I don't believe in demonizing the South or the Confederacy (I don't agree with slavery, but not every Confederate was evil incarnate, and not every Yankee was idealistic and racially enlightened) but I don't believe in blindly worshiping history. Gone with the Wind dreamily imagines something that never existed -- and to be fair, most Hollywood films did and still do. While it's ok to play in historical fiction, it's dangerous that so many continue to believe (or worse, willingly choose to despite all facts to the contrary) that Master and Slave was a idyllic reality.
categories Cinematical