In an essay on Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell the great English essayist, defined a good bad book. What he meant by that was a book which had manifest flaws- flaws which in any other book or author would drive you to deem it bad- but that the sheer vitality of the work, the bravado of its execution not to mention the virtues of its story telling made you wish to read it again and again and again. There is something of this about the classic American film, Gone with the Wind. Made self consciously by David Selznick, in a formula he would try to repeat for the rest of his career, as a blockbuster- it is over the top, extravagant, probably too long, struggles to maintain a consistant line and yet it is fantastic. It is one of the greatest films ever made- and has as its centre a performance- by Vivian Leigh- of a character both lovable and despicable- that will be and should be remembered so long as film retains its fascination. Put simply her magnetism and ability drives this film on- aided by her two male protagonists- Leslie Howard, doing what Leslie Howard does best- and Clark Gable in a career defining role.
The point of the four hours of Gone with the Wind is simple. We have three main characters, dancing through the civil war, a minuet which reflects the changes in the south. Ashley (played by Howard) is a retiring aristocrat of the South- an intelligent and virtuous representative of the class that had run particularly Virginian politics since the 1700s, and had provided America with her first Presidents (in Washington, Jefferson, Maddison and Monroe- four out of the first five Presidents, the other Adams only had a single term). Rhett Butler is the roue who represents the new South- the South that will recover from the civil war- like Ashley he is intelligent, unlike Ashley he is vicious. And the centre of the cast is Scarlett O'Hara- tied to the land of the South by her family- desperately in love with Ashley despite the fact that he loves his cousin, Melanie Hamilton- and the counterpart in every sense to Butler. She might represent the choice that the south has to make- looking back to Ashley, looking forward to Rhett. By the end of the film, she has made her decision- to leave Ashley, the man she wished to marry but couldn't- and to reconcile herself to her love of Rhett. Its an appealing allegorical interpretation- but there are deeper layers to this particular cinematic onion.
There is something deeper here than the simple allegory that we have just described. Another way of seeing the story is to see it as a less specifically American story- but one about the way that societies in general cope with war. As an account of that subject- you have three reactions to the war. One is that of Ashley. Ashley tells those who think that they will beat the Yankees easily that they will fail but he is content to go down with his civilisation. He knows why that civilisation should go down- because of slavery and beleives that the slaves should be liberated. But he is not cut out for the world of struggle. Second strategy is that of Rhett. Rhett has no roots in the south- and his strategy is to exploit any situation to his own benefit. Canny enough to realise that the south must lose, he does feel the odd pang of conscience and wants to establish roots within the old south. There is an anxiety about where he fits visible in Rhett, but there is also a survival instinct. Neither of those things are shared by him and Ashley. Thirdly there is Scarlett- she is rooted in the south but reaching out to survive as well. She is as unscrupulous as Rhett but as solidly southern as Ashley.
This is a story about survival. The Civil War here is represented, as it was, the first modern war of devastation. It gets just right the fact that to inhabitants of the south the war changed society forever. In the thirties, when the film came out, the war was still within living memory. The children of the characters of the film would have been in the cinemas- one of the children of the war (John Nance Garner) was in the White House when the film came out. This is a film about the impact of the civil war and the way it uprooted people- sent them to madness (Scarlett's father), death (her first husband) and destroyed their lives (Ashley). At this point, as the men left to die in the war, it was women who took over society and provided it with stability- they were left behind and as Scarlett does in this film provided the economic backbone of continuity. Scarlett here sets up a business- is unscrupulous enough to marry new money at various points in order to raise her family from the ground- is a good friend and a bad enemy. She is vicious to those who work for her, fiercely protective of those she loves and singleminded to a fault.
There are blindnesses in this film- race is the major one. I can't think of a single black character who does not buy into the philosophy of their masters and mistresses and who isn't obnoxious. This is a lament about the world that went with the wind- its sympathies are with Ashley like Scarlett's despite the fact that the world is changing and that change is not merely neccessary, it is moral. The South was based on a repulsive institution and you cannot get away from that. I suspect one of the interesting points about the film is that this is the view of the Civil war from the 1930s- it is a film that could not have been made after the civil rights movement. It reminds us though of something worth remembering- in a sense it reminds me of the Woman of Berlin- the costs of even a just war are terrible and often inflicted on the innocent.
Ultimately this film comes back to a simple truth. It is an emotional truth rather than a great philosophical one- which is that a struggle impresses. Scarlett keeps going, keeps struggling and ultimately the film is about her success. From the very bottom of her despair, she never stops, never ceases to work, you cannot but fail to admire that story. Sometimes the characters overact- but that merely strengthens the central point. Vivian Leigh acts here- like in Streetcar named Desire- on the brink of madness and that merely strengthens the character. The point is not subtle- nor is its handling and it works!