‘Gone With the Wind’ (1939) — A War Epic Without the War

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The plantation Tara in Gone With the Wind (1939)
The plantation Tara, with Scarlett and her father, in Gone With the Wind (1939)

It’s hard to fathom even today that Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling 1936 fictional novel, Gone With the Wind, was practically an unwanted property in Hollywood. No studio head would get near a Civil War story, let alone adapt one for the silver screen.

For years Tinsel Town touted the widely-held belief (perpetuated by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s head of production, the “boy genius” Irving Thalberg) that “no Civil War picture ever made a nickel!” This was only partially true, of course: in its day, D.W. Griffith’s three-hour 1915 silent epic, The Birth of a Nation, not only set attendance records whenever and wherever it was shown, but revolutionized the way motion pictures would be marketed and made for all time.

Still, Thalberg’s boast would forever be put to rest when producer David O. Selznick, who was a son-in-law to Louis B. Mayer (one of the M’s in M-G-M), purchased the rights to Atlanta native Mitchell’s thousand-page tome. The result was a box-office juggernaut, the likes of which went on to break all-existing records for decades to come.

As heavy as Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary but not nearly as densely worded, the book version of GWTW (as it is customarily abbreviated) can be described (with tongue planted firmly in cheek) as the American variant of Leo Tolstoy’s massive historical epic War and Peace, but without the Russian author’s literary acumen or extraordinarily philosophical insight into the human condition.

The comparison is not at all a stretch, for both works take place during intensely turbulent times of immensely significant change for their respective eras. For starters, Ms. Mitchell (who was known in her native Atlanta as Peggy Marsh, after marriage to her second husband) concentrated on the character of Katie Scarlett (originally Pansy) O’Hara.

A lively spitfire of a Southern belle, Scarlett uses large dollops of girlish allure, feminine guile, and willful behavior, along with a ruthless capacity for survival at any cost, to overcome any number of obstacles, both to her person and to her beloved Tara, the land her father, Irish plantation owner Gerald O’Hara, insisted was “the only thing worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for!”

But what relation does Scarlett O’Hara have to Natasha Rostova, the youthful heroine of Tolstoy’s massive novel? Quite a lot and more than meets the eye!

Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) kisses Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh)
Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) kisses the widowed Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh)

First of all, there are several pairs of individuals intimately detailed and observed in both works — Scarlett with Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes with his cousin, Melanie Hamilton, juxtaposed against Natasha and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, as well as Pierre Bezukhov and his wife, Helene Kuragina, among numerous others. It was as if GSTW’s author had merged the personalities of Natasha and her own cousin, the mild-mannered Sonya (a mirror image of the sweetness-and-light personified by Melanie), with that of Scarlett herself; then had her pine away for the cerebral Pierre (standing in for the poetic dreamer Ashley), while spending the bulk of the story’s plot on the sordid lives of the buxom Helene (another side of Scarlett’s capricious persona) and her dashing lover Dolokhov, who safely incorporates multiple facets of that lovable rogue, Rhett.

We may add another viable if all-too obvious connection: the invading Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte with that of Union general, William Tecumseh Sherman, whose physical presence is never shown but whose name is blazoned across the screen in one of those telling intertitles familiar to followers of silent cinema.

Intertitle from the start of Gone With the Wind's second half
Intertitle for the second half of David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind

These contrasts may one day serve as the basis for a more extensive study along the same academic lines as I’ve outlined above. But for now, let it suffice that the three-hour-and forty-minute screen adaptation of Gone With the Wind is itself a masterpiece of narrative filmmaking. Overlooking the dramatic merits and deficits of its screenplay (credited to Sidney Howard, who died before the film was released) or the cavalier treatment of slavery, as well as its muddled political views and skirting of the larger racism issue, GWTW represents the highpoint of Hollywood storytelling at its starriest.

One major reason for the film’s popularity at the time of its release was the coincidental element of a country (the U.S., in this instance), on the brink of war, sending its men folk off to battle while the women stayed put, waging their own fight to keep home and hearth intact. Scarlett O’Hara epitomized that daily struggle in her gutsy determination to hold on to her memories of the past, along with what remained of her family and property.

That the women of 1930s America related to Scarlett’s predicament and saw themselves in her heroic defense of the home front rightly bolstered box-office receipts to unheard-of levels. They loved the fact that Scarlett was a smart, and sometimes cold-hearted, small-business owner: a real-life Rosie the Riveter in every respect that no man could tame.

And speaking of taming men, contrary to commonly held wisdom, wise-cracking Clark Gable, in the role of a lifetime, was not exactly a shoe-in for the rugged Rhett Butler. Also considered were such marquee items as Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper, Basil Rathbone (author Mitchell’s personal choice), and Errol Flynn. Selznick knew that Gable was right for the part, but he was loath to haggle with his wily father-in-law over the star’s employment. Mayer drove a hard bargain in allowing Gable, then under contract to M-G-M, the opportunity to star in Selznick International’s mammoth production. A deal was finally struck between the two moguls whereby Selznick would secure Gable’s services in exchange for M-G-M’s obtaining the distribution rights — a win-win situation for both studios.

Replete with double entendres and humorous asides for all occasions, as the nefarious Captain Butler, Gable delivers his lines with easy affability and abundant charm and finesse, even though his Southern drawl comes and goes with equal ease. It’s one of the actor’s best roles and a shame the he didn’t win an Oscar for it (he lost out to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips, the sentimental favorite of that year).

Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland) with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard)
Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland) with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard)

With literally a cast of thousands at its disposal, some of the other key participants involved in GWTW were two British subjects, Leslie Howard as Ashley and Olivia de Havilland as Melanie, in addition to Laura Hope Crews as Aunt Pittypat, Hattie McDaniel (the first African-American to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) as Mammy, Butterfly McQueen as whiny housemaid Prissy, Thomas Mitchell as Gerald O’Hara, Harry Davenport as Dr. Meade, Ona Munson as Belle Watling, and Victor Jory, Isabel Jewell, Rand Brooks, Carroll Nye, Oscar Polk, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Ward Bond, Paul Hurst, Cammie King Conlon, Ann Rutherford, Evelyn Keyes, Barbara O’Neil, George Reeves, Fred Crane, Everett Brown, Howard Hickman, Leona Roberts, Jane Darwell, J.M. Kerrigan, William Bakewell, Irving Bacon, Louis Jean Heydt, and many other walk-ons, cameos and bit parts, including stuntman Yakima Canutt.

Directed initially by George Cukor, who was fired and replaced by Victor Fleming (Captains Courageous, The Wizard of Oz), with some scenes, quite possibly, helmed by director Sam Wood and even Selznick himself, all focus and attention belong to Vivien Leigh as the feisty Miss Scarlett. The celebrated and well-publicized search for the elusive Scarlett is the stuff of movie legend, leading up to Selznick and his brother, Myron’s, unique choice of Ms. Leigh (born in Darjeeling, British-India) for the challenging assignment.

Among the vast field of contenders and aspirants vying for the coveted part were Bette Davis, Paulette Goddard, Susan Hayward, Miriam Hopkins, Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett, Lana Turner, Tallulah Bankhead, Alicia Rhett (who appeared in the picture as Ashley’s sister, India), and Lucille Ball (!). In hindsight, of those mentioned Leigh was the only actress who measured up to Mitchell’s vivid description of the green-eyed, sweet-faced, yet “lusty with life” protagonist, copping an Academy Award (the first of two for the unstable performer) as Best Actress for her extraordinary efforts. With few exceptions, from start to finish Scarlett is on-screen for roughly the entire length of the picture. And Leigh keeps her frivolous nature front and center throughout.

Puzzlingly, about the only thing that wasn’t transferred to the screen from the novel was the war itself. Look again at the restored Blu-ray/DVD editions of the movie: you will search in vain for any of the most famous battles being depicted. What there is involves the citizens of Atlanta running for their lives to escape the advancing Union Army. There’s plenty of shelling and noise, and runaway carriages with galloping horses and men, as well as pandemonium and voluntary evacuations (for example, the hustle and bustle of the flighty Aunt Pittypat); and, of course, that impressionable stomach-churning scene at the “hospital” where Scarlett witnesses a Confederate soldier’s leg being amputated.

Rhett bids goodbye to Scarlett
Rhett bids goodbye to Scarlett, as he leaves her to join the war effort

Beyond that, about the only sequence where viewers actually experience the consequences of a war-ravaged South takes place near the Atlanta train depot, i.e., that spectacular crane shot of thousands upon thousands of the dead and dying, lying wounded and waiting for medical attention, while the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the tattered flag of Dixie flapping helplessly in the breeze — a visual metaphor for the movie’s title.

The score by Viennese-born composer Max Steiner, one of the longest to that time, is a certifiable classic among movie-music buffs. His instantly recognizable main Tara theme practically screams Hollywood to any and all corners. The production was designed by William Cameron Menzies, with art direction by Lyle Wheeler and costume designs by Walter Plunkett.

If this isn’t the greatest epic Hollywood’s Dream Factory has ever produced (in the final analysis, it’s all a matter of personal taste), then Gone With the Wind absolutely lives up to its reputation as a certifiable crowd-pleaser without equal.

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

One thought on “‘Gone With the Wind’ (1939) — A War Epic Without the War

    Corinne said:
    April 8, 2015 at 11:35 am

    I’ve not read all of War & Peace yet (I’m reading the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation), but I’ve read the first half. I honestly cannot see any correlation between Gone with the Wind and War & Peace? Not to say I don’t like the novel. But you refer to “literary acumen” and “extraordinary insight into the human condition,” and then proceed to back this up with — the fact that Gone with the Wind has pairs of people, and War & Peace also has pairs of people? Helene is “buxom” and therefore Mitchell must have been inspired by Tolstoy when she created Scarlett O’Hara? And that’s why Scarlett has correlations with Natasha? Because buxom characters begin and end with Leo Tolstoy?

    I can’t tell from this review if you are positing that Mitchell’s novel lacks Tolstoy’s “literary acumen” based on your own experience with the novel, or if you are merely quoting popular culture. I also cannot gauge if you are comparing the two original works (the 1936 Gone with the Wind and the 1869 War & Peace) — or if you are comparing two film adaptions of the novels? Or worse, if you are comparing an 1869 Tolstoy novel (no translation is offered, so are you referring to the original Russian?), alongside a 1939 Hollywood film adaption of Gone with the Wind about which Margaret Mitchell was dubious in production and offered nearly no feedback?

    You call this article “‘Gone with the Wind’ (1939) — The War Epic Without the War,” so I assume, in the end, while comparing two novelists’ “literary acumen,” you are actually referring to the 1939 film in this article?

    Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell is not a film, and it is not a war epic. It’s a Bildungsroman about a woman’s oppression in the antebellum South, and her journey to adulthood. Half the story happens after the war is over. I’m fairly certain Mr. Tolstoy did not own the patent on the female Bildungsroman, nor can he possibly be expected to have said everything there is to say about the female experience on the home front during a war, “literary acumen” or not. I do wish, though, if you’re going to toss out phrases like “literary acumen”, that you’d define “literary acumen” and point out places within the two novels where Mr. Tolstoy succeeds and Ms. Mitchell fails.

    You (seem) to suggest above that because there is an intrusion in the story Gone with the Wind by a military general (William T. Sherman) — this is proof that Ms. Mitchell’s novel is eerily similar to War & Peace because that novel had a military invader in it too, and also pairs of people in it? I don’t even know where to begin with the flaws in this sort of thinking. Surely you are not suggesting that military invasion stories have now been done — that Mr. Tolstoy has written them in their entirety, that Ms. Mitchell — though she was raised in Atlanta, Georgia by the children of the very history she wrote about — must owe her work to the legacy of Mr. Tolstoy? Her grandmothers and grandfathers were living General Sherman’s invasion of Atlanta before Tolstoy ever published War & Peace.

    I’m certainly not suggesting that an interesting comparison cannot be made between War & Peace and Gone with the Wind — the novels. Though I would suggest that you haven’t flushed out such a comparison above. Pairs of people in both novels, and a military invasion in both novels — makes what point exactly? One has literary acumen and one, I assume, does not? Is not an analysis. I do see you suggest that such an assessment needs to be an academic assessment, but why? If you’re going to bring it up, you ought to be able to go beyond the evidence you’ve offered as you compare the two books and suggest one is superior to the other in “literary acumen” and “extraordinary insight into the human condition.” Are you suggesting Mr. Tolstoy had a better gauge on what it might have been like to grow up in the American South and be told to feign stupidity, to act like a lady (whatever that means), to learn French rather than Mathematics, and that he was able to convey that extraordinary insight in War & Peace?

    Such a black and white “one has it and the other doesn’t” analysis misses the opportunity to benefit from what each novel offers. To contemplate, for example, how the two writers viewed society as disrupted by military invasion might make for an interesting study. How such an invasion impacted their respective characters, how the two novels resolved the military overthrow of the existing society, how they resolved the changing structure through their principle characters, what that might imply about the two existing cultures the author discusses, and perhaps the two perspectives from which the authors wrote (one male, nineteenth century, pacifist — I believe I recall reading — the other female, twentieth century, daughter of a suffragette and granddaughter of Confederate soldiers) — that could be an interesting analysis that treats both works seriously and does not imply that one is merely a watered-down version of the other. Which frankly, appears to be all that you’re saying above.

    Mitchell was (I believe) exploring the effects of societal oppression on a female character who is strong-minded, intelligent, and a natural leader in an era which considered such traits well outside her gender role. The destruction of society as it existed in the girl’s youth gave her an opportunity to test her natural instincts in a fallen civilization grimly attempting to recobble itself around her. The novel is about the girl — not the war. If War & Peace tackles this same topic, the analysis could be rich to read. I believe Tolstoy was very much considering the effects of war on society, at a mass level as well as an interior, individual level. I don’t believe that means he holds the patent on understanding of the human condition. If anything, one might suggest that Mitchell’s novel challenges his depiction of female response to war. That, my friend, would be an interesting study.

    But please. Do go on suggesting that a female writer made an impact in the literary world because she copied the work of a man. Such an analysis certainly complements the societal perspective Ms. Mitchell was tackling when she wrote her paler version of Mr. Tolstoy’s literary acumen and extraordinary insight on the human condition.

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