Monday, 15 November 2010
Tomorrow is another day
Knowing full well the danger in defining anything as the ‘greatest’ I’m still prepared to take the risk: Gone with the Wind is the greatest movie ever made! Not only is it a splendid piece of cinema, which won ten Oscars, an achievement rarely passed, but it went a long way to reshaping perceptions of the past. It created history by recreating the Old South as a vanished civilization, as a land of cavaliers and grand ladies. It’s a myth, I know, but it’s captivating and beautiful notwithstanding.
Based on Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling novel of the same name, Gone with the Wind, released in 1939 in the early months of another conflict, is the defining epic of the American Civil War, one that helped give Southerners a new sense of pride, still reflected today in the Confederate heritage and memento industry. I know the South, Georgia in particular, and I’ve long had my own romantic attraction to things past;
There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South…Here in this pretty world Gallantry took it’s last bow…Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave…Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered…A Civilization gone with the wind…
The objections arise at once, do they not? A land of slaves- this was no idyll, how could it be? Although widely praised at the time, the movie was still criticised by some for its whitewashed depictions of slavery, though generally people were a lot less sensitive to these issues in the 1930s than they are now. But slavery and the politics of slavery actually play a very small part in the movie, unlike Mitchell’s book, where the racism is blatant.
David Selznik, the movie’s producer, asked Sidney Howard, the principal screenwriter, to remove all reference to the Ku Klux Klan –though it features in a key scene in the novel -, because he was determined not to produce “an unintentional advertisement for intolerant societies in these fascist-ridden times.” It’s true that the black actors had to conform to the stereotypes of the day, but they are still depicted in a positive if patronising light. Even within these circumscribed limits there are some outstanding performances. Hattie McDaniel, who plays the larger than life figure of Mammy, was the first black actor to win an Oscar, that for best supporting actress.
If Gone with the Wind is not about slavery, in a deeper sense it’s not even about the Civil War, which only features as a background to the first half: it’s about survival; it’s about a determination to survive. It’s the story of Scarlett O’ Hara, played by Vivian Leigh, and her struggle to surmount the twin disasters of war and personal loss, to preserve her beloved Tara, the plantation home in which she grew up. She begins, before the war has had a chance to make its presence felt, as a rather shallow, self-centred individual. But as time and chance take over she finds new depths within herself, finds new strength, becoming an icon of renewal. For me the symbolism is obvious: Scarlett, a figure I love, is the South, for whom tomorrow was to be another day.