“Fiddle-dee-dee! War, war, war; this war talk’s spoiling all the fun at every party this spring. I get so bored I could scream. Besides… there isn’t going to be any war.” – Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh)
Creating the iconic war film Gone With The Wind was as much a conflict as it portrayed, with directors like George Cukor and Sam Wood attached to the project before Victor Fleming got lone responsibility and credit. Katharine Hepburn was a favorite for the part of Scarlett O’Hara, but the actress herself felt she was wrong for the part (despite having the right hair color that gives the leading character her name). But although the film’s creation was disjointed, the final piece is a paragon for future filmmakers, both in its epic scope and minute detail.
The story itself is not intricate — Southern belle and master manipulator Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) goes through men like Confederate soldiers go through boots during the Civil War era and through Reconstruction. Everything she does is to attract Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), the man she really loves who marries shrinking violet Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). But then Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) shows up, a rogue blockade runner who’s as taken by her passion as she is by Ashley’s milk-toast existence.
Of the 1930s film heroines, Scarlett is perhaps one of the most progressive. Everything in the beginning revolves around her and her ability to hold everyone’s attention, but as soon as the war touches her life and destroys everything she thought she knew of living, her priorities shift. “Even if I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill, as God as my witness I’ll never go hungry again,” she says in one of the most memorable cinema scenes ever shot. That she does, just to keep herself and her family (including Melanie, of all people) afloat. She’s a wife first, but turns into a warrior and a businesswoman with a keen sense of how to make money.
That’s not to say she’s without her demons, and Leigh emphasizes these through Scarlett’s faux naivety that she plays up when it’s convenient. She visits Rhett in prison dressed in the famous drapery dress out of her own pride. Later, she obsesses over money. The problem with Ashley, she realizes, is that the money was never important to him. The Wilkes’ barbeque for Scarlett is about the status and ability to flaunt. For him, it was the people they’d have over and the ability to share the summer bounty. Her first two husband were entirely devoted to her, not her goals. But then Rhett comes along and is just as possessed by possessions — including his greatest belonging, Scarlett — as she has been the whole time. Gable exudes the rogue charm needed to convince audiences he’s a money-hungry man who also loves Scarlet, mostly because of her love for the same things.
There are some touchy aspects of Gone With The Wind, such as its romanticism of slavery and plantation hierarchies. Mammie (Hattie McDaniel) went from earning the actress the first Oscar awarded to a black actor to becoming a stereotype for advertisers to exploit. Scarlett’s hiring of prisoners in what looks to be a new form of slavery at her mill is deplorable but passable as “a way of doing business.” Confederate soldiers are pitiable in both the sweeping scene of Scarlet trying to find Dr. Meade among the wounded and in the claustrophobic hospital setting. Meanwhile, the only Yankee soldier tries to rob Scarlet.
Gone With The Wind is a war and historical drama, but it also shows the progress of a woman realizing what she really loves. It’s not Ashley or Rhett, but her heritage on Tara and the way life was when she was younger — something she’ll never have again, but definitely the driver for a film that’s enthralling in its scope and detail.