I have just staggered bleary eyed from a screening of this epic – 4 hours plus a 10 minute break, and it may well still be the greatest films ever made. I saw it years ago and it was the scenes of Atlanta under siege that stayed with me: the railroad yard full of injured soldiers, Roger Ebert claims”the whole Confederacy seems to lie broken and bleedng as far as the eye can see” as the the camera panned back to show more and more of them moving about. NO CGI. Incredible. And the escape with Rhett leading the horse and carriage outlined against a burning warehouse. Stunning stuff.
What I didn’t remember is the film starts with a long musical interlude with nothing happening on the screen, though I had to put up with pensioners yacking in the back row. Already my thoughts were turning to pensionercide. By half time I had had enough and stood up to berate them twice before they finally showed some respect – for the film, if not for the rest of us.
GOTW gets a lot of stick for apparently portraying the south through the wrong type of spectacles, but it does deal with a lot of serious issues. When Scarlett wants to employ prisoners Ashley condemns her; she asks what’s the difference between them and slaves, and he says he never mistreated them and was going to free them on his death, which is a good compromise. Roger Ebert claims “the movie signals its values in the printed narration that opens the film, in language that seems astonishing in its bland unquestioned assumptions”. But it was of its time, Roger, long before the civil rights movement, and it was very much on a par with the swashbuckling romances of Hollywood. As if Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood was a realistic exposition of the life of outlaws in northern England forests.
What struck me after all these years is the wonderful dynamic between Rhett and Scarlett. The film is as well written as the book that engrossed me so much that I kept going past my tram stop and was often late for work. Hattie McDaniel was a real star- funny warm and judgemental. When Scarlett returns to Tara with a cow, the manservant is told to milk it, but he complains he was a house slave. Another reminder of reality in the south; not all the slaves were picking cotton. It could be easy enough to condemn tis film for its lack of modern political and racial sensibilities, but that would deprive it of so much of its value as a piece of history, both the time it was set and when the film was made, and that makes it really special. The sound is suitably rough, at times the film looked like it was raining. It felt old, so good.
The film, as well as being so southern, was also very English. 3 of the 4 leads were English, and sounded it. And the final sequence with the death of Melanie was set during a fog, so even the weather was english. This is a reminder of how close the llnked between the south and England continued to be, while the Northern states concentrated onself sufficiency, the southerners loved to visit England to spend their cotton cash.
The cinematogorahy is superb. Characters dramatically outlined against a setting sun or fleeing looters, the action never stops. And unlike modern Hollywood, there is no happy ending, but there is hope. wherever there is Scarlett there is hope. Because, as Rhett knew from the outset, she’s tougher than any man.
BTW I was fascinated by the names chosen for southern families. Two Tarleton boys, including George Reeves, later superman, reminding me of one of the most hated men in the British Army during the War of Independence, Banastre Tarleton who famously taunted Wilberforce in the house of commons. And Scarlett’s hopeless love, Ashley Wilkes perhaps echoes the radical MP John Wilkes. A coincidence?