Gone With The Wind (1939)
Gone With The Wind is a serious problem for me.
On the one hand, as a movie, it’s pretty good. The cinematography’s great, the actors are gorgeous, the sense of an epic is powerful and heartfelt, and the score is top-notch.
On the other hand, most of that is also true of Triumph of the Will, and it’s hard to escape the comparison.
Gone With The Wind is a genuine landmark in the history of white supremacy in America. It was the second massive blockbuster film in the history of the medium (the first, of course, being Birth of a Nation). Adjusted for inflation and revivals, it may be the biggest moneymaker in the history of film as a medium. And it is 100% about how the Confederacy were the good guys in the Civil War. There is no ambiguity on that point.
For decades after this movie, Western heroes were shown as having fought for the Confederacy, which was meant to signify their untamable, heroic, rebellious spirit. John Wayne alone played like eight of that guy. The view of the Confederacy evinced in the opening crawl of this movie is the one still held by enough people to influence the U.S. Senate. The poisonous lie this film is based on continues to damage my beloved United States a century and a half after the end of the Civil War, when the opponents of my country and its principles were defeated. Well, defeated in theory, anyway.
In practice, a very strong case can be made that the Confederacy ignored its defeat and simply continued enslaving and murdering black people. The historical record supports that, once you dig past the cleaned-up version usually taught in schools. That’s because the cleaned-up version is usually heavily influenced by what’s called the Dunning School, the idea that the Confederates were the good guys in the Civil War, a tragic Lost Cause that all right-thinking people mourn.
If you were to sum that sick, hateful nostalgia up into a paragraph and throw in some rather Germanic capitalization, it would sound more or less exactly like this:
“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind...”
Which, yes, brings us back to that damn movie. It opens with that cute little quote in faux-medieval calligraphy, and then spends three hours telling us about what an awful tragedy it was when Scarlett O’Hara lost almost all the human beings she legally owned, and how strong and courageous she is to manipulate men into buying her stuff. And, as I mentioned above, it does quite a job of telling that story, to the point that Gone With The Wind is a popular wedding theme today, now, in the 21st century.
For me, Vivian Leigh’s enormous cuteness simply can’t outweigh this film’s massive role in a harmful and toxic lie that makes America a worse place. I realize not everyone feels the same way. I’ve recently been reminded that a large minority of Americans would rather believe in the good old days of master and slave, when it was just straight-up legal to kill black people.
What did this beat?
Dark Victory, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice And Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard Of Oz, and Wuthering Heights.
Some folks call 1939 the greatest year in movie history. They’re not entirely wrong. It was an incredible year; just the movies not nominated for this list include far too many classics to list. I’ve seen a lot of them, and all of the 1939 movies I’ve seen piss me off less than Gone With The fucking Wind.