Well, who'd have thought it? The old war-horse turns out to be a thoroughbread; the circus was total theatre in disguise. Students of Cinema can stop combing the archives for neglected master-pieces. Gone With the Wind is a great film.
The most astonishing revelation about Gone With the Wind is how exquisitely it is shot. The transfer to wide screen (very well handled by MGM's technicians) only confirms the realization that the film could have been made yesterday. The technical brilliance of its camerawork extends from ravishingly beautiful moving shots to the subtler effects of lighting and camera placement. Carefully controlled backlighting enables several crucial scenes to be played substantially in darkness, a dramatic effect rarely associated with Hollywood high baroque.
Not great in the sense we've always thought of it, the fabled block-buster whose legend was part of our earliest childhood, a gold-plated hunk of racial memory, but great as only a work of art can be. Twenty-eight years, and the machinations of Mao, Stokely, and the Beatles, have not diminished its emotional power.
Its direction attributed solely to Victor Fleming, much of the picture was actually directed by Hollywood master George Cukor (Philadelphia Story, A Star Is Born) and, to Fleming's credit, it is impossible to see where Cukor left off. The shooting has a kind of gutsiness without equal today: that they dared to punch over three climactic scenes with nearly identical sweeping pans of sil-houettes-against-sunset is only a little less hard to believe than that all three shots are profoundly stirring.
The audacity of visual technique fits perfectly with the straight-forwardness of the narrative style. The unflinching sincerity of director and writer (Sidney Howard, with assisst from Ben Hecht and Scott Fitzgerald) transcends Margaret Mitchell's soap opera, giving Gone With the Wind the truly epic quality of the best films of John Ford. At the very least, it depicts the passage of time better than any other picture I've seen; we share with the characters the memory of scenes as if they had occurred 15 years before. Our sense of history is reinforced by the obvious visual deterioration from peace to war, and far more so by the well-observed contrast between genteel ante-bellum wealth and bourgeois Reconstruction opulence.
From producer David O. Selznick's overall conception to the small details of costume and set decoration, Gone With the Wind has an innate grace, an elegance and dignity that has disappeared from movie-making. Even the rapid succession of disasters in the final 20 minutes--Scarlett's miscarriage, her daughter's fatal accident, Rhett's madness and Melanie's death--gains complete plausibility from the nuances of performnace and the stylistic subtlety of direction.
The acting remains irresistible. Clark Gable's appeal is eternal--witness the admiring gasps at his first on-screen appearance. He is the supremely confident male, the ultimate proof of his virility coming not in he-man scenes but at the moment when, talking baby-talk to his week-old daughter, he projects the ineffable tenderness of a proud and strong father. The breathtaking bravura of his proposal scene to Vivien Leigh sweeps not only the lady off her feet but the whole audience as well.
Leslie Howard's delicately crafted Ashley Wilkes manages to embody both the glamor and the shoddiness of the Southern gentleman myth. Set against Gable's robustness, his sensitivity and final impotence illuminates the inadequacy of the chivalric code of honor in nineteenth-century industrial America. Olivia de Havilland triumphantly transforms the ludicrously good-natured Melinie Wilkes into a full-blooded character. Thanks to Miss De Havilland, Melanie's mild goodness becomes a genuine and ever-increasing source of strength for the other characters. The film wisely refrains from showing the scene in which she restores Gable's sanity; we have already developed such complete faith in her power over others that an actual depiction of it would be redundant.
Vivien Leigh as Scarlett is not quite what Margaret Mitchell had in mind. The book opens with the line, "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful." This Scarlett is. So beautiful that every time she has a close-up we are in danger of forgetting what the movie is about. Rarely has an actress invested her beauty with so much variety and expressiveness. Miss Leigh's performance starts in her face and works outward, refusing to compromise Scarlett's bitch-coldness with an appeal to sympathy. War and poverty violently propel her into adulthood, giving her no time to mature; beneath the ruthless woman, Miss Leigh always betrays traces of the spoiled young girl. She is not alternately shrewd and charming, but both at once, too huge a character to elicit either admiration or scorn.
In the flawless supporting cast, Hattie McDaniel as Mammy gives a performance of star quality. Although a master of comic technique, she never sacrifices her role to the easy laugh; the development of her character through the years is the rock on which Gone With the Wind is built. Indeed, all the Negroes (even Butterfly McQueen, with the immortal "Lawsy, Miz Scahlet, Ah don' know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies!") are so carefully individualized as characters that it is absurd to label them stereotypes or criticize the film for racial naivete.
Max Steiner's music cannot be overlooked. In the new six-channel stereo version, this granddaddy of all epic films scores towers higher above its descendants than ever. Discovering the nuances of orchestration is worth the price of admission; even the Wagnerian use of leitmotif succeeds in furthering the picture's emotional impact.
Whether there actually was, as the Prologue states, "a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields" is irrelevant. Gone With the Wind convinces us that there was, and like the Iliad, becomes as much a part of the national heritage as the story it tells.