Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
It's very rare that any medium of entertainment can give one an authentic, vivid sense of reality and life. All stories are about select moments of time and places in the characters' lives, but only the truly great ones are able to define their realities well enough so the audience can experience it just as the characters do. Therefore, "Gone With The Wind" deserves accolades for its ability to tell the epic story it does, in such a crafted, intricate, and entertaining manner. It's a crowning achievement, not only in film making, but for storytelling itself.
The film takes place in Georgia before, during, and after the Civil War. This plays a major factor in the film's success. To use such a historic setting presents many possibilities and problems since no one was alive at the time to verify its accuracy. It might also seem cliche, boring and other such deterrent factors to potential viewers. Can a story set so long ago be relatable now? The film confronts all these problems, paradoxically, by not confronting them. It doesn't simply plug in the "right thing" at the "right time," it creates an entire reality where everything makes sense and said concerns are irrelevant.
Building a strong foundation is important to all forms of media, without which, what is there to build on? We're given some backstory here and learn a little about our characters, especially our main character, Scarlett O'Hara (Leigh), a beautiful Southern Belle with a will of steel, a cunning wit, and a tremendous sense of liberty in such an oppressive time. She knows how her society works, wherein everything she does can and will play a role in the shaping of her life and those around her.
Right from the beginning we realize how determined she is to have her way no matter what the consequences may be. Being the most sought-after woman allows her to manipulate men (and their women) to ensure she gets her way, whether it be obvious (i.e. who will be the one to get her food), or subtle (i.e. getting married just to spite someone). The man she claims to love is Ashley Wilkes (Howard), a modest gentleman who does not seem to have the same passion for her as she does for him. He isn't so arrogant and demanding as Scarlett, in fact, he's engaged to a woman with a personality much more like his. Her name is Melanie (De Havilland), and she is one of the sweetest, kindest, and most likable characters one will ever see. She and Scarlett become very dear friends, but she never suspects the jealously Scarlett has for her, and the love she has for her husband. Her meekness is both her strongest and weakest characteristic - it defines who she is, but doesn't give her much emotional self-defense.
Acting a catalyst to the love triangle, and to the story as a whole is the dapper, stong-willed, cunning, cocky Southern business and military man Captain Rhett Butler (Gable). He's quite a character all right - everyone listens to what he has to say even though he's got a bad reputation. Butler makes no apologies for his vast amount of money nor his behavior. He tells everyone the much-needed truth in the rigid caste-like society where freewill doesn't seem to exist, everything is done out of honor and tradition. For example, in his first appearance Butler tells his fellow Southerners there's no way the South could defeat the North if war were to break out. This angers them, not for his lack of faith, but because he has the gall to say it aloud and boastfully at that. "Do we have ammunition factories? Do we have food? Do we have a navy? All we have is tobacco." All true statements and yet the South still insists he's wrong.
Butler is a shifty character to be sure, but he takes such pride in his arrogance it's appealing. Scarlett notices this too when she first sees him, and from the look Butler gives her, we know he's not going to stop until he has her. But Scarlett can't get past her need for Ashley, and during a scene which sets the stage for the grand story, Butler learns of this and continues to throw it back at Scarlett forever.
And so the story goes on, with Scarlett being thrown obstacle after obstacle in her life. The conflicts she must overcome range from taking care of her entire family to finding a proper husband, especially after she is "marked" for life when her first husband dies. This gives the film many opportunities to bring in more characters into the epic story. Some are vital for only a few scenes, but their true significance will endure throughout the film. In most films only a few characters exist for support in background, but this film is more realistic and believable as it incorporates a supporting cast the size of a small town and everyone has significance. Even people in the background seem more than just extras wandering the set. The costuming design is outstanding so that the film makes for a real sense of time and place. The film makers could have easily set more scenes indoors and narrowly focused to avoid having to show the outside, real world, but these types of simple approaches are never taken.
The first half of the film depicts the traumatic experience the South faced at the last days of the Civil War. Fleming is able to convey the horror of it all by painting an image of destruction and letting the viewer decide just how bad it is. One scene has Scarlett working as a nurse at a military hospital while we hear a soldier in the background screaming, "No! Not my leg! Don't cut off my leg!" Another scene shows her simply trying to cross a street, but as the camera pulls back, we see that her path is blocked by hundreds of wounded soldiers, but it is their moaning that's more graphic than all the bloody gore could ever be.
As the second half begins, the film concentrates more on Scarlett as a completely independent woman who single-handedly takes care of her family and Melanie just to spite the tyrany of the North. She manages to resurrect the family plantation, but all the willpower she has can't help her when she must pay exuberant taxes set by the North after the South's ultimate defeat. This brings Rhett Butler back into the picture and thus begins their torrid love-hate relationship.
Most of the second half of the film is somehow related to the relationship (or lack thereof) between Rhett and Scarlett. Each uses the other for personal gain, but at the same time they still feel an intimate connection with each other. Scarlett continues to use her manipulative powers over men to get what she wants and because Rhett can't help but want her more every time she tries to one-up him such as marrying another man and taking over his business.
They say opposites attract, but the conflict between Rhett and Scarlett goes way beyond opposing personalities, it borders on magnetic polarization. They need each other and know this, yet they never seem truly happy together. Perhaps they mistake love for passion, and the film leaves it up to us to make this call. Both have things the other wants and vice versa, but when they compromise, is it just to get their own way or because they actually care for each other. Love and the perception of love are two completely separate things and throughout the final act of the film, we're left wondering if Rhett and Scarlett ever truly loved each other and why. Gable and Leigh do have great chemistry, always leaving the viewer wondering which emotions were authentic and which were manufactured. All? None? Either way is possible and it's a mystery that cannot be solved even upon repeated viewings.
It's safe to say most of us won't live such overly dramatic lives as those in "Gone With The Wind," but it's still a masterpiece for its ability to give us a sense that we've just experienced a life's worth of joy and pain.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good Date Movie
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older