Monday, May 31, 2010

Symbolism in Gone with the Wind


In “Gone with the Wind” (1939), when in the closing days of the American Civil War Scarlett O’Hara, played by Vivien Leigh, berates Melanie, played by Olivia de Havilland for feeding starving Confederate soldiers straggling home. Melanie relates that her husband Ashley was last known to be in a Northern prison camp…

“And maybe if he’s alive and well, he’s on some northern road right now, and maybe some Northern woman is giving him a share of her dinner and helping my beloved to come back home to me.”

Melanie’s typically sweet response reflects in some measure those Southern women who decorated the graves of Union soldiers after the war, which was the beginning of our Memorial Day. Today, we cover Memorial Day with a look at symbols in “Gone with the Wind.”

I have to warn you, this is going to be a long post. You might want to get a sandwich.

We’ve touched on Memorial Day and the Civil War as depicted in movies in previous posts on “Friendly Persuasion” (1956) and here on a compilation of Civil War movies. We noted particularly in this latter post that most Memorial Day television marathons show World War II movies. Since it was the American Civil War that gave us Memorial Day, it’s interesting to look at our film treatment of that war.

“Gone with the Wind” presents some interesting aspects of that era, especially of how that war has come down to us in symbols. Symbols are very important to us. They are stand-ins for deeper meaning or fuller explanation. A wreath on a soldier’s grave is a symbol. A Confederate flag is a symbol. We are still dealing with repercussions, not of the war, but of the war’s complicated aftermath when this flag first developed into a powerful symbol. The war’s aftermath constitutes most of “Gone with the Wind”.

Only last month, Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) drew criticism when he issued a Confederate History Month proclamation that paid tribute to the state’s heritage as a member of the Confederate States of America, and omitted any mention of slavery. Gov. McDonnell explained that the proclamation was devoted to issues he felt were most "significant" to Virginia. The proclamation was requested by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

He afterwards re-issued the proclamation with the additional paragraph:

WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders, and the study of this time period should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history…

It was admirable for him to correct the omission. Some may wonder how in this day someone might forget to mention slavery as a significant issue in the American Civil War. On the other hand, most of us by now have grown cynical with the knowledge that there are a vast number of people who dismiss facts which are uncomfortable for them.

However, part of this dismissing of facts, or at least of in-depth explanations, is due to our inevitable packaging of historical events in the form of convenient, no fuss-no mess symbols. These symbols are vivid, triggering instant recognition the same way corporate logos and commercial jingles are used. Sometimes they are used with the same purpose of “selling” an idea or image to us to trigger our acceptance and allegiance to that idea, the way commercials try to trigger our allegiance to a product.

Sometimes, however, we must fault our own laziness in teaching history this way, and our laziness in accepting history this way.

“Gone with the Wind” is a lush, lavish soap opera about survival, told through memorable characters and a dramatic backdrop of the Civil War and Reconstruction periods. It is excellent storytelling, and is a movie that many of us can watch again and again. Despite our familiarity with it, it remains captivating and enjoyable.

It is not an historical documentary. It is storytelling, and yet for many people it is possibly their introduction to the American Civil War, and perhaps even the sum total of their knowledge.

Plucking only a few symbols from this movie tells us a lot about our attitudes about the Civil War based on our ignorance.

When Scarlett receives a letter announcing the death of her first husband during the War, his commander writes, “Though Captain Hamilton was not vouchsafed a hero’s death upon the field of glory, he was none the less a hero, dying of pneumonia, following an attack of measles.” (For one thing, the penmanship is too modern to be 19th century style, but we’ll let that go.)

I can recall watching the film with others who chuckled at this, since it implies that goofy Charles Hamilton was a bit of a loser for dying in this unheroic manner. I believe probably the film’s famous producer, David O. Selznick, thought the same thing and so emphasized this frame of film where we see the letter with the flowery language and the irony of what is perceived to be an ignominious death.

However, most soldiers who died in the American Civil War died of disease, not battle wounds. We also might note that this is especially significant when we know that the battle deaths occurred in the thousands.

To put that into perspective, in the past seven years over 4,700 American service personnel have been killed in Iraq. As terrible a price that is to pay, in the four-year period of the American Civil War over 200,000 battle deaths occurred, North and South. The deaths due to disease were over 400,000, more than twice that of deaths due to battle wounds. About two-thirds of the over 600,000 military personnel who died in the Civil War died of illness.

Many battles resulted in a loss of 30 percent of the soldiers on the field. Thousands were mowed down in minutes. We could not, and would not, endure such statistics today. For deaths due to sickness to top that alarming rate is astounding.

So, Charles Hamilton’s sickbed fatality is not so worth smirking at after all. It is not a joke; it is a tragedy.

Another symbol we may address is the Confederate flag. One of the most striking scenes in the film is when Scarlett wanders out of the hospital to look for Dr. Meade, played by Harry Davenport. She walks out to the railroad yard where wounded men have been deposited and are awaiting treatment. As the camera pans back, we see her become smaller and smaller as she disappears into a sea of wounded men. Finally, the camera pans back far enough for us to have a bird’s-eye view, with a tattered Confederate flag snapping in the breeze in the foreground.

It is a wonderful symbol of pride being humbled by defeat in battle, of a proud young nation struggling to establish its identify under bleak circumstances.

But the so-called Confederate flag, that dramatic design of blue crossed bars on a red field, with stars for each Confederate state in the blue inverted cross, was never the flag of the Confederate States of America. It would never have flown in this manner from a town flagpole at the rail yard. It is a magnificent and stirring piece of symbolism, (movies love visuals) but it is the product of Hollywood imagination.

There were several flags of the Confederacy. The first was a blue flag with a single gold star, the so-called Bonnie Blue Flag, as in the song, “Hurrah, hurrah, for Southern rights, hurrah! Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star!” It is also where the daughter of Scarlett and Rhett Butler, played by Clark Gable, got her name: Bonnie Blue Butler.

This flag was followed by other designs, mostly based on a variation of the United States flag. Here you can see an example behind Harry Davenport as he conducts the ball. Here again it is behind the bandleader who announces to the crowd they are about to play the Virginia Reel. The flag was nicknamed The Stars and Bars.

(The only thing more dashing than Clark Gable is Clark Gable dancing the Virginia Reel. The ball sequence contains a lot of symbolism to illustrate the gracious and elegant heritage of the planter class of the Old South.)

What we know today as the so-called Confederate flag was actually a square battle flag. Flag bearers marched out onto the field of battle along with their company of soldiers. The Stars and Bars appeared too much like the Stars and Stripes on the battlefield, so General P.G.T. Beauregard, Army of Northern Virginia, sought a different design after the First Battle of Bull Run (or First Manassas) to keep troops from being confused in battle and being the victims of friendly fire.

This design was created and was used in various versions for many battle flags for different fighting units of the Confederacy. Late in the war in 1865, part of this design was used in yet another new official flag of the Confederacy. Today part of this design is found on the flags of many southern states.

What makes people today recognize this flag as the Confederate flag is perhaps due to two circumstances. One, the South lost the war, and when devastation occurs it is usual for people to blame politicians first. It may be that the Stars and Bars, though revered as their nation’s flag early in the war, became a bitter reminder of a failed government of a country that no longer existed.

The South’s reverence was transferred from their government and their cause, to their veterans who had fought so bravely and so skillfully against incredible odds. They took the old Army of Northern Virginia battle flag design to their hearts as a symbol of the courage of their men.

A second circumstance is that this flag was early on adopted by the post-war fraternal group, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, that same, still active group which prompted Virginia Governor McDonnell to issue a Confederate History Month proclamation.

There were other circumstances that took root in the late 19th century and continued to blossom in the 20th: the Ku Klux Klan adopting this flag as their standard, as did many hate groups, Neo-Nazis and the like, whose reverence for a self-styled superior heritage is as twisted as their ignorance of the true history of this flag. Today the flag is still used in both ugly hate demonstrations, and also in completely innocuous venues. Neither use, however, either as threat or as an innocent gesture of regional pride, displays an accurate knowledge of the history of this flag.

But the symbolism that has come down to us, that symbolism which spurs us to instant recognition, is complex, mainly due to ignorance of how this flag was really used. To some today it will symbolize the Old South. To others, a rebellion against oppressive government. To others, it means racial domination.

General Beauregard only wanted a battle flag to keep his men from being fired upon by members of his own army in the confusion of battle.

The truth may not always set us free, but it can sometimes shed a light on things.

As for the above-mentioned Ku Klux Klan, this organization was also used by some as a symbol of righteous Southern men preserving their heritage and defending the honor of their women. Director D.W. Griffith famously brought enormous controversy upon himself when he depicted Klansmen as heroes in “Birth of a Nation” (1915), see previous post part 1 here and part 2 here.

GWTW delves into this vigilante-as-hero only a bit in the scene where Scarlett is attacked in Shanytown, and Ashley, played by Leslie Howard, and her second husband, Frank, played by Carroll Nye, along with a gang of other noble heroes of the gentlemen class, must “clean them out”. They set fire to the camp of indigents.

Union solider Ward Bond barks,

“A lot of those shantys were burned. A couple of men were killed. It’s about time you Rebels learn you can’t take the law into your own hands.”

It is mild castigation, and we may note that there is no further reference in the film to the Klan that would become famous as an underground group of terrorists whose sole purpose was to oppress African-Americans, Catholics, Jews, and foreign-born Americans. Hanging, along with mutilation, and setting fires to churches, was a favorite pastime. It might also be noted that the Klan enjoyed its zenith not in the immediate years following the war, but in the 1920s, only the decade before this film was made.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s did much to dispel the myth of respectability, and to shine a light on the hypocrisy of so-called respectable men who would see oppression of others as their path to righteousness, as an expression of their heritage.

But GWTW treads lightly on such racial issues, which is quite a trick to pull off. To be sure, the film is racist in its depiction of “good” blacks as being the servile ones. We have Gerald O’Hara, played by Thomas Mitchell, exhorting Scarlett to be firm but gentle with “inferiors.” We have the symbol of the well-dressed haughty (I believe the term back in the day would be “uppity”) black man singing “Marching Through Georgia” to insult the Southerners. We have the sharpster selling gullible ex-slaves on the “40 acres and a mule” slogan. All visual symbols strung together to be a kind of easy survey course in American history. No fuss, no mess, no in-depth explanation.

However, one can see a degree of sensitivity in Mr. Selznick’s helmsmanship. There are interesting clues to make one suspect he was fighting the good fight from behind the lines.

For instance, though Scarlett is attacked by ruffians, those ruffians were white men. The man who came to her rescue was Big Sam, played by Everett Brown, one of the former slaves on her family’s plantation.

In another scene, Big Sam and several other slaves are being marched through Atlanta, taken off their plantations by the Confederate army, to dig defense entrenchments. As they walk along, they ironically sing the spiritual, “Let My People Go.”

And though the African-American actors portray servile slaves, they nevertheless have their own distinct personalities. One of the great joys of this film is watching Hattie McDaniel holler at everybody.

She won a Best Supporting Actress award for her role, the first African-American actor to win an Academy Award. Her best scene is when she is slowly walking up the grand staircase with Melanie, weeping over the death of Bonnie, and explaining the tragedy to Melanie and to us. Her emotional breakdown is one of the most genuine scenes in this film. Here she is not a servile slave, she’s a heartbroken woman, and we feel her agony. She was a great actress, and this is obviously a scene David O. Selznick can be proud to have in his film, because the two actresses in it transcend being either black or white. It just doesn’t matter at that moment.

Prissy, played by Butterfly McQueen, may be empty-headed, but she inflicts her will in her own unique ways. However, the producer missed the opportunity to show the character Uncle Peter, played by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson in a better light.

This character is the slave of Aunt Pittypat Hamilton. Because Aunt Pittypat, played by Laura Hope Crews, is even more empty-headed than Prissy, in the novel this house servant with more sense than anybody actually runs the home. Uncle Peter decides when Melanie may put up her hair and go to parties, and when Charles may have a larger allowance, and he sends him to Harvard. In the movie, we only get to see Uncle Peter chasing a chicken in the rain. It does nothing for the dignity of the man we see in the novel.

One more scene I find interesting if only because I think it’s significant that it has been ignored, is when after the war Scarlett gives her deceased father’s gold pocket watch to their servant, now former slave, Pork. He tells her that she should sell it to pay taxes on the property, but she insists that she would rather give the watch to him, as he was her father’s devoted manservant for many years.

Pork, played by Oscar Polk, is choked up, and Scarlett replies, “Don’t cry. I can stand everybody’s tears but yours.”

There’s more going on here than Scarlett showing kindness. Vivien Leigh actually takes Oscar Polk’s hands in hers, places the watch in his hands. Then she briefly cups his hands in hers and pats them in a comforting manner.

It lasts only a moment, but consider, in the later years of the Civil Rights Movement, in 1968, after so much progress had been made changing the attitudes of bigotry, there occurred the famous incident between Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte. British singer Petula Clark hosted a television special with Mr. Belafonte as her guest star. At the end of one duet they sang together, she lightly touched his arm in an unthinking, friendly gesture.

A representative of the show’s sponsor, Chrysler-Plymouth, requested that gesture be edited out. He did not want to offend his southern market. A white woman touching a black man. Petula Clark, who owned the show, stood her ground and would not allow the gesture to be edited out.

Nearly 30 years earlier in GWTW, a British white actress touches a black actor in a similar gesture, in an era where this could have been a huge problem with the film distribution in the south. It could have so easily been edited out.

It was left in. Perhaps it drew no fire because the woman was supposed to be the mistress of the house, and the man was supposed to be the servant. It was still a white woman touching a black man with affection. I wonder if David O. Selznick knew what he got away with.

All kinds of symbols. We make too much of some; we make too little of others.

The most entertaining aspect of GWTW is Scarlett’s and Rhett’s survival instincts that carry them through so much. When the war is over, Scarlett’s active mind switches immediately from peace to profit:

“Ashley’ll be coming home. We’ll plant more cotton! Cotton ought to go sky high next year.”

She sees before anyone the need to shake off the old failed experiment of the Confederacy and live for the here and now. She sees her downtrodden, confused father shuffle bits of paper, and asks him what they are.

“Bonds. They’re all we’ve saved, all we have left.”

“What kind of bonds?”

“Why, Confederate bonds, of course, Daughter.”

She blows off his reverence both for his bonds and his Confederacy.

We might take a leaf out of Scarlett’s book, or rather, author Margaret Mitchell’s, when we consider the importance of landing on our feet economically. Margaret Mitchell related that she first began to learn the story of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction when she was still a child and she played hooky from school. Her mother took her on a ride in the country, showing her dilapidated mansions and told her stories of people who could not, or would not adapt, how a whole society collapsed. She impressed upon her daughter the need for education and a sense of perspective, as much as the need for grit in a changing world. It left a seed in young Margaret’s mind.

David O. Selznick may have embroidered his film with flowery verbiage about “Cavaliers” and gallantry that is no more, “of a civilization Gone with the Wind…”, but Margaret Mitchell saw the less romantic and practical side of it, and that is what is most intriguing about the book, and most intriguing, when we see it, in the film.

Some have looked at the novel and the film as dismissing all that was abhorrent in the Old South, but Margaret Mitchell and all Southerners, white and black, deserve their pride of heritage. Margaret Mitchell, Governor McDonnell, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans included, none of us should feel defensive over the ways of our ancestors (especially to the point of diminishing the importance of certain facts), anymore than we have a right to take credit for their good deeds and achievements. Only what we ourselves do and say is what sticks to us. Let the past lie, but don’t kick dirt over it.

What we must all not allow is too much wallowing in symbols that don’t really mean what we want them to.

The American Civil War era was awash in contradictions. (Consider another brief scene in GWTW of a town band playing “Dixie” while the crowd waited for casualty lists after a major battle. The song so identified with the South was written by a Northerner for a minstrel show.)

The war was fought by southerners as a reaction to what they felt was a too-strong centralized government favoring northern interests. The main right they wanted to preserve was the right to own slaves, upon which their economy was based. When Abraham Lincoln was elected President, a man who promised only to limit slavery in new territories, not to abolish it, the southern states kicked over the checkerboard, scattered the checkers and decided they didn’t want to play anymore. The idea of separatism has always been appealing when frustration reaches its peak.

They weren’t the first to think of secession. New England wanted to secede over the War of 1812 because fighting with Great Britain was destroying their economy. Just after the Revolution, farmers in western Massachusetts erupted in Shays’ Rebellion as a response to what they felt were eastern merchants oppressing them economically. Such rebellions never end well, at least not in a nation where working together has always benefited us more. Our whole system is specifically designed to capture the benefits of compromise. Separatists, and special interest groups, should remember that.

It is remarkable to think that after the terrible hatred and violence of the American Civil War, some southern ladies decided to honor the graves of enemy soldiers by placing flowers upon them. By such simple and gentle measures are great nations reborn.

(For another angle on Northern and Southern reconciliation, have a look at my essay on Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller and The American Accent on my New England Travels blog.)

Next year marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War when southern separatists attacked the United States military post at Fort Sumter. (The order to fire was given by the above-mentioned General Beauregard, who later gave us “the Confederate flag”.) We’ll be up to our eyeballs in symbolism. But I wonder if the anniversary will be as important to reviving interest in the Civil War as did the 100th anniversary commemorations in the early 1960s?

GWTW was re-released in theaters in 1961 just in time for the 100th festivities (again in 1967 in a 70mm stereophonic version). Now on DVD, I wonder if it will play any part in capturing the imaginations of a younger generation for the American Civil War? Or, perhaps for many the movie just seems to carry a greater impression of Hollywood in the 1930s than it does of the Old South.

16 comments:

elena maria vidal said...

Fascinating post!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Elena.

Matthew Coniam said...

Splendid stuff. Now I'm going to read it through again.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Matthew. Again? For heaven's sake, stop and have something to eat first, or take a nap. Save your strength.

John Hayes said...

A remarkable post--a lot of history here that I hadn't known. Having lived for several years in the south in the 80s, I do think that southerners & northerners may still have differing views of a war that took place almost 150 years ago. I hadn't known that the "Stars & Bars" (as it is now known) was a battle emblem. Still, I must say that when I see it displayed--& yes, I have seen it displayed in rural Idaho--it always gives me a very uneasy & unsettling feeling. Whatever its original meaning & purpose, I do think it "means" something much different now. The Civil War era is so important to our history--thanks for this--very good.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, John. I agree that it is unsettling when hate groups use that flag as an emblem, but consider that General Robert E. Lee would be just as sick about it.

When a white supremacist group uses it, it means to them a symbol of their hatred and rebellion. To me, it means they are morons. That's the only message they're sending me.

Caftan Woman said...

Fascinating article, Jacqueline. I'll be sharing it with a lot of people.

I agree that it's a laziness that leads viewers to accept motion picture history as real history. One story, no matter how well told, is not meant to tell all stories associated with an era or event.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Caftan Woman. The interesting thing is that capsulating an epoch in history with visual symbols - like the carpetbagger singing, the 40 acres and a mule, etc., is still used today, but I suppose it's the most efficient way to tell the audience we are in a certain place in time. Take "Forrest Gump" or "Mr. Holland's Opus" where we are treated to a survey of many decades by using a blast of music, a pan across a crowd with particular dress and hair styles, etc. The difference between that and "GWTW", I suppose, is that we can remember the decades in "Gump" and "Mr. Holland" and so we know if the movie is accurate or not. It becomes a fun game of seeing how much we remember. Did we have a car like that? Did we dress like that?

But nobody alive today has any personal experience of the Civil War era, so we have to take what's shown to us on faith. Unless we've done a lot of research and know better.

Moira Finnie said...

This may be the most brilliantly researched and well written of your many, many excellent posts, Jacqueline.

My only question is could you please post a list of sources? I only ask since you have made me want to read more about the book, the film and the history you recounted so vividly here.

I agree that there are subtle attempts by Selznick to signal his sympathy for the alleged subservient characters, particularly seen in the parts played by Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen and Oscar Polk. Tragically, from what I have read about McDaniel's life in particular, the fact that there was such strength, rage and intelligence in her indelible performance as Mammy often made her the target of both sides of the racial divide. This higher profile role eventually earned her an Oscar, but it did not ensure her continued employment nor did it enable her to be at peace within her own industry and community.

This was a really outstanding piece. You should be very proud of yourself. Thank you so much for writing this fine, thought-provoking essay.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Moira, you're very kind.

I also feel sorry that Hattie McDaniel couldn't get a break. Not only for more challenging roles during her film career, but when she does such a spectacular job in a role like this, it's still a case of "damned if you do, damned if you don't."

Butterfly McQueen, too, took it on the chin for this role. But I like her in it. She's the only one in whole movie that Scarlett can't manipulate, not for one second. Scarlett even manages to manipulate Rhett once in a while and drive him nuts, but Prissy just goes along like she's wearing invisible armor. Except when Scarlett whacks her of course, but even that result is momentary.

I never thought of posting sources, but I supposed I could add something. Most of the facts are not gleaned from any one particular book, but from years of research on the Civil War for articles I've written. To any Civil War buff, a lot of these facts like the death by illness rates and the flag stuff are common knowledge. As for the Petula Clark/Harry Belafonte incident, I just remember that because it happened in my own lifetime. You could probably find the clip on YouTube these days.

If you're interested in reading about the Civil War, Shelby Foote and also Bruce Catton wrote quite famous narrative histories that are great reading. I do have one book on GWTW (the film) that's really fun. "Gone with the Wind - The Definitive Illustrated History of the Book, the Movie, and the Legend" by Herb Bridges and Terryl C. Boodman. (Simon& Schuster/Fireside, NY 1989). Lots of technical nuts and bolts, lots of production stills.

Thanks again.

mr. w.e. chimes said...

"Some have looked at the novel and the film as dismissing all that was abhorrent in the Old South, but Margaret Mitchell and all Southerners, white and black, deserve their pride of heritage."

Do you imagine black people are proud of having been slaves? I don't think there's anything wrong with enjoying a film, but it's impossible to view any film as an accurate, fair or justifiable depiction of history. Gone with the Wind is a fable whose symbolism and sentiment can easily be considered abhorrent because it attempts to romanticize an era underpinned by slavery... which I would hope most people consider abhorrent.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, mr. w.e. chimes and thank you for commenting. I agree GWTW is a fable, but your challenge, "Do you imagine black people are proud of having been slaves?" ignores the rest of that paragraph, let alone the rest of the essay. The point -- especially in this year of what may be, just like the recent reinactment ball in South Carolina, a marking of the 150th anniversary of the start of the war with other events of questionable taste -- is that we need not become defensive over the past to the point of making it more romantic than it really was. Pride is fine, but not to where pride is based upon fiction, particularly a fiction (like Gov. McDonnell's Confederate History Month proclamation mentioned above) that seems to dismiss the experiences of the slaves and even the entire significance of slavery as abhorrent and a cause of the war. My essay was not meant to defend GWTW as a justifiable depiction of history, but to point out the idiosyncracies of its imperfect symbolism. I do not imagine black people are proud of having been slaves, but should be proud of their ancestors being survivors.

mr. w.e. chimes said...

"to point out the idiosyncracies of its imperfect symbolism" seems to me an academic way of saying that the film is a contradiction. Which it is. There's no avoiding that in typical Hollywood fashion, Gone with the Wind is an attempt at historical revisionism -a sophisticated glorification of yet another shameful chapter in American history.

We need not go any further than the title of the film in relation to its opening gambit:

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.

Does that not suggest to you that the Old South (built and maintained on slavery) is being idealized at the heart of this film, I mean, aside form all the glorious images, narratives, dialogue and music?

The following quotes suggest to me that your essay attempts to do more than confront the film as a symbolic mess, but more to accept it as a tool with the power to influence people -which it does. I just wonder how they're being influenced given the central narrative and premise of the film.

"...one can see a degree of sensitivity in Mr. Selznick’s helmsmanship. There are interesting clues to make one suspect he was fighting the good fight from behind the lines."

"...And though the African-American actors portray servile slaves, they nevertheless have their own distinct personalities."

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

We obviously agree that the Old South is being idealized in this film. Your quoting from my post on Selznick's "fighting the good fight from behind the lines" and the African-American actors having "their own distinct personalities" despite being potrayed as servile -- if I understand you, you perceive that I am defending Selznick's maintaining a myth of the Old South.

Your remark: "The following quotes suggest to me that your essay attempts to do more than confront the film as a symbolic mess, but more to accept it as a tool with the power to influence people -which it does. I just wonder how they're being influenced given the central narrative and premise of the film." -- seems to ask for a defense of this film on my part.

My purpose is not to defend the film, or any that I discuss on this blog, but to examine it and discuss it. I agree this film may have influenced people at one time in how they viewed this era of American history, but I think it reflected, more than influenced, peoples' knowledge of that period in 1939. Today, I think we can agree it does not reflect most people's views on slavery. I believe it influences people even less, for it carries more about 1939 sensibilities than it does the 1860s.

mr. w.e. chimes said...

Thanks for the reply Jacqueline. And we are discussing the film, as was your intention with the essay, right?

“Symbols are very important to us. They are stand-ins for deeper meaning or fuller explanation.”

“The war’s aftermath constitutes most of ‘Gone with the Wind’.”

“It is not an historical documentary. It is storytelling, and yet for many people it is possibly their introduction to the American Civil War, and perhaps even the sum total of their knowledge.”

Not influential, only reflective?
Looking at the above quotes, do you see how I might be led to believe that you do defend the historical legitimacy of this film and therefore its overall sentiment? It’s interesting that you think in 1939 the film's influence was stronger than it is now and that that makes it less in need of criticism or provides you with some sort of alibi against my opinion of it glorifying slavery days. What I’m saying is that examining history through the distorted prism of a Hollywood movie is always dubious. If you want to examine the film within the history of film then that makes more sense –that appears to be what you’ve said in your last comment about the difference between experiencing the film in 1939 and 2011. However, I don’t believe the film holds currency as a document of the sentiment of 1939 rather than of 1860 -to me that is the same as accepting it as a historical document.
I think you understand our tendency to experience films powerfully, even quite literally, as reflective of some sort of reality (especially films based on real events with recognizably historical contexts like Gone with the wind). I’m arguing that herein lies the core of these films and the danger. It’s beyond me that you’d dismiss the very real influence of Hollywood (an institution that developed its cinematic language in the name of agitprop films like Birth of a Nation or the genre of the Western) on our perceptions of history and ‘reality’ as insignificant.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

"Looking at the above quotes, do you see how I might be led to believe that you do defend the historical legitimacy of this film and therefore its overall sentiment?"

No, I don't see it. I thought I'd spent the essay pointing out what was not historically accurate about the movie.

"It’s interesting that you think in 1939 the film's influence was stronger than it is now and that that makes it less in need of criticism or provides you with some sort of alibi against my opinion of it glorifying slavery days."

I do think the film's influence was stronger in 1939 as a culmination of public interest from a recent best selling novel that won a Pulitzer Prize. It was big news then; it is not now.

I don't understand about your accusation that I am looking for an alibi against your opinion of the film glorifying slavery days. We agree that the film does this. You're preaching to the choir.

"It’s beyond me that you’d dismiss the very real influence of Hollywood (an institution that developed its cinematic language in the name of agitprop films like Birth of a Nation or the genre of the Western) on our perceptions of history and ‘reality’ as insignificant."

I'm not sure why you think I dimiss Hollywood's influence on our perceptions of history as insignificant, particularly when much of this blog is written with historical context in mind. It's true that I do not share your apparent anger over GWTW and you seem to regard that as a fault.