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