Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Gone With the Wind

by Jackrabbit Slim

I rented Gone With the Wind over the weekend. I believe it is the third time I've seen it. The first time was when my grandmother took me during a re-release during the 1970's. She had seen it a number of times and it was a favorite of hers. I then rented the video version about twenty years ago. I may have seen parts of it during television airings since then.

It is, without reservation, a magnificently made film. The photography, script, editing and direction are all exquisite, and it certainly deserves its reputation as perhaps the greatest movie of all-time, if only for the sensation it created. There are, however, some disturbing things about it, particularly it's attitude about slavery.

Now, I know the film was made in 1939, and no one was going to make any money in those days making movies where blacks were treated as equals. But I think this attitude needs to be addressed. The novel, which I have not read, is, I understand, Margaret Mitchell's method of trying to invoke the memory of a civilization past--the "moonlight and magnolias" era of the ante-bellum South. That's all well and good, but that was a civilization that was created on the backs of slave labor. As I watch the opening scenes, I relish the prospect that these spoiled, horrible people are about to get their just desserts. The film keeps that romantic vision alive, depicting zero scenes of the cruelty and horror of slavery. We are told that the O'Hara's "darkies" are treated well, and they remain loyal to a fault. But wouldn't have been nice if Big Sam, instead of trying to quell the Yankee invasion, had run off and joined the Union Army?

Rhett Butler, a wonderful character, almost seems to exist outside of the film. He is the only person who seems to know the situation, and is a realist of the highest order. He's also the only character who treats Mammy with any respect. I suppose the way he was written was the only way the film could have taken a more modern sensibility. Thanks, also, to producer David Selznick, who removed all instances of the "N" word which were in the novel. If that word had been peppered through the script, I don't know if the film would be so loved today. It might sit on the shelf next to Birth of a Nation, as a film classic that nobody wants to watch anymore.

My grandmother, who was from southern Ohio, talked about how terrible the Union Army was to the South during Sherman's march to the sea. From where I sit, it was entirely appropriate. So even today this film can provoke thought and debate.

11 Comments:

Anonymous lora said...

Yes, it is a beautifully crafted film, but I have never counted it among my favorites. The issues you addressed play a part in my feelings about the film, but the primary cause of my distaste is that I loathe Scarlett. I can't even work up the energy to enjoy hating her. I simply ceased giving a damn long before Rhett did.

5/30/2006 10:20:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

My grandmother, who was from southern Ohio, talked about how terrible the Union Army was to the South during Sherman's march to the sea. From where I sit, it was entirely appropriate.

One thing I've never understood about the South is the general obsession with victimhood. Southerners live to be wronged.

So it's kinda funny to see you poke such a sharp stick in their eye.

5/31/2006 09:56:00 AM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

I read a book a few years called Confederates in the Attic, which was about the hold that the loss of the Civil War still has on some citizens of the South. They still see it as a "Lost Cause", and refuse to believe that the war was about slavery, and some even hold on to notions that slaves weren't treated all that bad. You can see this attitude in the foolishness of including the Confederate stars and bars in some state flags. Talk about carrying a grudge! At least most Germans quickly adjusted to how wrong the country was for the atrocities of the 20th century, and they've outlawed the swastika.

5/31/2006 12:13:00 PM  
Blogger jaydro said...

So where are you from, Brian?

Is it going to be left to me to (cue Kevin Spacey accent from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) defend Southern honor?

Fine, fine--if you want me to. I'm sure I can pull some rant off the shelf that will only serve to confirm your stereotypes. But I will try to restrain my comments here for the moment.

While Gone With the Wind holds no particularly special place for me other than as the prime example of no-holds-barred expenses-be-damned filmmaking from the year when Hollywood was at its zenith, and I have no romantic notions of what life was like in the antebellum South, I do have to ask:

Jackrabbit, were you referring to the people in Gone With the Wind as getting their just desserts, or were you indeed saying that the people of the South deserved what was inflicted upon them by Gen. Sherman?

And how would we react if you said the Japanese people deserved what was done to them by Gen. LeMay? Or that the German people deserved what was done to them by Air Marshall Harris? I'm not saying that none of these are valid opinions, just that expressing them elicits varying levels of controversy, when they all seem to be about the same to me--acts that could easily be viewed as war crimes if they had not been committed by the victors.

BTW, the American Indians aren't too fond of Gen. Sherman, either.... Maybe they also have a victimhood problem and it would be funny to poke sharp sticks in their eyes....

Okay, before anyone accuses me of equating Indians with Southerners, my point is more along the lines of: how can the Union be so great and noble in its war to end slavery, and then the US turns around and commits a war of genocide against the Indians? Is anyone beginning to see that there were those in power who benefitted from keeping those who derived power from slavery out of new territories (precipitating the Civil War) while also needing to drive the Indians out of those new territories (precipitating the Indian wars of the late 1800s)?

I think anyone who sees the Civil War as a "Lost Cause" or believes that slaves weren't treated all that badly is seriously deluded. But I do believe that the beginnings of the Civil War had more to do with the power and money that was wrapped up in a system dependent on slavery than it was in slavery itself, though indeed the war certainly became about slavery. But to say it was only about slavery is simplistic; otherwise how can you explain that slaves from Maryland were working to complete the dome of the US Capitol during the war? (The answer is: while slavery was legal in Maryland and Washington, D.C. at the outset of the Civil War it did not constitute a necessary part of the economic base of the powers-that-be in Maryland or D.C.)

And the comparison of uses of the Confederate flag to the German swastika and people in the South to the Germans don't really hold water. A lot of the lingering resentment in the South wasn't really about the Civil War but about the lingering hardships and privations of Reconstruction, a period which lasted much longer than the Civil War and gave rise to extremists like the Ku Klux Klan and incorporation of Confederate symbols into state flags (which is a parallel to post-WWI Germany). If the South had been treated as generously as post-WWII Germany, a lot of problems might have been fixed a lot sooner. Georgia didn't add the stars and bars to their flag until the 1950s, I think. Meanwhile Florida and Arkansas think they can sneakily get away with the less obvious Confederate references in their flags....

And we don't ban symbols in the US. The swastika is okay here, however unfortunate that may be. And there are of course people who find the Betsy Ross flag every bit as much a symbol of a civilization built on slavery as the Confederate flag.

I've gone on here far longer than I intended. I was going to save my rant for later if needed....

Now where's my copy of The Outlaw Josey Wales....

5/31/2006 05:28:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

See, that's what I'm talking about. "Defend Southern honor", sheesh. Why don't you glove-slap me while you're at it?

Since you asked, I hail from the Midwest, born in Chicago but more accurately from Wisconsin. But I moved to Jacksonville, FL when I was four, and lived there until I was 20, when I moved to Texas. So it's not like I'm basing my opinion of the South on "The Dukes of Hazzard" reruns.

I have no illusions as to the treatment of Native Americans or the nobility of the Union in the Civil War. I just thought Slim's comment was amusing, because, well, it is. If he wants to poke sharp sticks at the Indians, I will evaluate those on a poke-by-poke basis.

5/31/2006 11:18:00 PM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

Jaydro,

I'm certainly not trying to deify Sherman or Yankees. The treatment of blacks in the North was probably, on the whole, harsher than it was in the South, particularly after the northern migration. And I agree, we don't ban symbols here. If you want to slap a rebel flag bumper sticker on your pickup truck, go right ahead. But I do object to that flag being part of official symbols, because it is a symbol of a nation that was built with involuntary servitude and treatment of human beings as sub-human. The slaveholders of the South may not have shoved people into ovens, but they carried on a crime against humanity far longer than any other civilized nation did.
As for treatment of Indians, I'm right with you there. A disgrace that is right there with slavery. But, I don't see too many people today venerating men like Custer and Sheridan, wistfully aching for the old days when Indians were slaughtered. That does go in the modern South for the Confederacy.
As for Sherman's march to the sea, well, he said it best: War is Hell. Civilian populations are always going to suffer during wartime. It brings up much larger questions that I can't answer definitively: were we right to drop the A-bomb on Japan? The bombings of Dresden? I'm not sure. The deaths in those incidents may have saved many more lives by bringing the war to a faster close. To beat the South, Sherman had to scorch the land, because the South was not going to give up easily.

6/01/2006 07:46:00 AM  
Blogger jaydro said...

Brian--right, I thought you'd lived in the South a long time, so I didn't understand why you said you didn't get Southerners' "obsession with victimhood," which isn't how I'd put it, but I understand what you're getting at.

Anti-Southern bias in our culture isn't nearly as bad now as it was when I was a kid. I was brought up surrounded by TV shows and movies that told me that my accent made me stupid, among other things. One of my favorite shows as a kid was "The Monkees," and it was with some surprise when I re-watched a few episodes for the first time several years ago that I realized something about that show stood out--the smart guy on the show, Michael Nesmith, was also the only one with a Southern accent.

I admittedly may have grown up in a weird part of the South, since North Carolina was arguably the most pro-Union state in the Confederacy while also sacrificing the most soldiers for its defense. As a kid I was taught to despise those "hot-heads" in South Carolina who got us into that stupid war. My father could tell me stories that his grandfather, a Civil War veteran, told him. I was obsessed with the war as a kid and visited many of the battle sites, where I was often confronted by signs like "Here lies the mass grave of approximately 1500 Confederate dead" and "Former site of Union mass grave--later removed for individual burial at Arlington National Cemetery" (aka Gen. Lee's front yard). My mom used to remark at how awful it was that they had just been left piled in there like that. Stuff like that really brings it home to you--my ancestors took part in something horrible, and they paid for it. When are you confronted with that in this country if you are not from the South?

Jackrabbit--while Custer and Sheridan (and Sherman) may not be venerated today like Lee and Jackson are in the South (though I have never met anyone who wistfully aches for the old days, as you put it--they must all be in South Carolina), you must remind yourself: the US has never had to pay for what we did to the Indians and the mythos of the West is venerated. It's difficult to draw any kind of comparison--Custer and Sheridan slaughtered Indians while Lee and Jackson did not create slavery. Custer and Sheridan did not, say, futilely defend the US from an invading foreign force intent on stopping our eradication of the Indians, did they? You simply can't make comparisons there, because the rest of the country has never had to pay the price for its sins the way that the South has, not that the South is more or less deserving, because we have sins aplenty.

Yes, slavery was a crime against humanity, but when you say the South carried it on "far longer," how long is that? 20 years more than most parts of the rest of the country? Three years longer than Washington, DC? One year longer than Maryland? The same number of years as New Jersey? And I guess you're not counting Brazil as civilized, though they managed to abolish slavery in 1888 without a civil war after importing far more slaves than any other western country. My honest guess is that without the Civil War slavery would have been over with at most by 1890 simply because of the changing economics. Yes, it should have ended sooner, and it probably would have ended by the 1830's if the British had won either of their two wars against the US.

Jackrabbit, I don't dispute that civilians are always going to suffer during wartime, and I won't argue that actions like the indiscriminate fire-bombing of entire cities in Japan (which I was referring to more than the A-bombs) and Germany may have hastened the end of those wars, though it will always be debated, just as Sherman's actions may have done the same, but that wasn't how you put it when I thought you implied that the people in the South deserved what was done to them by Sherman burning down cities and creating a hundred-mile-wide swath of total destruction in his wake, though perhaps I misunderstood and you just meant the spoiled rich characters in Gone With the Wind and their real-life counterparts.

I was going to just let it go, but Brian's pre-mocking me for wanting to say anything about it and finding humor in it only prompted me to speak up, thus satisfying Brian's stereotype. Is it really an obsession with victimhood that prompts one to question the way the rest of the country so casually shrugs its guilt while continuing to heap it on the South?

Now, where's my copy of Sherman's March?

6/01/2006 01:34:00 PM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

Jaydro, once again, a seeming dispute on this blog finds that we are not that far apart. Yes, I was referring to the spoiled plantation owners who got their just desserts. North Carolina, I believe, had the fewest slaveholders per capita than any other Confederate state, and to think that so many non-slave owners died during that war makes it all the sadder. They did not deserve any harsh treatment.

The mythos of the West is still strong, but I think, from the sixties on, the tide turned in thinking about the Indians. Books such as Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and movies like Little Big Man signaled the change. I think there is a national sympathy for them now in our culture (although there are holdouts, like my Uncle Harry. I was once expressing how horrible life was for Indians on reservations and he pooh-poohed me. "I have no sympathy for them at all," he said.)

What galls me is that there are still folks down South, and maybe you know some, who think it's a bad thing that the South lost the Civil War. It's probably a very small minority, but a vocal one.

6/01/2006 02:17:00 PM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

Just for the record, though I have lived most of my life in the North (Michigan and New Jersey mostly) my ancestors on my father's side are from northern Kentucky and southern Ohio. Kentucky was a border state, but a slave state, although it appears my ancestors didn't own any slaves (they were probably too poor). Kentuckians fought on both sides of the war.

6/01/2006 02:21:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I thought you'd lived in the South a long time, so I didn't understand why you said you didn't get Southerners' "obsession with victimhood,"

Well, I don't understand it.

How often have New Yorkers been portrayed as rude, uncaring louts? How often have Californians, and especially Angelenos, been portrayed as shallow and/or immoral? The Republicans just finished a presidential campaign almost completely centered around the mocking of a "Massachusetts" liberal. Hell, you should see the looks I get from people around here when I say I'm from Wisconsin. I'm a Yankee!

Yet I never hear the kind of complaining - outright whining, in fact - about being slighted that I hear from Southerners. There's a real cultural difference there that I've observed plenty of but just can't relate to. So people think Southern accents are funny - big damn deal.

6/01/2006 02:52:00 PM  
Blogger jaydro said...

I think the only resolution to this discussion is for me to write a Spanish translation of "Dixie."

I had just a couple more things to say....

I honestly personally don't know anyone who wishes the South had won the Civil War. I probably do know a lot of people who wish the Civil War had never happened (those darn hot-heads in South Carolina, always getting the rest of us in trouble, etc. etc.), and perhaps that is a small distinction.

And about the veneration of Confederate generals: perhaps we can attribute that to something like the "support the troops" thing we see today. While many people down here think Lee and Jackson were great, I would say those who feel that way about Confederate president Jefferson Davis are in a very small minority. A lot of people think he was a kook at best.

When I was in high school I had this idea that I'd cut two decorative license plates in half and have a split Confederate battle flag/Black Power flag on my car, just to make people think. Of course I would have ended up having eggs thrown at me by everyone.

I disagree with Jackrabbit on perhaps one thing: I don't think the treatment of blacks was worse in the North than in the South. If anything I think the myth of well-treated slaves may be due to the exceedingly harsh treatment many received upon gaining their freedom during Reconstruction.

And as for Brian's comments, I can only say that I think on the whole the stereotype of the Southerner in US culture has probably been far worse than any of the stereotypes he mentioned--all you really have to do is call up all those surface stereotypes Brian mentioned and add to them that you lost a war, wouldn't let go of slavery, and are by default a racist lout. Those stereotypes of New Yorkers and Californians cited are far outweighed by all the portrayals of those groups as being normal and above average--in the old days the only normal, above average Southerner was to be found in a group of mostly stereotyped Southerners, and in isolation their portrayal was almost always negative.

But things have gotten better, and it may be so much so that I have no reason to complain at all, though memories die hard. I grew up at the end of the heyday of TV's rural sitcoms ("The Beverly Hillbillies," "Petticoat Junction," "Mayberry, RFD," "Green Acres," etc.) and shows like "Hee Haw," which ironically were very popular among Southern and rural viewers. Of course this skewed popularity also brought to light the anti-Southern/rural bias of advertisers, who with the improved demographics that revealed this skewing promptly withdrew support for all of that programming and killed it. Thank goodness. If only demographics had come earlier and they'd been able to save "Star Trek"....

6/05/2006 03:09:00 PM  

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