Saturday 29 June 2013

Movie Review: Gone With The Wind (1939)

One of the all-time grand epics, Gone With The Wind is a key milestone marking the beginning of modern cinema. The adventures of a headstrong southern belle before, during, and after the Civil War are given a luxurious treatment that has withstood the test of time with remarkable ease.

With the winds of war looming, Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) is blossoming into womanhood on the Tara plantation in rural Georgia. Combining beauty with an intractable will to get what she wants, Scarlett uses her womanly charms to make every man weak in the knees. Yet she is rejected by the one man she truly loves, the reserved Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). At a grand barbecue and banquet event, Scarlett meets Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), a successful maverick businessman and a lone voice in warning that the North will have an advantage in the upcoming war thanks to a stronger industrial base. Rhett sees in Scarlett the same qualities of rebellion and determination that he possesses, but she wants nothing to do with him. Ashley decides to marry the genuine and nearly angelic Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland).

Scarlett: All I know is that I love you! And you don't love Melanie!
Ashley: She's like me, Scarlett. She's part of my blood and we understand each other.
Scarlett: But you love me!
Ashley: How could I help loving you — you who have all the passion for life that I lack? But that kind of love isn't enough to make a successful marriage for two people who are as different as we are.

In an act of impetuous revenge, Scarlett marries Melanie's brother Charles, a man she barely knows. War erupts; Charles enlists but dies of pneumonia, leaving Scarlett a young widow. She visits Atlanta and reconnects with Rhett, now getting rich by smuggling war supplies. She is still not interested in him, her heart set on Ashley, who is serving in the Confederate Army. With Atlanta beginning to come under attack, Ashley asks Scarlett to look after the pregnant Melanie. She does so under horrific conditions, as Atlanta is sacked by the Union and burned to the ground. With Rhett's help Scarlett and Melanie find their way back to a destroyed Tara, where Scarlett will have to start from nothing to try and rebuild her life.

Based on Margaret Mitchell's 1936 best seller, Gone With The Wind clocks in at close to four hours, but never loses momentum. The second half may not carry the emotional punch of the exceptional opening two hours, but the story of Scarlett O'Hara and her ever tumultuous relationship with Rhett Butler builds remarkable power, and the destiny shaped by her decisions demands to be revealed.

Gone With The Wind was the vision of independent producer David O. Selznick. He purchased the rights to the book and assembled the cast, borrowing Clark Gable from MGM in a deal that gave MGM distribution rights. Selznick also launched a high-publicity search for an actress to play Scarlett, and eventually settled on the little known Englishwoman Vivien Leigh. Gable and Leigh would forever be associated with Rhett and Scarlett, and their performances give the film its primary thrust as two strong willed characters charting a passionate course in life, destined to deal with each other but rarely in full harmony. Every scene with both Rhett and Scarlett on the screen simply crackles with love-hate intensity, two souls too alike to find serenity, but also unable to navigate life without each other.

Scarlett: But you are a blockade runner.
Rhett: For profit, and profit only.
Scarlett: Are you tryin' to tell me you don't believe in the cause?
Rhett: I believe in Rhett Butler. He's the only cause I know. The rest doesn't mean much to me.

Leigh's performance is particularly affecting, especially in the first half of the film. She brings to Leigh a threatening sensuality combined with on-call coquettishness, Leigh's eyes alternating between batting flirtatiously at a line-up of suitors, and penetrating straight to their essence to measure their ability to serve her ambitions. She is also quite stunning in a morning-after scene, turning Rhett's domination into her own contented pleasure, casting doubt on who actually commanded the night.

Gable's screen persona of rebel with a personal cause allows Rhett to instantaneously dissect Scarlett's spirit while simultaneously falling in love with her. Gable's Rhett is gruff, resourceful and rich, a powerful combination and the only one capable of wrestling Scarlett into submission, should she ever allow it.

Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havilland provide capable support, but Ashley is too bland and Melanie too good to contribute anything other than background staidness compared to the Scarlett and Rhett show.

Selznick spared no cost in producing Gone With The Wind for almost $4 million, an astronomical amount for the era and possibly the most expensive film made up to that time. The film is packed with memorable visual moments, including Scarlett and her dad at Tara, the burning of Atlanta, the train station bursting with injured soldiers, the harrowing journey back to Tara, and Scarlett grasping her home soil and vowing to never be poor again. Max Steiner's mammoth orchestral score, highlighted by the gallant Tara's theme, adds to the timeless quality of the experience.

Scarlett: As God is my witness, as God is my witness they're not going to lick me. I'm going to live through this and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!

Director Victor Fleming (with help from uncredited co-directors George Cukor and Sam Wood) astutely hides any stage set constraints, and gives Gone With The Wind an expansive ambiance. He plays with lush colours, lighting, silhouettes, shades and shadows, not to mention gorgeous costumes to create a rich visual experience, opening the door for what the movies can achieve as a full sensory experience. The internal shots benefit from exalted mansions representing Tara, the adjacent Twelve Oaks, and other locales visited or owned by Rhett and Scarlett on their intertwined journeys.

The glory of the south may have been defeated, Gone With The Wind of a devastating war. But the story of Scarlett O'Hara lives on, thanks to an unequalled cinematic achievement.

Scarlett: Rhett! Rhett, where are you going?
Rhett: I'm going to Charleston, back where I belong.
Scarlett: Please, please take me with you!
Rhett: No, I'm through with everything here. I want peace. I want to see if somewhere there isn't something left in life of charm and grace. Do you know what I'm talking about?
Scarlett: No! I only know that I love you.
Rhett: That's your misfortune. 
Scarlett: Oh, Rhett! Rhett! Rhett, Rhett! Rhett, Rhett... Rhett, if you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?
Rhett: Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

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