Monday, January 19, 2009

Gone with the Wind on MLK Day

I awoke this morning intended to start my work week. I logged in and noticed that none of my co-workers were at work. After doing some research, I discovered that my employer does indeed celebrate Martin Luther King day and I had the day off. I thought for sure I had to work today, but I was pleased. If I had known I might have made plans to celebrate MLK day by volunteering like so many of my friends. Since it is cold and snowing, I decided to stay in and watch a movie. The only movie I had that I hadn't seen yet was the epic Gone With the Wind.

I have seen parts of this classic Hollywood film but I had never seen the entire thing from start to finish. The dilemma here is do I really want to spend MLK day watching something that is so racist, especially on the day before Obama's historic nomination? I told myself if I did, I had to blog about it (mostly to appease my white liberal guilt). I realize that the film is about the Old South so many of the characters are meant to be racist which isn't the problem. The problem is the portrayal of the slaves as simple, empty stereo-types. Also, to show slavery in the Civil War South without the brutality is in itself racist. It is a sin of exclusion. It is difficult to watch sometimes for what they excluded as opposed to included. Even after the war in the film, there is little reference to the slaves being freed. Regardless, the film is enjoyable and any fan of film like myself should have seen it a long time ago. The photography and score alone are reason enough to see it.

The film is also a bit biased against the North. Only a few Northerners are portrayed in the film, one is the slave master that impregnates an underage "white trash" girl. He eventually becomes a carpetbagger that tries to buy Tara, the family plantation, from the desperate O'Hara's. Another is a lone Yankee soldier that enters Tara with the intention of robbing them after the estate has already been stripped clean by the Northern army earlier in the war. Of course, the worst is General Sherman who isn't actually in the film but the resulting horror of his deeds is. His march of destruction from Atlanta to the Georgia coastline is one of the more disgusting events in American military history. I haven't read the novel Gone with the Wind, not yet, but I have no doubt that it has the same bias and why not, it is supposed to be about southerns during the Civil War. The devastation caused by Sherman is not glossed over in the film. The destruction of white families and their homes is portrayed very well ... and again there is little shown of destructive force of slavery. The film shows what the North did but none of the reasons why they did it.

Probably the most disturbing portrayal of Northerners is when the main male characters raid the shanties along the river. In the book, it is shown as an example of the early days of the KKK while the film makes no note of this. The burning of robes is mentioned by Rhett in the film but this is the closest you will find to a reference to the KKK. Once Northerner officers attempt to stop the raid, they are portrayed as interlopers. The raid is portrayed as completely justified in the film. Other differences between the novel and the film are less politically charged. In the book, Scarlett has 3 kids, one by each of her husbands. In the film, Scarlett only has Bonnie who is the daughter of Rhett Butler. Rhet Butler's blockade running exploits during the war are described in detail in the book. What I under a Southern blockade runner does is help supply ships get through the Northern blockade. The first line of the novel mentions that Scarlett is no beauty but Vivien Leigh certainly is. The sex in the film was also cleaned up to pass the sensors, particularly the scenes involving Belle the prostitute. Some characters were dropped or fused while entire scenes from the book were eliminated. Regardless, it is considered an accurate filming of the novel. If the entire book were to be put on film, it is estimated that you'd have to give up 20 hours of your day to watch in one sitting.

The novel is still one of the best selling English language books in the world and I believe still the best selling English language novel ever. One million copies sold in its first six months of publication. Margaret "Peggy" Mitchell wrote its last chapter first in 1929. She finished all but 3 chapters by 1935 and only finished the last 3 chapters after the book was accepted for publishing in 1937. The working title of the book was "Tomorrow is Another Day" which is also the last line of dialogue in the movie which is spoken by the protagonist Scarlet O'Hara. Mitchell eventually decided on Gone with the Wind which she stumbled on in an Ernest Dowson poem, called Non Sum Qualis eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae. She liked how the line in the poem sounded far away and sad. Scarlet O'Hara was originally named Pansy O'Hara and her home, Tara, was originally name Fontanoy Hall. The impeccable accuracy of the research Mitchell did about Atlanta during the war helped earn her win a Pulitzer Prize in 1937. I want to point out I only watch this film because I thought that any film buff should. I didn't expect to enjoy it, but I did love it. I recognize its problems, but it is still quite a beautiful film. I am also adding the book to wish list.

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