“Gone with the Wind” is like one of those elaborate, intricately designed wedding cakes you see sitting in the window of upscale bakeries in wealthy parts of town. The cake looks vivid and flush, every level and every layer baked to precision, with you almost feeling guilty for wanting to eat it at all. But when it’s your lucky turn to take a bite, you realize that $4.99 discount cake at Ralphs was much tastier.
It’s a commendable film for its massive achievements: its massive run-time, its massive costume and set design, its massive score from Max Steiner, an inability to go small-scale or settle for anything larger-than-life. The scope of the story is astounding, effectively telling, at least anecdotally, the beginnings of the Civil War and the fall of the Old South. To even think that there was actually stuff left out of the novel seems mind-boggling, as this movie packs so much in that it feels like we’re not really watching a 4-hour-long film but a 13-episode miniseries about a Southern Belle who wants to get married.
But where the film loses us is in its actual story. We follow the narcissistic Scarlett O’Hara as she longs for one man, the stoic but simpleminded Ashley. Even as her world is unfurled from underneath her elegant colonial gown with the start of the Civil War, Scarlett still can’t keep Ashley out of her mind, despite how he is happily married to another. Throughout this escapade, a street-smart charmer named Rhett Butler becomes fond of Scarlett. Butler never dedicates much energy to pursuing her, instead choosing to live his life as he sees fit. It’s only when he occasionally captures a glimpse of Scarlett sneering at him from afar does he play his cards and try to win her heart.
Throughout the entirety of the story, from Rhett’s first leering gaze to Scarlett’s last tearful plea, they never transform throughout the film. We see Scarlett mature some when she takes over the family plantation, and we see Rhett pursue a more decent life when he becomes a father. But they are ultimately the same individuals we encountered at the beginning of the story: a self-centered woman with an insatiable crush, and a slick charmer who plays by no rules but his own.
Perhaps this lack of change is meant to be representative of the Old South, where even after the war was lost, residents wanted things to continue just as they once were. Or maybe it’s a more poignant argument that people never change, that despite the internal and external events that befall them, whether it be a crush getting married or the biggest war in the country’s history, that they are ultimately the same people consumed with the same foibles and follies, and are doomed to make the same mistakes throughout the course of their lives. It’s an interesting thought, and maybe it played out better in the book, but it doesn’t translate to the screen well, making Gone with the Wind less of a magnificent human drama as much as the world’s most lavish and elaborate soap opera.
That isn’t to suggest the performances aren’t great. Vivien Leigh injects reckless ferocity and cynicism deep into Scarlett’s bones. Clark Gable brings the necessary swagger and vulnerability to bring Rhett to life, and Hattie McDaniel fills the screen with emotion anytime her character Mammy in the room. But the combined efforts of the cast don’t alleviate the lackluster story that brought them all together. If any of these actors weren’t present, our memory of Gone with the Wind would be just that.
Still, Gone with the Wind isn’t a film that should be appreciated for its entertainment value as much as its ambition. It’s mind boggling to think that a movie of this size could be made now, let alone in 1939. That so much detail would be poured into every single costume and location. That somehow, even despite the misgivings of its plot, we’re compelled to watch until the end and never feel like the movie is an arduous endeavor.