“Gone with the Wind” is an adaptation of an historical romance. The film, set in Civil War-era southern United States, tends to be highly sentimental. Paradoxically, the circumstances in which it is set are often harrowing and serve to highlight the bravery required to survive during that time. The “frothiness” of the plot is in stark contrast to the utter seriousness of its context. The film opens in the antebellum South, on a Georgia plantation where the heroine entertains two gentlemen callers. The talk is of imminent war, a theme which guests carry through the subsequent picnic.
Talk then turns to action and the men depart to enlist in the Confederate Army. Confidence and jubilation quickly become disappointment which gives way to horror as the realities of war intrude upon the genteel tableau. Under assault, the Southerners struggle to keep their society together in the face of poverty, filth, and chaos. We see the major historical points of the period, especially Sherman’s march through Georgia and the burning of Atlanta, a scorched earth policy. The women are the main characters in the film. In the effects of war and its aftermath we see destitution, famine, terror, desperation.
The wounded are legion and supplies dwindle and disappear. The war ends and the soldiers come home to regroup. Carpetbaggers descend and begin an uneasy alliance with enterprising individuals, notably Scarlett. She casts aside honor to regain prosperity, marrying for money and using her combination of feminine wiles and shrewdness to rise above abject poverty. Finally she marries Rhett, a selfish opportunist like her. At the end he realizes that she will never love him and leaves Scarlett with that which has sustained her; an abiding love for Tara.
This narrative is history seen from the women’s perspective. They are alternately brave, childish, and childlike, treading on the line between what they are and what they must be. They do it for the men of the South, themselves, and for the South itself. The depiction of the war and the events surrounding it is largely consistent with the historical record. The factual portions of the film are in part accurate. For instance, at a benefit supporting the war, the ladies are asked to relinquish their jewelry. Such a depiction is consistent with the account in “The American Civil War” by Peter J.
Parish and it highlights one of the sacrifices women made during this time. George A. Trenholm, who replaced Secretary of the Confederate Treasury Memminger, asked for these concessions as the finances of the South became particularly desperate. This detail concerns one of the points at which “Gone With the Wind” succeeds as history. “…wealthy female slaveholders escaped significant disruption in their lives at the outset of the war, for they had money to maintain their antebellum lifestyle and the slaves to maintain plantation production.
” (Frank 514) Thus the sheltered experience depicted in the film is wholly consistent with rich women’s lives until the last stages of the period. In opposition, several events as depicted in “Gone with the Wind” are inaccurate. At the end and after the war, black people did not leap to the aid of their former masters as the film asserts. The character Mammy would have sought paid employment rather than stay on a ruined plantation. In reality, the vast majority of the planters used violence to subjugate their “property.
” In one scene, the character Ashley Wilkes chides Scarlett for treating the convict workers in her lumber mill cruelly in supposed contrast with their treatment of the slaves. It is true that in the darkest days for the South they did choose to prevail upon the Negroes to fight for their own oppression. “There was no greater irony in all the efforts of the Confederacy to find adequate means to match its ambitious goals than the proposal to arm Negroes. ” (Parish 561) But the slaves did not fight for the South as much for a newfound and cherished liberty, greater than they had ever known.
And once they had tasted that liberty, they did not willingly acquiesce in the imposition of a terrible, unjust burden. The importance of the Civil War and its aftermath can hardly be overstated. The struggle has been the only armed conflict fought on our territory. It consumed nearly 500,000 lives, the largest wartime death toll in American history. It also was a first step in remedying the shame of slavery which Americans had perpetrated in a country which largely had been the realization of a vision of freedom and equality.
They fought with not only the political reality of the South’s secession of 1861, but with the region’s separate psychology. “By 1860 the South was a state of mind as well as a place on the map. A definition of ‘Southernness’ was and is at least as much a task for the psychologist as for the geographer. ” (Parish 303) This enduring mindset notwithstanding, had the South won, not only would the crime of slavery have been continued, it is doubtful that the U. S. would have grown into the superpower it is today.
The war determined that an integral part of the union would remain. The significance of the war for the world at large in the mid-nineteenth century “…belongs in part to the realm of might-have-beens; its long-term consequences derived less from what did happen from what did not. ” (Parish 381) Among the events that very well might have happened were interference from foreign governments, international recognition of the Confederacy, and the widening of this internecine war into a general conflagration abroad.
Such luck for the union was due to the relative isolation the U. S. has enjoyed throughout its history. Americans fought their war amid constant threats from abroad. “There was nothing inevitable about the fact that it remained a domestic…affair. It remained a purely American affair through a combination of good fortune and great skill on the part of those who wished to keep it so, gross errors on the part of those who did not, and canny calculations of national and self-interest on the part of those who might have been caught in its toils.
” (Parish 381) Although some continue to fight this war in their minds, they benefit from over 200 years of federal association and its attendant largess. As I stated earlier, with regard to the historical accuracy of the film as document, it is a women’s narrative. Though there was no Scarlett O’Hara per se, the things we see her experience and perpetrate on others is consistent with the accounts of those who actually lived in that time and place. The threat of starvation was indeed present in all households in the later stages.
“Domestic production and ingenuity staved off a state of crisis for slaveholding women for a while, but, by the end of the war starvation and material deprivation shook even the most affluent households. ” (Frank 515) When Scarlett was forced to hide her wagon under a bridge with three highly vulnerable people in it while Northern soldiers passed overhead, she was surviving a circumstance familiar to many Southern women. “…many faced the hazards of living in the path of the Union army.
Those who resided near the battlefront risked having their property commandeered, stolen, or destroyed by Northern soldiers. (Frank 515) Such dangers were in addition to the threat, both potential and realized, of bodily violation. Scarlett valiantly, not to say desperately, defends herself and her loved ones against a looting Union soldier when she shoots him in the face. It is an act not uncommon to those willing and able to defend themselves. The depiction of slave and ex-slave loyalty is highly romanticized to say the least.
“Gone with the Wind” depicts Negroes as possessing a childlike innocence. They seem to be a rich vein of merriment instead of the human beings upon which the horrors of bondage had been visited. Nowhere do we see slavery’s pain and degradation. The black characters in the film are even more a caricature than even the heroine is at times. The film’s tendency toward opaque sentiment at first glance is a terrible injustice to a period quite painful to the American psyche be it black or white, Northern or Southern.
Certainly the film is nowhere near the caliber of slave narratives, Ken Burns’ “the Civil War”, or “Uncle Tom’s Cabin. ” However, it is important as hitherto all-too-often neglected genre of women’s history. Seldom in mainstream culture is the women’s perspective represented so faithfully. And equally seldom is it given the attention and resources devoted to this film. It is simply not taken seriously enough and shunted off into women’s studies classes rather than included in the mainstream of scholarship.
Valuable though they are, the women’s studies classes or gender studies courses tend to attract the favor of those predisposed to appreciate them. “Gone With the Wind”, for a long while a staple of popular culture, has reached a much wider audience. In many ways this movie is indeed an historical romance, ladies’ fiction. However it is also a significant historical document. Many more people have learned about the Civil War from the women’s point of view by means of viewing this film than from any other source.
This fact, in addition to its inclusion of important data, renders it deserving of attention and respect. For instance, it highlights the worthlessness of the Confederate currency, a situation which underscores the sheer lack of administrative competence displayed in the South at all stages of the war. Not only did the Confederates fight the North, they also had to contend with the inherent weaknesses of their fledgling nation, as they sought to envision it. Many things weakened “The Cause”, most notably slavery’s lack of long-term viability as an economic model.
The South was heavily invested in a system which had no hope of succeeding beyond a few years. To a great extent, the Confederacy fell under its own weight, much to the past and continuing chagrin if its champions and much to the edification of the nation of which it is a part as well as humankind in general. If only the proof of that assertion would not have required the death of so many and the maiming of still more. Bibliography Frank, Lisa Tendrich. Women in the American Civil War Vol. II. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc. , 2008 Parish, Peter J. American Civil War, the. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1975.
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