Gone With the Wind: When History Isn’t the “Memory of the States”

Showcasing the mythology of the Lost Cause, Gone With the Wind’s characterization of the antebellum South and it’s alteration throughout the Civil War sheds light on an element of history often overlooked, though in the process, chooses to neglect dark truths for the sake of its own beauty

History often lets its leaders be the one to tell its stories.

Let us select a popularly referenced example to support this claim. Christopher Columbus was a master seaman; I will not deny this, nor should you. He was tasked with finding gold in Asia — believed to be directly west of his beloved Spain — with nothing but the open waters of the Atlantic preventing him. Of course, what lied beyond the Atlantic was not Asia, but the Americas. The Bahamas. The New World. The first to meet Columbus in this strange land were the Arawak Indians, an organized, selfless civilization that served as a stark contrast to the decorum in Europe; in a letter, Columbus wrote how startled he was by the equality women possessed within Arawak tribes. Columbus journeyed from island to island — from Cuba to Hispaniola to elsewhere — eventually establishing the first European military base in the Western Hemisphere: Navidad. Ecstatic over his success, Columbus set up shop in Haiti, hastily writing to the Court in Madrid about his consequential discoveries. It’s for these reasons, concrete & undeniable facts of the Columbus legacy, that he is revered. So revered, in fact, that we celebrate his accomplishments annually, on the 12th of October. And for good reason.

This is not, however, where Columbus’s story ends.

The legendary explorer’s report to Spain was improvident, rich with exaggerations and hollow promises. He believed there to be gold in the nearby mountains ripe for the taking. There was bountiful land to be scavenged and excavated. Precious valuables littered across the islands. Impressed, the Spanish monarchy entrusted Columbus with a second expedition. His goal was to bring back valuables of any kind.

Columbus believed the Arawak were his key to finding gold. He returned to the natives’s homes, forcing upon them the task of procuring rich minerals from places where such things simply didn’t exist. If the number of Columbus’s men didn’t intimidate the Indians into accepting this quest, European rifles and bayonets certainly did. When the Indians failed to accomplish the impossible, they ran away. When they ran, they were hunted and killed. Their villagers were quickly razed. Indian women were raped in rivers. Their society was dismantled without second thought. Instead of tons of gold and gems, Columbus procured a separate cargo from the New World: slave labor. Recalling the words of the Court, Columbus believed it’d be a failure to return to Spain without some kind of dividend.

A story of exploration quickly morphs into one of genocide. For the number of successors that proceeded Columbus, his story served as an example of how to treat the New World: with a strong, ferocious fist. To them, this foreign land was theirs, and so too were the people that had lived and thrived on it for centuries. Now in school, we’re usually taught the first part of the Columbus story, about his exemplary seamanship, how he was the first one to discover and more or less settle in the New World. “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” was a popularly referenced line by my ingenuous 6th grade teacher. Accurate and true. Yet, the second half of the Columbus chronicle is consistently neglected. Furthermore is the mere thought of telling this story from the Arawak’s perspective; this thought is perceived to be dastardly, even though such a description accurately labels Columbus’s heinous actions towards the Arawak.

The Columbus story teaches us the tragedy of selective history. Yes, Columbus was a master seamen, but he was also a mass murderer and slave driver. When history lets its leaders tell its stories, only part of the truth is typically given, and history ultimately becomes the memory of the states. The voice of the people, and their truth, is often neglected by these leaders for the sake of preserving legacy. Columbus is one example of this, and so too is Gone With the Wind.

While the film sheds light on the failures of Southern reconstruction on the part of the North, GWTW itself overlooks some of its own grotesque atrocities, or at the very least, qualifies why Southern decorum existed as it did for so long

Now, Gone With the Wind is both a perfect and imperfect example of exposing selective history. On one hand, it tells the story of Southern people both before, during, and (primarily) following the American Civil War. I commend the film for doing this. Cinema has not been as curious with the War Between the States as it has been with WWI, WWII, or the Vietnam War. Perhaps this is because of the sensitivity of the subject matter. Or, speaking more plainly, maybe the fight sequences of the 1860’s are not all that, well, cinematic. Glory, starring Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Broderick, might be the most cinematic of all Civil War films, but it tells a different story than Gone With the Wind, which instead averts its eyes from the battlefield and towards reconstruction.

Choosing to focus on the years following the Civil War is riveting material, at least to me, for the simple fact that not many films have historically chosen to do this. Yes, there was Birth of a Nation, a movie which debuted in the 1910’s that chronicles the KKK; however, the rise of a sectarian, violent group of white supremacists is not potent, nor is it even relevant, in GWTW. Rather, the focus of our chosen film lies with the people of the South, those who supported the Lost Cause and were forced to respond to a world which no longer incorporated a system which they had relied upon for centuries. It’s a story of change, change spurred by the outcome of conflict, and how such change forces people to adapt and respond to a system’s mutability.

GWTW’s plot centers around the beauty, and ultimate dismantling, of Southern land. This is the central change that the film explores. Now, I’m not going to digress into an argument surrounding whether or not the South of the 1850’s and 1860’s was beautiful. I’m a big believer in the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, so I sympathize with either viewpoint here. That said, one element of the South that is the polar opposite of beauty, and I’m sure you’d agree with me on this one, is the reliance on an oppressive labor system (this might be too kind a description for slavery). Underneath the South’s charming surface is a moral evil encompassed by generations of enslaved people, some of whom date back to before 1607, when Jamestown, Virginia was founded.

I’ve read and watched countless stories of slave runaways, many of whom ultimately get caught and tortured. Most end up dying due to their desire for freedom, a deplorable excuse for murder. When I first watched Gone, part of me exuded a certain curiosity for wanting to witness unique examples of this; at the very least, I wanted to watch instance of slaves expressing their animosity towards their owners. I believed this to be the most enthralling cinema within the film’s constraints. The blunt truth is Gone With the Wind, while being a story about change, is not a story about how slavery changed (changed, as in, ceased to exist). Furthermore, in telling the story of land and plantation owners, it chooses against exploring the narratives of those who tended to such lands, instead treating these subjects as subservient, simple, and without any inkling of conflicting thought. Gone With the Wind is a story about the South, but not about the entire South, and certainly not about the entirety of Southern people.

So, with this known, let us rephrase our previous statement here. The focus of the film lies with the people of the South, though only on those with pale complexions and owned lands, those who often take their freedom for granted and who fail to acknowledge the wrongness of a “moral evil”. I realize you & I haven’t talked much about the plot here, but that’s simply because there are far more important elements worth discussing. Gone With the Wind delivers a 3 hour 40 minute view of a complicated love triangle, chronicling a well-to-do woman being mesmerized by dreams of a man she’ll never be able to call her husband. Those dreams eventually evaporate, disappearing as fast as the “Old South” does following the war. As the title implies, said dreams and ways of life are eventually Gone With the Wind. The plot is direct, yet its consequences and themes are anything but.

Gone With the Wind is a story about how people react, respond, and eventually adapt to the onset of irreversible change. In that sense, the film feels quite relatable, which explains its lasting legacy both domestically and abroad.

I’m not penning this piece with the intention of disparaging a truly monumental feat in our cine- no, in our cultural history. When Gone With the Wind debuted in 1939, it was the only film of its kind, both contextually and technically. Adjusted for inflation, it’d be the highest grossing movie in history. Martin Luther King Jr., 9 at the time, sang as a part of his church’s choir at the film’s premiere in Atlanta. The fundamentals of its plot serve as examples of overcoming the hardships of war; many Europeans studied and sympathized with its character stories following WWII. The film’s lead is female; in fact, much of the cast was quite diverse for the time. There is no denying that greatness exists here, and that, much like the story of Christopher Columbus, the film’s feats are undeniably warranted and worthy of celebration.

In that same breath, and again paralleling Columbus’s legacy, understand that Gone With the Wind paints but a partial picture of Southern life & reconstruction. It’s a story told by the people of the Lost Cause; however, some of its voices are made silent, most especially those those that have been oppressed by these very same storytellers. The film quite often paints the Northern Yankees as “invaders” and not “reclaimers”, which is odd considering that it was the South that separated from the North, and the North that sought to reunite with the South. When the film debuted, there were mass protests among civil rights groups, including the NAACP. While its content is not as overtly racist as Birth of A Nation, it blurs the line between protagonist & antagonist with noticeable liberty. It’s a story that, like all stories, is open to interpretation, and is completely dependent upon which aspects of history you choose to acknowledge, and which aspects of history you choose to overlook. If that isn’t the epitome of selective history…

To tell you the truth, selective history is a concept that can be applied to almost anything. You & I could go on for hours discussing how American the idea of “manifest destiny” is while overlooking the Trail of Tears and President Jackson’s barbarism toward native tribes. Such stories are bountiful, often because those that tell these stories are the same people whose reputation and legacy are directly tied to them. I’m not saying that all history is dark and distorted, nor am I saying that a legendary figure or accomplishment be discredited simply because they weren’t perfect. That is not the purpose of our journey here.

No, for there is a beauty about selective history that’s more central: nobody is genuinely perfect, few stories are purely good… and that is absolutely fine. If the only stories we ever heard and studied were the good ones, we’d know very little about ourselves.

Gone With the Wind is the perfect example of selective history because the film, and its legacy, are undeniably imperfect. What it demonstrates is the tantalizing idea that you don’t have to be a leader in order to be a storyteller of history. At the same time, the film’s misstep in only letting but a collection of people tell its story exemplifies the immorality of oppression and an imbalance in representation. Unmasking selective history is a difficult, unsettling task; though in doing so, we come to learn so much more about ourselves and our capacity to evolve. So, the next time you’re learning about something, regardless of whatever that thing may be, take a moment to consider alternate perspectives, the parts of history that are often overlooked or neglected. Just because so much of history is told by its leaders doesn’t mean that those are the only parts you need to look at, listen to, and learn from.

That’s what this story teaches me.