An ardent teetotaler, I once sat discussing the movies with a group of very bright young lawyers at Bull Feeney's Tavern in Portland. The subject of the movies naturally occurred to us since Bull Feeney was none other than John Martin Feeney, a Mainer born in Cape Elizabeth who, as John Ford, went on to become America's greatest director.
It was a hot summer day, and as the attorneys sipped their beers in the quiet, oak-paneled room, and I held onto my glass of frosty ice tea, our conversation turned to the mysterious power of the movies to unlock the American soul. Our small group was intrigued by the fact that the 1930s were a period of unparalleled creativity in Hollywood. We noted that in 1939 the Academy Awards honored the following films: The Wizard of Oz; Of Mice and Men; Stagecoach; Wuthering Heights; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Drums Along the Mohawk; Gunga Din; Dark Victory; Beau Geste; and Gone With The Wind.
Dark Victory, starring Ronald Reagan and Bette Davis, is a profound film, and might well have won the award for Best Picture had it not been for Gone With The Wind. Each of the remaining films is magnificent in its own right, but how do we account for the special power of Gone With The Wind to move audiences even today?
Gone With The Wind is the greatest American film, not because of its actors or its splendid cinematography, but because of its historical and spiritual meaning. The film confirms Spengler's observation that only a dying civilization looks back to the past with poignant nostalgia.
The movie is more than a wistful glance back at the antebellum South. We are shown what America was at its origin, a well-ordered agrarian nation with aristocratic values, a nation that was eventually destroyed by the leveling values of democracy, republicanism, and the mass industrial society.
The 1930s were a time of cultural upheaval, a period in which our traditional values were jettisoned in favor of the false gods of Freudianism, Marxism, and the mass consumer society. The great creativity of Hollywood during this period was a last blazing forth of the Western spirit, a candle that flickered brightly before going out completely.
It is interesting to note that the two figures in the movie which possess the most dramatic interest, Scarlett O'Hara and Ashley Wilkes, were played by Vivien Leigh, the English actress, and Leslie Howard. Leslie Howard was believable as Ashley Wilkes even though he spoke with a heavy English accent. American audiences accepted Howard as a Southern aristocrat, proving that as late as 1939, America was still, as many thought, a second England, and England was still "The Mother Country."
Just as in the movie, the South represents the entire American nation, Scarlett's story represents the fate of modern-day American women. The contest which decides the destiny of every nation, the struggle-to-the-death between the land and its people versus the urban money powers, was the story of the downfall of the O'Hara family. After the burning of Atlanta at the hand of the invading Yankee army (which represents the destructive force of the northern industrial and financial powers), Scarlett returns to her ancestral birthplace (Tara) for her last chance at life.
Scarlett goes from Southern belle to domineering businesswoman, falling from her honored status as wife and mother in an aristocratic family to the demeaning role of a business woman engaged in crass commercialism. In short, she becomes a "liberated" woman. (Her name, of course, means "Red.") In the end, Scarlett is left alone and abandoned because she has violated traditional notions regarding the family, and has gone so far as to cause the death of her unborn child.
This then, is why Gone with the Wind continues to fascinate movie-goers. Although we may be quite unaware of the secret behind its power, Gone With The Wind never fails to enchant us, because it offers us one long last look back at a now departed nation - our own.