Forget all the hoopla about true love and chivalry. The movie Gone with the Wind is about the end of the world and what comes after.
Today, it's remembered primarily for its fabulous costumes and the angsty love triangle of Scarlett O'Hara, Rhett Butler, and Ashley Wilkes. The romanticization of the antebellum South has not aged well. But take another look at that name, which offers a radically different way to think about the story.
Gone with the Wind is such a famous movie that it's hard to hear the title as a descriptive phrase. But here's the scrolling introduction:
"There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South... Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be see of Knights and the Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it now only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind."
That's right: Gone with the Wind is about the apocalypse.
Here's what got swept away
The apocalypse demands some exposition if it's going to pack a punch. Even Planet of the Apes, which doesn't tip its hand until the last moments of the film, has Chuck Heston speculating about Earth into his space dictaphone. And so the first 30 minutes of the movie is pure moonlight-and-magnolia sentimentality, meant to evoke a hermetically sealed world that might as well be the entire universe as far as its inhabitants are concerned. Gone with the Wind opens on Scarlett O'Hara holding court on her parents' jasmine-covered porch, stringing along the Tarleton twins. All she knows are balls, ballgowns, suitors, and slavery.
A couple of things are immediately obvious: Scarlett is self-confident to the point of raging egomania, and she's never known a minute of want in her entire life. (This one-two punch will turn her into the Mad Max of Reconstruction-era Georgia.) The scenes that follow provide a tour of the prewar South, by way of Tara and Twelve Oaks. This idyllic landscape passes in a blur of fluffy dresses and barbecues and frock coats, laying the groundwork for depicting the War as an all-consuming firestorm.
For 1939, they don't skimp on the carnage
What's the end of the world without some gore, some sign that things are not right and getting worse? The Late Unpleasantness arrives, but it's not until Gettysburg that the dancing stops and the movie takes a dark turn. Like the first zombie sighting or alien laser beam, the lists of local boys killed in action signals their universe is starting to crumble. Then the Battle of Atlanta brings the death and misery to center stage. Once Sherman's forces start shelling the city, it's one horrific set piece after another. First we see Scarlett volunteering as a nurse, helping treat wounded fresh from the front. Men are screaming, everyone's sweating in the summer heat, and someone wants her to help with an amputation. There's no chloroform, much less handwashing. Later, when Melanie goes into labor, Scarlett tries to fetch the doctor and sees hundreds of men laid out side by side on the street, groaning and dying in the hot sun.
Watching the world burn
I don't care what Roland Emmerich blows up in his next destructoporn epic. It will never top David O. Selznick's torching of the MGM backlot to recreate the burning of Atlanta. The Technicolor flames eat up the entire screen and the normally larger-than-life protagonists are reduced to ant-like proportions. It's even the same color as every atom-bomb test video they show in history class. Once they've escaped the city, Rhett abandons Scarlett to get Melanie, Prissy, and the baby past two ragged armies. And then the story reaches its absolute nadir: Scarlett, who just wants to get home, arrives at Tara to find her mother dead and her father crazy. There's no food and the entire plantation is suddenly her responsibility. Her world is toast, and it's never coming back.
Scraping by and surviving the fallout
All the pretty dresses and the wartime angst were just a setup for the heart of Gone With the Wind which, like many a post-apocalyptic classic, is watching the protagonist claw her way back from the brink and piece the world back together again. It's never quite the same, but that's going to stop Scarlett. First, she digs up those carrots and promises that she's not going hungry again, not even if she has to lie, cheat, steal, or kill. Next, she starts picking cotton. She shoots a menacing drifter and buries the body. She shamelessly steals her sister Sue Ellen's fiancee, saves Tara with his money, takes over his general store, and begins building an empire in postwar Atlanta.
When the going gets crazy...
Here's the grand irony of Gone With the Wind: the story encourages us to see the war as a tragedy that strips Scarlett of her youth and turns her into something hard and dreadful. But Rhett Butler nails it in the library at Twelve Oaks when he says, "And you, miss, are no lady." He's not the only one who's got her number. The whole reason Ashley Wilkes, supposedly the great love of her life, doesn't marry her is that she isn't a delicate Southern flower like Melanie. (His sister thinks she's an outright hussy.) In a society obsessed with aping the chivalrous world of Ivanhoe, she is a scandal waiting to happen. In fact, the war transforms her from spoiled brat probably destined to "ruin" herself to a tough, New South businesswoman. It's a character arc consistent with any number of post-apocalyptic narratives: The misfits and the crazies are best equipped to deal with a world gone mad.