Little Big World
Farihah Zaman on Gone with the Wind

So breathlessly anticipated was the film adaptation of Gone with the Wind that when it premiered in Atlanta in 1939, the governor of Georgia declared a statewide holiday and the Mayor announced a three-day festival. The South seemed grateful for a depiction of the Civil War that, while not glossing over the repulsive fact of slavery, acknowledged that it was just one part of a complex, if flawed, American civilization forever altered by the war. While Vincent Fleming’s magnum opus is often best remembered for its saucy love triangle and brazen melodrama—and both are undeniable—it is important to bear in mind that the iconic status of the love story should not overshadow its relatable poignancy, and that the film is also a deeply disturbing depiction of wartime conflict. Gone with the Wind is unabashed in being equal parts historical epic and smoldering romance, and it satisfies on both levels. The prospect of seeing this story brought to life on the big screen, in 35mm, in all its rich, undulating, silk-swishing glory, is just as thrilling almost 70 years after its completion.

It is difficult to imagine a film that demands more room to stretch out than this fable spanning a little over a decade, hundreds of miles, and clocking in at a robust four hours. The massive success of the best-selling novel by Margaret Mitchell was undoubtedly the primary reason superstar producer David O. Selznick felt comfortable throwing time, money, and talent at this juggernaut like peanuts, and the finished product practically glistens with confident ambition and towers over movie history with a scale that impresses even today, when dizzying overhead shots and battle scenes involving thousands are commonplace.

The film opens with an awe-inspiring montage of storybook images of the rural South; cherry blossoms, grain mills, horses plowing the earth while slaves pick cotton. It’s an appropriate opening for a story that is essentially about the ties we have to our land, particularly as Americans, and especially as that land becomes the only tangible hope for the victims of war at various points during Gone with the Wind. As the camera turns to the plantations, the overhead shots are replaced by elaborately painted backdrops, a technique used throughout the film that, rather than lessen its then-cutting edge cinematic craftsmanship, evokes an even deeper sense of Hollywood glamour and big American grandeur. And so on the waves of Max Steiner’s lush score—soaring orchestral music that occasionally picks up themes of recognizable folk songs—the story of the fluctuating fortunes of Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), the spoiled, fiery daughter of an Irish immigrant and a Southern belle, begins. One of film’s ultimate sirens, she manages to survive the war and even rebuild thanks to her strange and bewitching combination of mature cunning and childish stubbornness. Scarlett is also driven by her desire for the two competing men in her life, married childhood sweetheart Ashley (Leslie Howard) and cad-with-a-heart-of-gold Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), but above all she is loyal to Tara, her family’s plantation.

The first hour of Gone with the Wind features some of the most sumptuous, shameless displays of wealth and comfort ever committed to film, from the vast Southern landscape to the lavish interiors of its upper classes. Yet this film is not really about greatness as much as its ruination, the fleetingness of big things—even something as big as an entire way of life. It is necessary to spend ample time with the sheer magnitude and finery of the film’s sets, locations, costumes, the saturated-color drenched cinematography, the swirling gilded staircases—every detail that conveys elegance and ease—to truly appreciate their passing into haunting, cavernous wreckage. The slow demise of Scarlett’s beloved home represents not only the loss of wealth for the heroine and her ilk, not just the eradication of Southern culture, but also deeper, more universal losses like the erosion of youth and the way in which one’s hope and resilience can be chipped away over time by the sheer force of external circumstances and the consequences of one’s own decisions.

Some films deserve and require the big screen because they are simply too physically grand to be contained; unending mountain ranges, snaking rivers, and all of the greatness that vast landscape affords. With its sweeping views of Tara and its still-shocking mass of injured soldiers horrifically piled up in an Atlanta square, Gone with the Wind is big in a literal sense. But the film is also remarkably intimate, allowing seemingly small things to come into focus as they are thrown against the relentless march of history.

The director will often zoom in on his actors during a particularly dramatic scene so that an individual human moment takes center stage—Mammy’s lined face breaking into a smile that beams like the sun, or Scarlett and Rhett’s first kiss filling the screen with a red, glowing passion to rival the flames that engulfed Atlanta just a few moments earlier—but also just as suddenly zoom back out to show how small the players are in the context of their surroundings, sometimes to the point of becoming just a silhouette against the endless sky. But when the camera glides towards Scarlett’s face, as if hypnotized by her like any other creature in her presence, the very arch of her brow or curl of her lip becomes an epic gesture, as big as any battle, just played on smaller field. Rhett’s archetypal rogue is equally compelling, particularly the way in which he is introduced. Director of photography Harold Rosson sensually slides the camera down an impossibly long banister right into that heart-breaking smirk and swoon-worthy mustache, giving the human face a standing equal to the film’s many landscapes. In Michael Sragow’s 2008 book Victor Fleming: An American Master, he says of the shot, “To this day, audiences applaud Gable’s close-up.”

With such mesmerizing characters in play, the aching, timeless love story in Gone with the Wind feels just as grave and significant as its war. Within its God’s-eye view of the plains and towns of Georgia, the film gives us the delicious, excruciating pleasure of a kind of subtle dramatic irony, an omniscience of the characters’ feelings and motivations. We know, always, that Scarlett could never truly be in love with that milquetoast Ashley, that she is simply drawn by an imaginary fairy-tale nobility, that she wants to be the kind of girl who wants Ashley, just as he only wants to be the kind of man who wants her. We know that she denies her truer love for Rhett because, while she is thrilled by his vulgarity and unfettered personality, to admit it would offend the sensibilities of her society, a society at whose ghost she grasps at while everything about it violently slips away. To the war-damaged Scarlett, an overwhelming need for order and an instinct for self-preservation shuts her off to the messy, vulnerable chaos that love imposes, at least until life has truly broken her, if even momentarily. As the film delves into her shrewd penchant for survival, one increasingly wonders whether she ever actually possessed her seeming zest for socializing or if instead she saw charm as the most advantageous adaptation to her community. And yet despite her emotional manipulations and steely selfishness, our feelings are heightened by the agonizing knowledge that Scarlett’s romances—like the South as she knows it—are doomed. On the red clay of Tara, in the desperately overcrowded wartime hospitals, between the brick walls of miraculously rebuilt Atlanta homes, the human heart looms largest.

Gone with the Wind played November 26 and 27 at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the series See It Big, co-presented by Reverse Shot.