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M A R C H    1 9 7 3

Time, alas, has treated GWTW cruelly
by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

HOLLYWOOD films tend to age well. What at the time may have seemed journalistic or cheap often displays after the passage of years an unexpected depth and dignity. Like other artifacts, fllms acquire a patina. But time, alas, has treated GWTW cruelly. It seems even worse now than when I saw it in 1939.

I am not referring to the obvious ideological issues. There is no more point in condemning GWTW for reproducing the stereotypes of its day -- for its attitudes toward blacks and women, for its idealization of slavery and its caricature of Reconstruction -- than there is in condemning The Birth of a Nation for admiring the Ku Klux Klan. GWTW fails rather on its chosen ground. It has an epic theme: the downfall of a brave, haughty, and obtuse ruling class against a backdrop of war and social upheaval. But it loses the theme in a morass of unconvincing sentimentality. It aspires to opera and achieves soap opera.

The public moments in the first half still have a sweep and vigor: the panic of flight along dusty roads; Atlanta under siege and in flames; the great long pull-away shot of the Confederate wounded lying in the city square. The second half should have been haunted by Reconstruction as the first was by war. Instead the private drama takes over.
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And how badly written it is! There is hardly a sharp or even a credible line. It is picture-postcard writing, as it is picture-postcard photography (and, for that matter, picture-postcard music). Melanie and Scarlett, the women's-serial rewrite of Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp, are too much: one too good to be true, the other too wicked. As Ms. Scarlett, Vivien Leigh gives a thin and shallow performance. She does not enrich the part by the slightest idiosyncrasy or originality. It is far more external and far less interesting as a rendition of a Southern bitch than Bette Davis' Jezebel or Miriam Hopkins' Temple Drake. Olivia de Havilland and Leslie Howard are beyond belief. Only Clark Gable, though one wearies of the knowing smile with which he monitors Scarlett's escapades, triumphs over the banal lines through a pleasantly cynical conception of the role and a hard, florid masculinity.

Perhaps in another thirty years GWTW may acquire its patina. For the moment, at least to this unregenerate viewer, it is a bore.

Copyright © 1973 by Arthur Schlessinger, Jr.. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 1973; "Time, alas, has treated GWTW cruelly."; Volume 231, No. 3; pages 64.

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