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Frankly HBO, We Don’t Give a Damn!

The corporate entertainment giant is going to re-educate us about 'Gone With the Wind' before we can watch it.

"Gone With the Wind" movie poster (1939)(Flickr)

Frankly, my dear, the real world—the generous world that lives outside our present disturbances—probably doesn’t give a damn what progressive opinion makes of Gone With the Wind and its cinematic legacy. 

It’s been instructive,  all the same, watching HBO Max fidget over the matter of how to present a 1939 classic in the fevered context of 2020. Only in these topsy-turvy times could such an argument break out, with little credit due the contending parties. 

HBO Max’s conundrum was set forth, perhaps precipitated, in a Los Angeles Times op-ed by the screenwriter John Ridley, who won an Academy Award for his adaptation of  “12 Years a Slave.” Ridley had noticed in the new streaming service’s catalog the availability of Gone With the Wind, a movie whose historical presumptions run counter to his own. Accordingly, he called for HBO Max to Do Something—not relegate Gone With the Wind “to a vault in Burbank”; rather frame its presentation in such a way as to advantage the Ridley take on slavery over that of Margaret Mitchell—whose viewpoint just doesn’t fit what we now believe.

With American capitalists frantically covering their sitting-down apparatuses amid national explosions of rage over the Floyd murder, what were HBO Max, and its owner, WarnerMedia, to do but distance themselves morally? Moral distance meant, yes, we have here a classic movie; however, one that lies about the way things were, prior to the appearance of “12 Years a Slave” and like instruments of regeneration.

So put down your popcorn, children. The nice lady delivering a newly filmed HBO Max introduction to the movie would like your attention. She is Jacqueline Stewart of Turner Classic Movies. She wants you to know that Gone With the Wind, for all its “cultural significance,” is “a major document of Hollywood’s racist practices of the past.” The film fails to acknowledge “the brutalities  of the system of chattel slavery upon which this world is based.” You have to know this before watching. You’ll miss the point otherwise, and HBO Max and Miss Stewart, wouldn’t like that. They want those minds wide open, the better to close them securely.

We’ll see once  the re-education lecture is over—I mean, the helpful introduction—whether potential viewers stick around to bathe in the moral pollution they didn’t know they were renting from HBO Max. It will depend on the political-cultural zeal that the renters bring with them to an experience once deemed as entertainment. 

A single, unified narrative about the Civil War, and the circumstances that surround it, and the people caught up in those circumstances is shaping up rapidly. Punishment awaits those who contradict or relativize it. We’ll see whether and how well Gone With the Wind stands up in the midst of this mighty gale. If it doesn’t stand, we’ll know we’ve become a different kind of society indeed: a prospect that would delight the current crop of  statue-wreckers and defacers. How much more generous, how much kinder we would be is a question I think needs the airing suppressed by the current cry for redefining justice as, among other impulses, kicking dead people and their memories around the block. 

Perhaps because I resist the notion that we’re now officially a mob society, ready to carve up the otherwise-persuaded and feed their gizzards to the birds, my money is on Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable as long-term victors over the John Ridleys and Jacqueline Stewarts. HBO Max may have seriously underrated the competition. 

I have seen Gone With the Wind some 20-odd times since 1954, when it was re-released to mass acclaim and my parents took me for my introductory viewing at the Palace Theater. That likely puts me behind the moral eight-ball so far as Brother Ridley is concerned. WHY, THAT DELUDED WHITE MAN SAT VOLUNTARILY THROUGH THE SUFFERINGS OF THE ENSLAVED! QUOD ERAT DEMONSTRANDUM!

All right, all right. Repeated viewings, at least, have shown me a few things the Ridley faction may not have noticed, such as that slavery is not in fact at the center of the picture. The war and Reconstruction are at the center of it, and not in the way conventionally taught today: the South overrun with traitors, knaves, and whippers of slaves; not a moral gene among the lot. On the fact of it, this is not so. Neither book nor movie teems with post-Confederate outrage. War-caused hardships and destructions appear early: the burning of Atlanta, the flight to Tara, with a newly born baby;  and starvation;  Scarlett vomiting up the only available food on the ruined plantation—a turnip jerked from the soil.

And afterwards? In the second half of the film? Endurance. Determination. Courage. Resilience. Unstoppability. People of mettle, knocked to the floor,  then somehow rising, finding their footing, restoring life: not the old life, the new. But life! 

Scarlett and Rhett typified the quest for life: Scarlett the plantation belle who became tough as nails in order to fulfill her vow: “I’ll never be hungry again, no, nor any of my folk…As God is my witness…I’ll  never be hungry again!”

I can’t help wondering whether during that memorable cinematic moment Mr. Ridley nourished anything but his personal resentments.

Gone With the Wind was published in 1936, when the United States was mired in depression. The movie appeared three years later. Both told a story that inspired uncountable numbers of Americans—a story of survival in the face of defeat, and against awful odds. I might suggest that makes it all the more relevant in 2020.

In partial expiation of the charge that the movie treats slavery too lightly, I could point out that one of its most admirable characters is Mammy, termed by Time Magazine “the Emily Post of the O’Haras.” Always moral, always dignified—even without a Harvard Business School degree. I could point out that Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, became, deservedly, the first black performer to win an Academy Award. 

I could continue picking at the Ridley faction’s pettifogging points. I must draw attention now, however, to what is at stake in a larger context: a people’s right to talk about themselves and their trials and tribulations in the way they want to talk, and to hear others who put those often-painful scenes in story form.

Here’s who we are. Here’s what we did. And here’s what came of it. It’s the oldest literary tradition in, shall we say, the book— going back to Homer and the tale of Troy’s fall. Rhett and Scarlett and Ashley and Melanie are  the 19th century counterparts of Achilles and Hector and Helen and Paris. 

Gone With the Wind isn’t history. It was never meant as such. It’s Saga for Southerners. We learn about ourselves by talking about ourselves—especially those who, going before us, made some memorable show of faith and effort and left some imprint upon our minds and hearts, amid success or failure. 

Even in a changing South, Gone With the Wind will go on and on because it shows us ourselves: warts and all, as Cromwell put it. Zeus knows, a lot was wrong with the Greeks on both sides of Troy’s walls. That doesn’t mean, I hope, drawing a veil over their sufferings  and strivings—the equivalent of what, I am sorry to say, undereducated or mal-educated Americans want to do with the Old South.

First-rate intellects favor learning from mistakes in order not to repeat them, or at least to do things next time in a cleaner, better way. Second- and third-rate intellects, who hold lofty places today in the media, the entertainment industry, the clergy, and, especially, academia, don’t want so much to learn as to force-feed approved viewpoints and preferences. 

The ongoing war on free speech shows the deleterious effects of shutting down discussion. At a minimum, when you force the otherwise-minded into silence, you deprive the argument of insights—possibly small, possibly large— from which someone might have learned something. You render yourself more liable to mistakes and miscalculations. Unless, to be sure, as certain progressives seem to imagine, you never made a mistake in your whole life and don’t intend to start now!

I suggest that the flap—I hope it grows no larger than a mere flap—over the current suitability of Gone With the Wind typifies the intellectual density in which American culture is sunk. Meanness and malice of the sort our crop of statue-smashers exemplifies is harmful enough to civic peace and order. Far worse than mere meanness, which is curable, is intellectual obtusity and blindness of the sort we see on every hand. For how much longer? I like to look on the bright side. Maybe no longer than it takes a critical mass of open-minded HBO Max viewers to live and love and suffer with Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. After all, tomorrow is another day!

William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist and author, most recently, of The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.

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