DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of Gone with the Wind, Cold Mountain, Giant, Doctor Zhivago, The Sound of Music, The Ten Commandments (and The Prince of Egypt), Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Birth of a Nation, The Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, Australia, Jezebel

 

Title: Gone with the Wind

Release Date:  1939; 1998 re-release

Nationality and Language: English

Running time: 222 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Distributor and Production Company:  MGM; Selznick Intenational (New Line Cinema in 1998)

Director; Writer: Victor Fleming; screenplay by Sidney Howard, based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell

Producer:

Cast:   Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland

Technical: Usually shown today as 1.85 to 1 with restored soundtrack

Relevance to doaskdotell site:  American history, novelists, “narcissistic personality”

Review: On this page I will provide reviews of a few major classic films.

 

I first saw “Gone with the Wind” at around age 11 (in 1954—you can do the algebra I problem to calculated my age, as a “word problem”) with my cousin on a Sunday afternoon at, as I recall, the Arlington Theater on Columbia Pike (in Arlington, VA). My father had called this film “the best movie ever made.” Given the length and monumental character of this film classic, going to it was a big family outing. Kids were supposed to brace themselves for Rhett Butler’s (Clark Gable) famous last line, “Frankly, my darling, I don’t give a damn,” before he disappears into the southern fog. Kids were enhanced with the idea of a story of a woman (Scarlet O’Hara, played by Vivien Leigh) in love with two different men (Rhett, and the soft-spoken Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard)). In the 50s that was a big no-no.

 

We all know that Margaret Mitchell became famous for this sole long novel. There is a fine-print motion picture edition with many Technicolor illustrations, all fit into 391 pages (published by Macmillian in 1940). I think I read it for a book report in 11th grade English, and today English teachers could use it as an illustration of point of view in writing a novel. Mitchell writes most of it in third person limited, but once in a while ventures into omniscience as she imparts a lot of Civil War history. Literary agents tend to advise new novelists to be very faithful and consistent in the point of view.

 

Of course we all know the basic setup of this Harlequin-like romance. Scarlet has a privileged, undeserved life of wealth, supported by slavery. It is taken away from her in a kind of purification, by General Sherman’s march, literally (after her harrowing escape from burning Atlanta). A whole way of life, “gone with the wind,” a threat that our own society could face today because of the outrage of others.  She uses her wits and selfishness to get everything back, after the Intermission, only to lose out on Love with both men. Rhett, of course, is her match for manipulative skill. Perhaps Scarlet is motivated by the fact that, as Mitchell says in the first sentence, she “was not beautiful.” 

 

Documentaries have been made about the movie itself, an early Technicolor period spectacle, that moves from set to set in blocks (Tara, Twelve Oaks, Atlanta). They will even report that Vivien Leigh was asked to work on “her bosom.”  As the film progresses, the scenes tend to pick up in pace and sometimes seem hurried, even for a long film. The spectacle of the casualties in Atlanta (“oh, the nausea…”), the escape form the centerpiece. But there are so many memorable scenes, like “quittin’ time” on the plantation, then Scarlet planting herself in her burned out plantation, the gals worrying that they will become old maids while Scarlet has two men, Prissy taking care of Melanie and crying when she dies (the loyalty of the slaves, even after the War, is quite striking). Or the scene where daughter Bonnie dies in a horse-riding accident (anticipating Christopher Reeve, perhaps), or where Scarlet rolls down the stairs.

 

The morality play inherent in the novel and film bear notice. Scarlet grew up believing her world was right, because she was willing to adhere to religious and family values. But that world was taken from her, by war, because it was based on a serious moral flaw—the involuntary servitude – aka slavery -- of others who were kept subordinate (blacks). Yet even among slaves there was blood and family loyalty, and a willingness to put family and even loyalty to master over activism and a desire to make things right in a universal moral sense of what we think of social justice and fundamental rights in a liberal democracy. This dichotomy is always with us.

 

The music score my Max Steiner is memorable, with one of moviedom’s most schmaltzy themes.

 

Cold Mountain (2003: Miramax/Image), directed and written by Anthony Minghella (The English Patient; The Talented Mr. Ripley), is Miramax’s annual “big” historical film. (I think the Miramax distribution mark means that the film is still independently rather than studio funded, which, given the freedom offered by technology, is becoming more common.)  Of course, everybody says that this is an application of Homer’s Odyssey to a Civil War setting (Charles Frazier’s episodic novel), as a Confederate deserter Inman (Jude Law) sloshes home from the Battle of Petersburg to his lover Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman), an overly protected belle (of the Scarlet tradition) who has been brought down to earth back in Cold Mountain, NC after her minister father (played by Don Sutherland) perishes, and she is “rescued” from manual-labor incompetence by her hired friend Ruby Thewes (Renee Zellweger). (Oh! – I remember those lectures from my own father about “learning to work!”) In fact, it is Zellweger’s earthy dykish character, who brings Ada to earth about the realities of practical hard work with your hands (aka cultural revolution – “I can embroider but I can’t darn!”)) who takes the film over a bit into the area of Coen Brothers-style satire, though not as pointed as their Odyssey screenrwriting adaptation O Brother, Where Art Thou?  (I loved the scene where Roby decapitates the rooster!) Jude Law takes a different route towards matinee idolship: no buffed creature, but rather scruffy and hairy and male-aged to the point of having a widow’s peak hairline, he stays believably grizzled throughout. Much is made by film buffs of the fact that much of the film was shot in Romania (to reproduce an unspoiled Appalachia-like world) but the credits also list both Carolinas and Colonial Willamsburg

 

Giant (1956, Warner Bros., dir. George Stevens, based on the novel by Edna Ferber, 201 min, PG-13) is just that, a sprawling epic about generational wealth in West Texas. Jordan Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) visits a Maryland farm (the film opens with a steam train approaching the farm) to buy a horse and falls in love with the daughter Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor).  She comes back with him, on the train, and takes up life in a ranch house on an absolutely flat staked plain more or less near Amarillo. James Dean plays the irrepressible and often drunk Jett Rink. Toward the end of the film there is a memorable racial confrontation in a restaurant.  This film was shown in a revival at the Inwood in Dallas in the 1980s.

 

Doctor Zhivago (1965, MGM, dir. David Lean, based on the novel by Boris Pasternak, music by Maurice Jarre, 197 min, PG). I saw this at the Capri in downtown Kansas City, MO on a cold December night while a graduate student at KU.  The story builds in layers of narration, starting with a young woman (reported by the narrator Vegraf Zhivago, meeting her at a power plant) who may be the daughter of physician-poet Dr. Yuri Zhivago (Omar Shariff) and Lara Antipova (Julie Christie). The activity is driven by Kamarovsky (Rod Steiger) (her mother’s lover) and Pascha (Tom Courtenay). After an assassination attempt, they are driven out of the country on a train East (through the Urals, where the intermission occurs) and then live in a snowy paradise in Siberia. This story has been remade twice with TV mini-series in 2002 and 2005. 

 

The Sound of Music (1965, 20th Century Fox, dir. by Robert Wise, base don the Rogers and Hammerstein musical, book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, 174 min, PG) has Julie Andrews as a failing nun Maria who goes to take care of and teacher the children of widower Baron von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) before World War II in Austria. She falls in love, and eventually marries in a spectacular wedding. But then Von Trapp is “conscripted” to accept a position in the Navy of the Third Reich, and the family must escape over the mountains (“Climb Every Mountain!”) to neutral Switzerland.  Particularly touching is the scene at the end where Von Trapp has to talk a young boy Rolfe (Daniel Truhitte) out of turning him in and staying with the Nazis. This film is shown every Christmas on major networks.

 

The Ten Commandments (1956, Paramount, dir. Cecil B. DeMille,  book by J. H. Ingraham and A. E. Southon, 220 min, PG) has an introduction where Cecil B. De Mille admits that his Bible story takes three hours and 39 minutes to tell. This was one of the early landmark films, but in VistaVision (“motion picture high fidelity”, not as wide as CinemaScope). Of course, the Ten Commandments do undergird Judeo-Christian morality, especially the ideas of avoidance of idolatry, covetousness, and the ukase for loyalty to elders. We all know the legal controversy about its display in public buildings. Moses himself is a bit of a tragic figure, as his one act of disobedience kept him from entering the Promised Land himself. He was, at one point, too headstrong and too sure of his own role in defining good and evil. In the meantime, the Isrealites made the Golden Calf. The whole saga, going back to Moses’s discovery in a river, his privileged upbringing in the Egyptian court and his calling by God, leads to a story that shows the importance and richness of blood relations and agricultural life in ancient societies. (We remember the story of the Passover.)  The biggest spectacle is, of course, the parting of the Red Sea. The more recent rendition of this grand tale is the animated The Prince of Egypt (1998, Dreamworks, dir. Brenda Chapman and Steve Hickner). Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aaron is one of my favorite modern operas, especially in the orchestral passages depicting the Golden Calf.

 

Citizen Kane (1941, RKO Radio, dir. Orson Welles, written by Orson Welles and Herman Mamkiewicz) is the fabled layered and retrospective docudrama of the publishing magnate Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles himself). The film is united by a didactic device, the meaning of the phrase “Rosebud”, which we hear him utter through a glass snow sphere, and we find out eventually that it is a boyhood snow sled. Then there is the resort Xanadu (a kind of Neverland), which looks particularly delicious in black and white. But the real story is the history of publishing and of the free press, which predates but sets up all of today’s robust debates about free speech.  This is a movie that Supreme Court justices certainly know. (Freedom of speech would have been a concern to Orson Welles ever after his infamous “War of the Worlds Grovers Mill NJ radio broadcast in the 1930s.) I saw this movie at the Inwood theater in Dallas in the 1980s.

 

Casablanca (1942, Warner Bros., dir. Michael Curtiz, based on the play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison) generates the musical emblem that Warner Brothers uses today as its musical trademark (the studio should use it more consistently). Humphrey Bogart plays Rick Blaine, who runs a nightclub in North Africa in the early days of World War II. Nazi Major Strasser must be placated, and when Czech dissident Victor Laslo (Paul Henreid) arrives with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergmann) Capt. Renault (Claude Rains) detains him. Blaine will fall in love with Ilsa.  The ending where they fly off is famous (with the musical emblem), but so is the piano bar signing of the French National Anthem La Marseillaise.

 

The Birth of a Nation (1915, Allied Artists/Image, dir. D. W. Griffith, 187 min, novel and play by Thomas F. Dixon Jr. ("The Clansman"), sug PG) is the famous silent film epic of the War Between the States and the subsequent Reconstruction, told through the eyes of two families on opposite sides of the Mason Dixon Line (the Stonemans and the Camerons), and particularly two Stoneman brothers Phil and Ted. It could make an interesting comparison to Gone with the Wind. Early on, there are big battle scenes that are quite an accomplishment for the time. The film is mostly monochromatic, with a few big scenes colorized. Many of the scenes, however, have an annoying brown tint instead of the steely gray we like in real black and white. The sound track consists of rollicking classical music (such as Weber’s overtures).

 

The film is controversial in its treatment of the racial issues. Some of the titling can be taken as viewing African Americans (“negroes”) unfavorably. At one point, a title says that the North and South were reunitied under their "Aryan birthright." Most commentators feel that the Ku Klux Klan is presented as the “salvation” of the South, and the KKK reportedly used it as a recruiting tool. Toward the end of the film, there are references to "black mobs" and indeed the KKK on its horses is made to look like the "savior of liberty," an unacceptable and historically wrong portrayal by today's standards. There were protests when it was added to the National Film Registry in 1993. When does self-righteousness mix with racism? The June 16 2996 Entertainment Weekly considers it one of the 25 most controversial films of all time. The commentary notes with the DVD acknowledge the racist attitude of the white supremacist play. When can a movie become art even if communicating objectionable ideas?

 

The Seven Samurai (“Shichinini no samurai”, 1954, Embassy/Janus/Criterian, dir. Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 208 min, PG) is another famous “early” black-and-white epic film, this one the prima donna example of the potential for the abstraction in oriental and Japanese film. The story is simple enough. In the 16th Century, a simple village “hires” local samurai to defend them against invading bandits, who in storytelling terms are the “aliens.” The film develops the personalities of the individual seven warriors, and deals with the contradiction of being a male warrior – a member of a team in a collective pursuit that would inhibit originality. The village is itself a collective, with straw huts and millet crops. As long as this film is, it becomes structured and moral storytelling in the most basic terms. Early on the film depicts a head-shaving ritual for the samurai, with the removal of the pony tail particularly “humiliating,” and metaphor for the loss of individuality required of warriors, and foreshadowing the practice of hazing; yet visually the whole ritual is abstract. A few of the scenes show the close quarters intimacy of “military” life even then (in one scene, two of the samurai sleep together as “bunkmates” in a total buddy, non-erotic manner), yet the film would probably be seen as an appropriate study of quasi-military sociology, Charles Moskos style. The swords (as do other images) have obviously phallic significance. The “alien” invasion appears on a ridge, in a famous wide shot, about two hours plus into the film. The DVD incorporates a six minute intermission and offers detailed commentary, which the customer should turn on. The film cost about a half million dollars to make and has been called the “Heaven’s Gate” of its day. The cast is interesting and varied in appearance; some of the cast appear more Caucasian, like the Ainu people.  

 

The Magnificent Seven (1960, MGM / United Artists / Mirisch, 128 min, dir. John Sturges, wr. William Roberts, PG-13) is an adaption of the Japanese “Seven Samurai” to 19th Century Mexico. The village, periodically raided by bandits demanding tribute and food, hire seven American mercenaries, who help train the villagers (there is a rifle range scene with targets that reminds one of Army Basic Combat training) and then waffle on whether they will carry out their trust as warriors, but in a convoluted story, they finally do. The film, an early example of full “Panavision” (2.35:1) is spectacular and crisp, but it comes across as a manipulation of the Japanese material, which really says a lot more about warrior psychology (something particularly important with national security issues today in Iraq and elsewhere). Still, a great line is “Only the dead are without fear.” Another is “They have no sons, no daughters, no wives,” as their courage is investigated. (That’s relevant to today’s debates, isn’t it.)  Finally Charles Bronson’s character tells the kids of the village men that their fathers have more courage than the mercenaries because they voluntarily took on the responsibilities or raising families.  I wonder how that fits into military psychology today. The film has often been excerpted and credited in other movies. It has a familiar syncopated, lilting and lively orchestral music score by Elmer Bernstein, which was all the rage and became household music in the early 1960s. Eli Wallach, Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Brad Dexter, James Coburn, Jorge Martinez de Hoyos.

 

Australia (2008, 20th Century Fox, dir. Baz Luhrmann, 165 min, PG-13) with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackson is an epic “modern western” set in northern Australia during the early part of WWII. The story puts together plot elements of “Gone with the Wind”, “Giant” and “Pearl Harbor” along with racial aborigine issues. Besides replicating the kissing scene from GWTW, the film gives Nicole a chance to open up and tease Hugh’s chest. The film picks up speed and has an incredible stampede sequence. Blogger review.

 

Jezebel (1938, Warner Bros., dir. William Wyler, 110 min) A socialite endures pre-Civil War New Orleans and yellow fever; lots of “before the Wind” politics. Bette Davis. Blogger.

 

 

Related reviews: Gettysburg

 

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