The Value of Race and Land

In his essay, "Gone With the Wind and Good Riddance," Charles Rowan Beye examines the book and film through a modernist lens:

To the degree that Gone With the Wind is also the coming-of-age story of a Civil War Southern belle that speaks to the experience of an American middle class woman in the throes of the Great Depression it is also optimistic in a way that its predecessors and models are not, although the film's ambiguous and teary ending disguises this. . . . One quite forgets the apologies for the Ku Klux Klan and the suggestion that the black slaves were like happy children on paradisiacal plantation lands. But when this is said, there remains the central truth of the book, which is that all of life for women and slaves alike was a vast prison in which these unfortunates were enslave to free white males.(1)

Beye's comparison between Margaret Mitchell's narrative and the era it was written in continues as he notes the similarity between the two eras:

The economic and social disaster that the Civil War brought to the white aristocracy of the old South is a good metaphor for the economic and social dislocation that millions of ordinary Americans experienced between 1936 and 1946. Suddenly vast numbers of people were devastated by hunger, homelessness, and joblessness. Often, however, they were also freed from middle class gentility; women especially were freed from propriety; classes were mixed up; immigrant groups became richer and freer in the experience of America; war made women independent of men as never before. . . . In the final scene of the first half of the movie . . . Scarlett shouts out to the heavens, "If I have to steal or kill--as God is my witness, I'm never going to be hungry again." It is a moment of great triumph, even if Scarlett feels herself to be speaking out of desperation, since at that moment she throws off the shackles of her childhood culture and of her womanhood, and adopts the masculine stance that has energized the United States of America and made it great from its inception. (p. 379-80)

These quotes are rather long but they serve as a good way to contextualize the theme of the film and subsequently, the logic of the race relations within the story. If The Birth of a Nation might be understood as part of the fiftieth anniversary commemoration of the Civil War, then Gone With the Wind should probably be placed against a similar historical backdrop.

In this case, we have a novel written by a woman in the middle of 1930s America that can be understood in terms of the economic depression going on and a society still trying to cope with the legacy of the first World War. Economic hardships are still in plain view and the threat of fascism lurks on the horizon. Mitchell addresses this sense of constant change but also identifies an item that offers constant stability--land. In particular, the O'Hara plantation known as Tara.

In an early scene that ends with the silhouette of Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) and her father, Gerald (Thomas Mitchell), placed against the open sky--an image repeated at the end of the first half that Beye described earlier--Gerald emphasizes the importance of land to his daughter:

Gerald: ". . . . Why, land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for because it's the only thing that lasts."

Scarlett: "Oh, paw, you talk like an Irishman."

Gerald: "It's proud I am that I'm Irish. And don't you be forgetting, Missy, that you're half Irish too. And to anyone with a drop of Irish blood in them, why the land they live on is like their mother. Oh, but there, there, you're just a child. It'll come to you, this love of the land. There's no getting over it if you're Irish."
Gerald and Scarlett O'Hara
Gerald's emphasis on his heritage is reflected in the way he falls back into his native dialect. In his speech and through it, he expresses pride in the fact that his daughter is Irish and he believes that one day, she will recognize that the only constant in the world is land. At the same time, Gerald stresses the potency of Irish blood the same way people with African-American blood are automatically categorized as black. This "drop theory" not only foreshadows Scarlett's bond with Tara but also the bond between the black servants on her plantation as well. It seems safe to say that in terms of the "drop theory," both Scarlett and her servants can be understood as racialized others when compared to the rest of white America.

In the same essay that is so critical of the depiction of the black characters in Gone With the Wind, Catherine Clinton acknowledges that the film's "glimpses of the O'Hara household reflect the historical reality of an up-country plantation in prewar Georgia. Gerald O'Hara's humble foreign origins mirror the experiences of a large percentage of antebellum planters, Ireland and Scotland being the main source of Southern immigrants." (p. 134). Thomas Cripps also notes the emphasis on race that occurs in the film when he writes in the essay, "Winds of Change,":

In addition to its obvious socially diverse ingredients of sectionalism and racism, it contained elements calculated by its makers. Mitchell and producer David O. Selznick, to temper and modulate high-running racial feelings. Indeed, their half- formed liberal assumptions that contributed to the political texture of the film anticipated the more sharply focused racial liberalism of World War II. In this sense, Gone With the Wind signaled a revival of an old abolitionist quest to make racism a national issue. By standing astride a moment between the Great Depression and world war during which American social attitudes changed, in part prodded by forces released by wartime propaganda calling for national unity across ethnic lines, the movie provided a punctuation mark between the last era in which racial matters were considered to be purely local and a new era when they resumed a role in national public policy. (p. 137)

The emphasis on racial unity becomes clear in the second half of the film when Scarlett struggles to rebuild Tara and her "faithful servants" stand by her during the process. One of the earliest scenes demonstrating the investment Scarlett and her servants have in each other comes in her discussion about taxes with the male house servant, Pork (Oscar Polk).

After an exterior shot of the barn, the camera moves to the interior where Scarlett is stirring a pot. Pork walks into the frame from the right side, having just returned from shoeing the horses. As the servant attempts to ask Scarlett a question (the phrase "Miss Scarlett, ma'am" is repeated three times), she berates him for being later than she thought he would be and complains that it's an unfair world in which horses can get shoes but humans can't.

Finally, Pork gets to ask his question as the camera places him at the center of the frame, "I gotta know how much money you got, in gold." When Scarlett responds that she has ten dollars, Pork shakes his head and says, "That won't be enough." Although Scarlett appears in the foreground of the frame, Pork is clearly the focus of the camera. When Scarlett responds, the camera cuts to reverse the positions and frames her as the center of interest.
Gone With the Wind in RealVideo

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Scarlett and Pork The camera cuts again when Pork says, "Well, Miss Scarlett, I seen that old no count white trash, Wilkerson, that used to be Mr. Gerald's overseer here. He's a regular Yankee now and he was making a brag that his carpet bagger friends done run the taxes way up, sky-high, on Tara."

Scarlett is the focus of the frame as she asks how much and Pork tells her that the taxes have gone up to three hundred dollars. By maintaining its position, the camera records Scarlett's disbelief. The camera cuts again after she says, "Well, we got to raise it, that's all." Pork is again the focus of the frame when he agrees and asks, "How?"

The scene then returns the two figures to the midground in a similar fashion to the two-shot that began the conversation. Scarlett puts on her coat as she says she is going to ask Ashley Wilkes for the money she needs. As she heads to the right of the frame, Pork is quick to point out that Ashley doesn't have that type of money. Scarlett leaves the frame saying, "Well I can ask him, can't I?" The scene ends with a close-up of Pork shaking his head saying, "Asking ain't getting."
Throughout this exchange, the series of close-ups demonstrate and cuts throughout the conversation demonstrate that Pork and Scarlett are on an equal footing. The dialogue of the scene, however, favors Pork. From his role in propelling the narrative by telling Scarlett what he has heard that "old no count white trash, Wilkerson," say about the taxes, to his right to call the old overseer such names, to the fact that Pork gets the final word--even though Scarlett is out of earshot--demonstrates the investment screenwriter Sidney Howard and director Victor Fleming (George Cukor left the project midway through shooting) have in the stereotypical servant and their interest in locating him within the larger framework of racial unity. This is developed further when Gerald O'Hara's former overseer, Wilkerson, arrives at Tara with his wife.