For the first time in the history of the Film Experience’s wonderful interactive series Hit Me with Your Best Shot, Nathaniel has planned a two-parter for us. It’s as simple as it is daunting: this week, pick one single shot from the first two hours 1939 period love story Gone with the Wind. Next week, we’ll do the same for the last two hours. It’s really the only way to be fair to one of the great behemoths in Hollywood cinema, a film so lustily broad and full that it barely feels right to think of it as one movie (and the way it builds to its intermission, it frankly feels like two separate films, as it would undoubtedly be released if it were made today).
What can one say about Gone with the Wind? I’ve already tried to review it, but it’s one of those movies that’s so much bigger than anything you can measure it against that even calling it a “movie” seems inadequate. It is one of the most iconic things that has ever been made in the medium, bold and upfront and entirely proud of how thoroughly it overpowers you with the sheer scale of its creation. This is so much a capital-E Experience that trying to come to grips with it in terms of its politics, its mortifying racial problem, its narrative hiccups, or its florid melodrama is like trying to analyse Victoria Falls. Better to just let it pummel you into awed submission.
When faced with such a monolith, it seems idiotic to aim for cunning; better by fair to just own that it’s a damn icon and go with something damn well iconic. It just so happens that I have mentioned, many times, online and in life, that my favorite single shot from Gone with the Wind is also one of my favorite shots in all of American film, so even though it is stupid famous, I feel no compunction about picking it:
Allegedly suggested to producer David O. Selznick by Val Lewton, it’s a grand achievement in technical cinematography for one thing, a crane shot gliding from a full shot of Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) to a massively wide shot from a great height that keeps the whole field of bodies in crisp, clear focus, while also keeping the ragged Confederate flag in focus at the end. Divorced from its content in every way, it’s still among the most impressive achievements in 1930 cinematography, all the more so when you recall that the Technicolor cameras being used on this film were larger and more cumbersome than the standard black-and-white cameras used on most other shoots (on, in fact, all other shoots: at one point during its production, Gone with the Wind was using every single 3-strip Technicolor camera in existence).
But of course, it has content, and that content is powerful and devastating. As Scarlett, an addle-headed Southern belle whose growing awareness that war is a sort of horrible thing that doesn’t care about her spoiled princess attitude has defined the first hour of the film, discovers the full scale of the murderous power of war, so does the film. It’s the sheer endlessness of the 55-second shot that makes the impact: as the camera keeps moving, and moving, and moving, it makes its point over and over, and it’s easy to keep wondering, is that it? is that it? But it isn’t. It’s just row after row of the dead and dying in writhing agony, more people than you can almost imagine seeing in one moment. And after Scarlett has laboriously picked her way across bodies, she vanishes behind that ratty flag, a figure symbolically representing the antebellum South at its most willfully unreflective forced into terrifying awareness of a real life she hasn’t ever had to think about, swallowed up by another symbol of an old order being torn about and ready to collapse. In a film that’s too willing at times to romanticise the Old South, it’s a moment that bluntly observes the human cost of a war to preserve that way of life; the brutal irony of a flag waving with tattered pride over agony and death suffered in that flag’s name.