Monday, November 29, 2010

Gone With The Wind and The Birth of a Nation

Yesterday I saw the film Gone With The Wind. I was struck by the parallels with the earlier film, perhaps because I had heard someone that morning talking about the film Birth of a Nation. Both of course are set in the South during and after the Civil War. Both were enormously popular films of their day, based on best selling novels that were longer and more compelling to their audiences than previous films had been. Indeed, more tickets have been sold in the United States to Gone with the Wind than to any other film. Both films romanticized the South, ignoring the immorality at the heart of 19th century Southern culture.

Birth of a Nation glorified the Ku Klux Klan or at least the myth of the Clansmen as they existed after the Civil War. It is infamous for having led to the rebirth of the KKK after it was released in 1915.

Gone with the Wind romanticizes the white plantation owners in the pre-Civil War period, calling the men "cavaliers" and viewing the rich whites as rather silly people who treat their slaves well. The blacks are shown as caricatures -- mostly childish, foolish people devoted to their owners. the black characters remain in the service of their former owners even after being freed. In one scene the male field hands go off happily to dig trenches for the Confederate troops defending Atlanta from Sherman's troops. Other whites are either evil "carpetbaggers" or "white trash" (with the exceptions of the character played by mega-star Clark Gable and of another caricature -- the woman who owns a house of prostitution but has a heart of gold). The female protagonist employs a chain gang in her mill after the war knowing that they will be badly mistreated, but the film seems to gloss over the immorality of that act, implying it was a direct result of the poverty she suffered immediately after the war (having to work in the fields with her own hands). When she is attacked while driving her horse and buggy through a bad part of town occupied by carpetbaggers and emancipated former slaves, the men in her family act as vigilantes to attack random people in the town. This seems a direct throwback to the romanticization of the KKK in Birth of a Nation.

I was rather shocked when the audience (at the American Film Institute theater) applauded at the end of the film. It seemed to me a film that probably helped to prolong racism in America, pandering to the prejudices of segregationists and reinforcing their myths that distorted the immorality of slavery and involuntary servitude.

It is perhaps interesting that Gone With the Wind was released in 1939. It seems to have been strongly anti-war, showing how devastating the Civil War had been to the South (in spite of the fact that southerners entered the war assuming an easy win). Yet the Second World War had already begun, and American would have been well advised to have been preparing for its entry into the war.

John Dower, in his book Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq, describes how the Japanese misperceived the likely impact on Americans of their attack on Pearl Harbor showing it as parallel to the way in which the American military failed to apply the lessons about insurgency from Viet Nam to the occupation of Iraq (and the misuse of the history of the occupation of Germany and Japan after World War II). In the Civil War, Americans on each side failed to understand the culture of the other side and that misunderstanding led to a war that killed more than 600,000 people. In spite of repeated lessons of the importance of understanding others, it is only now after nearly a decade of war, that we are told that the U.S. military is trying to understand the peoples and cultures of Afghanistan.

Gone With the Wind glosses over the brutality of an American culture that included a history of slavery, of chain gangs, and of the KKK. In the Second World War, Americans would embark a couple of years after its release, enthusiastically bombing civilian targets in Germany and Japan and killing more than a million civilians while incarcerating Japanese-Americans in concentration camps. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in damage to their peoples that dwarf the damage done to America by 9/11. Perhaps it would have helped had we understood ourselves better and avoided myths of a virtuous past.

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