Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #156
Director: Victor Fleming
Starring: Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable
Sportswriter Bill Simmons has a cardinal rule about movies: If you're going to be longer than two-and-a-half hours, you'd better have a damn good reason. After going through two discs and four hours of Gone With the Wind, which feels more like a modern miniseries than a true motion picture, I can't help but think of how much the Sports Guy would hate it. Now, I don't know his opinion on the film, but if I'm using his rule – one which I don't generally abide by, as I like to think of myself as a more patient connoisseur of film – this epic of the American South is a prime offender. For starters, it is the only film I've ever seen with a so-called "overture" before its opening credits to go with its completely unironic intermission, both of which have the same sappy string quartet music as the rest of the film. Those are big red flags, warning of the overly long film that lies ahead.
You'll notice I haven't said that anything about this movie is bad except for the soundtrack, and that's because nothing really is. As a series of vignettes about the antebellum, wartime, and Reconstruction South, it's a very effective movie. But watching Vivien Leigh's immortal Scarlett O'Hara pine for the same lover for four hours does start to get tiresome, and long before the denouement. In essence, it's a masterpiece of a two hour movie trapped in a merely great four hour movie's running time. Leigh, Clark Gable, and the venerable Hattie McDaniel all give stellar performances, and despite some dated devices like title cards used to progress the plot and sometimes-garish Technicolor, the film holds up remarkably well in 2010.
If there's anything to complain about, it's that the South is portrayed as a kingdom befitting only the most noble people when in reality it was a place where people could legally own people and make them do their hard work for them. While director Victor Fleming does an adequate job of communicating the way that war tears everyone asunder, no matter whether they were on the traditionally just or unjust side, the title cards especially make the Confederacy sound like the one sane place in an increasingly crazy world. That's inaccurate at best, and borderline racist at worst. Eventual Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel famously wasn't allowed to attend the premiere because she was black, so it's obvious that this movie was made in a very different time than our own from a racial standpoint. That shouldn't justify the movie's thinly veiled portrayal of the Old South as Camelot, and I think it's perfectly reasonable to feel uncomfortable about such comparisons.
It's interesting to me that this movie only comes in at #156 on the list, since it's usually considered by AFI types to be right up there with Casablanca as an all-time greatest movie; a classicist's classic. IMDb types aren't AFI types, though, and if Inception and Toy Story 3 are top 10 movies, it shouldn't really be that surprising that Gone With the Wind isn't. It's still definitely worth watching, even if the marathon length makes it so you can only watch it once.
The Good: Hattie McDaniel's performance as Mammy is virtuosic and touching. It basically feels like she's playing herself; it's that good.
The Bad: I don't usually like to invoke Bill Simmons' ADD tendencies, but it is definitely too long.
The Skinny: I would put it a lot higher than it is just because it's such an important Hollywood staple. #156 feels like it's almost writing it off. It might be overrated by old-timers, but it deserves better.