glenn criddle | cynical celluloid | august 2015
The world of popular entertainment has abuzz with commentary on the suitability of the representation of “The Old South." Its familiar icon, The Battle Flag, has long been a contentious symbol of the South, a relic of a very different, though relatively recent, time that to some now represents pride and roots and to others represents a terrible passage in the history of the US. The long-standing negative connotations of it were further cemented by the murderous killing spree in the Charleston church where Dylan Roof, the suspected murderer, came to represent all the worst associations to that flag. And now, the flag is slowly being removed from civic buildings while being withdrawn from retail by some major business. As is very common in these events, people are now starting to look the representations on screen, even going so far as questions being asked of the almost entirely inoffensive (and largely unremarkable) “Dukes of Hazard."
The character of “The Old South" is steeped in its history, for better or worse, and even overseas the contrasting images of loveable southern rogues and cousin marrying plantation owners was palpable, and it was all presented under that Confederate flag.
What the majority of these representations miss out though are the less palatable parts of southern history, sure you would see slaves once in a while, but mostly they were presented in the most watered down way possible as jolly housekeepers or singing beautifully whilst engaging in manual labour. “Gone with the Wind" is one of those films.
Set spanning the years before, during and after the civil war, it follows the story of Scarlet O'Hara as she goes from spoilt brat to successful business woman whilst longing for a man she will never have and fending off the one who actually wants to be with her. All this is set against the background of her family's plantation, which is staffed by slaves and eventually destroyed by the war. Unsurprisingly, it's one of those movies that doesn't concern itself with the plight of slavery, in fact, it pretty much makes it all look rather benign, and the commentary of the war is one that glosses over the reasons for it and demands sympathy for the victims of the “northern aggression."
It is most certainly a contentious film, not just on the subject of race but its depiction of the people of the north and in its treatment of women. Scarlet can actually be seen in quite a positive light, she's a shrewd and successful business woman and a very strong character. She does get a rough ride though, not least at the hands of the leading man Rhett who frankly is a bit (a lot) of a bastard, but she takes charge of her family and drags them through the hard times. She's far from perfect but the film seems to regard her drive and ambition as being something that brings about her eventual fall though she remains undaunted, even at the close, after all “Tomorrow is another day." It's a tragic line that indicates she'll never quite get her life together and a rather sorry one, because it suggests she is irresponsible to let Rhett the rapist (and possible Klansman) go and walk out of her life.
As it is, “Gone with the Wind" isn't the kind of film that could be made today, at least not in the way it was back in 1939. Comparisons have been made to the infamous D.W.Griffith master-class of film making “The Birth of a Nation" and having watched the two back to back it is startling the parallels that can be drawn between the two films. Both are romantically nostalgic about the time they are set in, neither is honest about the situation as a whole and revisionism is a word that ought to get a star credit in both.
Despite this, I would argue that neither of these movies, nor movies that simply have similar content, should be condemned to deletion. They are snapshots of a time that should not be forgotten, they are the self image of a part of a nation that has never wanted to admit its flaws and desperately tried to justify its ways in the face of change. It's also the face of the people who were on the losing side and pride is a cruel mistress. Understanding the mindset, however flawed, is an important first step in making progress, you don't have to agree, but understanding is a beginning.
If we start expunging these kinds of films we will find ourselves sanitising history in exactly the same way these movies are accused of doing, so these attitudes existed, they still do exist, pretending they don't is careless. It's worth noting too that we would be more reluctant to consider doing the same for a book or even as has been suggested for “Gone with the Wind," consigning them to museum. Somehow, film is considered less important as art whilst being more influential, which is a snobbery that still persists. Should films be marginalised to museums the moment they become offensive to future eyes? It seems ridiculous to me to do so and not many films would survive the process. What seems correct now will be re-evaluated in years to come from a different point of view that cannot necessarily be anticipated, and flaws will be found.
Instead of banning art, make it part of the conversation. Use it to prompt discussion, to discuss the issues. Current formats allow for this in the form of extras and commentaries, and I'm somewhat evangelistic about the need for a good media studies program in schools, which in today's world is extraordinarily important. But don't marginalise them, they will never go away, they just become martyrs to those who would take them at face value. Censorship has always been supremely capable of having the opposite effect to what the censor wants, it works in reverse with the truly controversial, it immortalises and promotes its subject on every occasion it happens and puts it solely in the hands of those you wish to take it from and then you have no say in the matter.
He's British so forgive the extra U's and the use of the letter S instead of Z. If there's one thing that typifies Glenn's writing it's the 'Video Nasties,' a long list of movies that offended all and sunder during the 1980s in the UK. It's those seemingly offensive fringes of cinema that informed his writing on cinema and the more political area of censorship with a more sympathetic approach to those films that push the limits of taste. But don't worry, he does talk about normal stuff too and isn't likely to go off on a horror movie fuelled rampage.
For more of Glenn's work, visit his Youtube channel under the name lampyman101.