One of the classic films that defined American cinema, Gone With the Wind is a rare example of a collaboration involving hundreds of talents and egos that turned out great. Dozens of uncredited screenwriters (including F. Scott Fitzgerald, briefly) and hundreds of actors were marshaled by David O. Selznick for this effort. The resulting four-hour epic is, inflation-adjusted, still the highest-grossing movie of all time — and it deserves to be. For millions of people, Gone With the Wind has helped to define the myth and reality of America’s most tragic (and much-misunderstood) period of history, the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Margaret Mitchell’s bestselling novel was the most successful period romance novel of all time, a combination of historical detail and soap that drew from family recollections of the war and its aftermath. The novel’s popularity allowed the filmmakers to be confident of success, but still, Selznick spent more time and money, and took more risks, than could have been expected. The requisite attention was paid to costumes and sets, of course. More important, the film’s visual effects — especially the burning of Atlanta and the smoking ruins of the Georgia plantations after Sherman’s pillage — are the most effective and memorable that had been attempted at that time.
The most impressive thing about this epic, though, is that it uses all the extra screen time to inform us about the personal lives of its characters. This is where most epics fall short. Nowadays, any period drama with a lots of horses and explosions gets called an “epic,” but Gone With the Wind deserves the label — because it presents enough detail to be a facsimile of reality.