50 STATES 50 MOVIES: GEORGIA
A State And It's People Are Forever Changed By The Horrors Of Love And War
Gone With The Wind
I recently had a conversation with someone who did not know that Georgia was one of the original Thirteen Colonies. He explained that he thought Georgia was a more “modern” addition to the country, like Florida or the Southwest, because “everything in Georgia is new.”
He wasn’t entirely wrong. Indeed, Georgia doesn’t have the same relics of its colonial past that you’d find in New England or Philadelphia, or coastal Virginia. Savannah, Georgia’s colonial capital, does offer some of that history, but Georgia’s oldest city’s historical sites are mostly from the state’s post-Civil War Reconstruction era. What happened to Georgia’s colonial history?
Well, the Civil War happened. Georgia was devastated by the conflict. It perhaps wasn’t the worst-effected state in the Confederacy, but Georgia’s importance to the Southern economy, and the fact that there was a strong pro-Union sentiment in the agricultural northern part of the state, made it a prime target of the Union. The northern navy blockade of Savannah prevented cotton and other crops from being exported, and there were food shortages. Then came General William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea. In all of Georgia’s history, there has never been an event like Sherman’s 1863 Atlanta Campaign. To cut off the northernmost states of the faltering Confederacy from the southern and western states and capture the key port of Savannah, Sherman invaded Georgia at the Tennessee border, where there existed some Union support among the population, and blazed through Georgia battling Confederate soldiers, pillaging plantations and burning cities like Atlanta and then-state capital Milledgeville to the ground.
And that is where one of the greatest movies in cinema history comes in. Gone With The Wind, the 1939 epic based on Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel follows a young woman, Scarlett O’Hara, the daughter of a Georgia plantation owner in the years during and after the American Civil War. The film brings us right into the economic and cultural belly of Antebellum Georgia which was wiped out almost completely when Georgia became the epicenter of the war’s violent final years.
The film begins in 1861, just before the Civil War begins. Teen Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) lives at her father’s plantation Tara just south of present-day Atlanta. Scarlett is selfish, vain, and spoiled and would easily fit in a contemporary world as the spoiled daughter of a rich 21st Century American business scion. Scarlett seems to be completely oblivious to the growing political tensions in the country. She is in love with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), the rich son of another plantation owner. Ashley is engaged to Scarlett’s cousin, Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland). At their engagement party at Ashley’s family’s plantation, Twelve Oaks, Scarlett makes a pass at Ashley and is (rather hilariously) rebuffed. Eventually, perhaps to make Ashley jealous, she catches and responds to the attention of another man, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). War proves to be the party pooper as news of the South’s succession disrupts festivities. The men are now off to fight against their fellow Americans.
In one of many self-centered thoughtless, shrewd actions, Scarlett marries Melanie’s younger brother Charles (Rand Brooks). The marriage is wrong from the start. Scarlett only married him to make Ashley jealous, but Charles is enamored by his wife. Luckily for Scarlett, I guess, Charles dies in the war. Scarlett is sent off to Charles’ family’s home in Atlanta to live with them during the war and she is there when Sherman’s army arrives to lay siege to the city. She makes quite the scene with Rhett, who is now running supplies to the Confederate Army around the Union blockade. With Union troops approaching the city limits of Atlanta, Rhett goes off to fight on the frontlines and Scarlett is left alone.
The war comes right to Scarlett’s door and for the first time, we see the spoiled Southern princess forced to summon the courage and strength to survive in a war zone. She helps deliver Melanie’s baby – in the famous scene where Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), one of the slaves, remarks “I don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ babies – despite having no access to adequate health care due to the ensuing battle.
Scarlett’s hometown is devastated with many of the town’s men dying in the battle and Tara, her childhood home, is destroyed. When Sherman’s campaign storms through, Scarlett returns to Tara and finds it in ruins. Her mother died of disease and her father has gone insane. In another iconic scene with a famous quote, Scarlett, now filthy and dressed in ragged clothes, a complete turn from how we first see her, manages to find a carrot to eat in the fields and vows to “never go hungry again.”
We now move to the Reconstruction Era part of the film. The war ends with the Confederacy’s defeat and the slaves freed. Scarlett is forced to work in the cotton fields herself. It is notable to see Scarlett, a spoiled rich girl, now having to do the work slaves had previously done. She does it with gusto and purpose, and we forget that she used to be the whiny teenager she was before. (Don’t worry she’ll be back).
Ashley returns for the war and Scarlett, seeking to flee war-torn Georgia, begs him to flee with her, but despite admitting he wanted to, he remains dedicated to Melanie. We begin to see how the months and years after the war directly impacted the lives of Southerners. A carpetbagger tries to claim some of the lands at Tara but meets his end after falling for a horse. The Reconstruction government levies heavy taxes on Southern plantation owners, which Scarlett is unable to pay. Desperate, Spiteful Scarlett returns. She convinces Frank Kennedy (Carroll Nye), a wealthy business owner, to marry her. Frank had been engaged to Scarlett’s younger sister Suellen (Evelyn Keyes) but Scarlett lied to Frank and said Suellen moved on. We’re off to a good start once again.
In the next part of the movie, we witness the poverty and desperation Southerners are left in after the war. Scarlett is attacked while traveling through a shanty town in Atlanta and the movie’s main men, Frank, Ashley, and Rhett, decide to launch a raid in retaliation. Frank is conveniently killed, leaving Scarlett a widow once again. After his funeral, the coupling we all knew was coming happens. Rhett proposed to Scarlett and, finally, they get together.
For a while, it seems like everything is starting to improve for our cast. The Civil War is moving further and further into the background as time moves on and the characters begin to adjust to life in the Reconstruction Era. The struggles become routine and Rhett and Scarlett start a family. After giving birth to their daughter, Bonnie Blue, Scarlett begins to suffer from what we would not describe as a form of postpartum depression. She still pines for Ashley and regrets what pregnancy has done to her body. She refuses to share a bed with her husband out of concern that she might get pregnant again. Scarlett and Ashley share an embrace later that is witnessed by Ashley’s sister India (Alicia Rhett). A gossipy Southern belle herself, India spreads malicious rumors that Scarlett and Ashley are having an affair (Scarlett wishes) and this eventually leads to a brawl between her and Rhett. In a scene that today would make any of us cringe, Rhett, drunk, reacts violently to the argument and proceeds to try to rape Scarlett.
Rhett apologizes the next day and offers to divorce Scarlett. She refuses, knowing a divorce would disgrace her. Her response leaves us wondering if she is hoping he joins her other two husbands in death instead. Rhett leaves for England, and upon his return finds out Scarlett is pregnant. Presumably thinking it isn’t his child, the two fight, and Scarlett falls down the stairs, miscarrying. Shortly after, Bonnie dies in a horse-riding accident and Melanie suffers a life-threatening complication from her pregnancy, ending in her death as well. The cascade of tragedies hits Scarlett, and Rhett, hard. Yet Scarlett, being Scarlett, cannot help to get in her way. She consoles Ashley as his wife lay dying, which makes Rhett jealous. Rhett no doubt realizes the soon-to-be widower Ashley will finally be free for Scarlett and an affair might be imminent. Rhett decides to leave Atlanta. In the now infamous final scene where Scarlett realizes her obsession with Ashley wasn’t love, it was Rhett she truly loved all along, she begs Rhett to say, but he refuses, walking out the door and responding to Scarlett’s pleas about what will happen to her without Rhett in cinema’s most famous line:
“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Gone With The Wind is over three hours long and if it was made today, probably would be a hell of a lot shorter, but it is hard to imagine what anyone could cut from the movie. The film does not treat the Civil War and Reconstruction Era histories of Georgia as merely a setting, but as part of the plot itself. Modern critiques complain that it is too sympathetic to the Southern cause and I think those critiques have some merit, but an objective view of Southern life during and after the war provides an understanding as to why the “Lost Cause” is still a motivator in the South over a century and a half later.
The tragedies that force Scarlett to grow up so quickly and find in her the survival instincts we didn’t know were there all stem from these events. She loses her innocence to them, her mother to them, and her two husbands to them. She, like Georgia, is fundamentally changed by them with little remaining of what was.
There are other states, notably Virginia, that were more greatly affected by the Civil War and Reconstruction, but Sherman’s March to the Sea wiped out Colonial Georgia and reset the clock on its history. As a result, Georgia has a much more modern flare than many of the other original 13 states. Though the shift of Georgia’s economic center from Savannah to Atlanta began in the antebellum years, it was exacerbated in Reconstruction and Jim Crow years when railroad and later air travel grew. Georgia is now home to the busiest airport in the world, located not far from where the fictional Tara would have been.
As a result of Southern men being decimated in the Confederacy, Southern women began to take on roles men would, as we see with Scarlett, and it might have exaggerated the cause of feminism in the South and nationwide. Six decades after the events of Gone With The Wind, Georgia was the first state to be represented by a woman in the U.S. Senate. Rebecca Latimer Felton served one day in the Senate in 1922, the first woman to take the oath, but in an interesting connection to two eras of American history, she was also the last slave owner to serve in Congress. Born in 1835, she would’ve been about ten years older than Scarlett and would have grown up witnessing the same history and experiencing the same events that Scarlett and the other characters did. Felton was also a staunch white supremacist and advocated for lynching. Though politically Georgians fought the end of Jim Crow and Civil Rights, the state, under the leadership of Governor and later President Jimmy Carter, embraced that change and championed the rise of the New South relatively more so than other Southern States. Though I wouldn't describe Georgia as a progressive place, compared to other Southern states, it has shown to be. A black American athlete and Civil Rights hero, Muhammed Ali, lit the torch at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, the same Atlanta where Scarlett and Rhett danced.
In fitting with Georgia’s constant changes, Felton’s Senate seat is currently held by Raphael Warnock, the first black man to represent Georgia in the Senate, and the state voted for the first black (and female) Vice President in 2020. The Atlanta area is now home to some of the wealthiest and most powerful African-American communities, a far cry from its place as a den of slavery and oppression. The modern progressive culture emulates from Atlanta and then the state’s other highly-educated cities like Augusta, Athens, and Savannah. Georgia, the fourth of 50 states to enter the union, has reinvented itself over and over again, leaving its past behind and meeting the moment, doing what it needs to do to survive and thrive, much like its most famous fictional native – Scarlett O’Hara.