I just watched Gone with the Wind for the first time the other night.  Despite some elements that make one cringe in the post-civil rights movement era and a body count to rival most horror films (I came away from the film feeling that association with Scarlett O’Hara was a pretty sure death sentence), it really is a great piece of cinema, both conceptually and technically.

The depictions of the changing South in film are particularly interesting in terms of the light they shed on the connection between work and human happiness (or, more directly, unhappiness).  While the postwar scenes of the film show a fairly standard criticism of the dehumanising effects of capitalism in Scarlett’s quest for financial security, the romanticised picture of antebellum Georgia filled with happy darkies and white aristocracy may seem to accord better with an agricultural and localised ideal.  Of course, it draws the obvious criticism that the slavery upon which it depends is entirely incompatible with preserving the dignity of the human person.  But I found myself feeling frustrated with Scarlett and Ashleigh’s nostalgic pining for the days before Sherman’s March and Reconstruction for another (though not unrelated) reason as well.

I make no defence for Yankee policy during the War Between the States; total war against civilian populations, like slavery, is an absolute evil.  However, while I sympathise with those small-holding farmers who had their crops and homes burned and their livestock stolen by Union armies, it is harder to feel sorry for those plantation owners who similarly suffered, but had owned five hundred slaves to work their fields.  Of course the theft or destruction of personal property is always wrong, regardless of whether it is suffered by rich or poor, but as feelings go, I find it hard to cry for the latter.  In addition to the intrinsic injustice of slavery (particularly racial slavery), Ashleigh and Scarlett belonged to a class that had idealised the complete transcendence of work.  Even if he owned two or three slaves, a normal Southern farmer would still have worked alongside those slaves in the fields.  But Gone with the Wind celebrates a particular class that was freed from all work by depending on the agricultural labour of others (not to mention the fact that this class also thrived by profiting from a monoculture of cotton that would drain the soil of its diversity of nutrients).  When Ashleigh later objects to Scarlett’s use of convict labour in the sawmill (the only all-white chain gang I think I’ve ever seen), his argument that he doesn’t want to profit from the sweat of others sounds terribly hollow, even when he justifies his position by naïvely claiming that the white aristocracy never mistreated their slaves.

In medieval social theory, civilisation was composed of three interdependent classes: the clergy, who provided the sacraments, preserved learning, and prayed for the souls of society; the knights, who defended society from external threats and kept the domestic peace; and the peasants, who worked the land to provide food for society.  Obviously this picture needs to be heavily problematised before it bears much correspondence with historical reality, and even in practice the lines between the three orders were often blurred; a knight would work in his manor fields as a monk would in his monastery garden, peasants fought on the battlefield and bishops occasionally led armies.  The essential point, however, is that each class in theory contributes to the well-being of the other two, creating a community that simultaneously fosters solidarity while preserving diversity.  I’m not suggesting that we should aspire to restore this medieval model.  But for a society that (at least in retrospect) drew so heavily on a romantic view of the Middle Ages and self-consciously saw itself as the inheritor of that past civilisation’s values, its failure to live up to its basic theory of social cohesion is a just criticism.  The plantation class of the  antebellum American South was not Camelot (as much as it may have aspired to be) because it failed to see the a priori value of work.  Instead, it idealised a life of indolence based on the sweat of others as the apogee of civilisation.  As a result, the virtue of its chivalry was tarnished and hypocritical, prone to pettiness and bravado.  And in the end, the decadence exhibited in the scene where young slave girls fan the Southern belles as they nap during the afternoon of the Wilkes’ barbecue resembles the last days of Rome before divine judgement permits Sherman’s barbarians to bring the pillars of the whole hedonistic edifice crashing down around them.

As a closing note, I found myself cringing when Scarlett shakes her fist at the sky and vows to ‘never go hungry again.’  Upon reflection I realised that this was because it was only when she was starving that she really became a sympathetic and morally reforming character.  With Tara in ruins and her family depending upon her, she sets herself to actually work the land herself for the direct benefit of those she loves.  When her lumber business begins to make money, the horse begins to precede the cart, and she loses sight of the true selflessness she found in the Yankees’ wake in her quest for profit and comfort.  Thus the fantastic end of the film, where she decides to return to Tara, does offer some sliver of hope: that by returning to the land and taking real responsibility for it, she may reconnect with the family which she has forgotten and thus rediscover with what it is that truly makes her human.