Gone With the Wind vs Uncle Tom’s Cabin

In Gone With the Wind, the “Lost Cause” motif is present throughout the film. The author, Melanie Mitchell, admitted that the work was a propaganda piece that was intended to be “the Southern response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”* Mitchell depicts life in the South as a paradise for wealthy white southerners on their plantations where blacks were more than happy to take a subservient role to appease their white masters.** The film was given top billing and became one of the most successful films of all time – and remains a classic.*** In adapting the novel to the big screen, many of the more controversial scenes in the book were eliminated and Southern vigilante groups are referred to as “political meetings” in the script – and occur off screen. For a person looking to find an accurate portrayal of the time period – Gone With the Wind is not the place to look.

The National Film Registry at the Library of Congress is responsible for the preservation of films that are deemed to be culturally significant and to ensure their survival for future generations. Among the films enshrined are The Birth of a Nation, which from the Chadwick article we learn is another propaganda film extolling the virtues of the “Lost Cause”, as well as Gone With the Wind. These films are enshrined alongside such films as To Kill a Mockingbird and the biopic Malcolm X.**** However there is one work that is not included in the list – that is Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Since Gone With the Wind was intended to be a Southern propaganda piece meant to retort Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one may wonder how much acclaim Uncle Tom’s Cabin has received in the community. Uncle Tom’s Cabin saw much of its success in the form of minstrel shows and early silent films. These often had African-Americans depicted by whites wearing blackface and the 1927 silent film version was, at the time, the most expensive silent film made.*****

Gone With the Wind, the “Southern response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, is considered a visual masterpiece and remains one of the most successful films of all time. Uncle Tom’s Cabin has not had the same level of success in film. Stowe’s work has had overwhelming success in the literary field but not in the film medium. Why is this? What challenges exist in attempting a modern day adaptation of Stowe’s work?

* Bruce Chadwick, The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, 2001), 211.

** Chadwick, 191.

*** Chadwick, 187.

**** Library of Congress. National Film Registry. http://www.loc.gov/film/registry_titles.php [Accessed on June 13, 2012]

***** Stephen Railton, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin on Film: The Silent Era” , The University of Virginia . http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/interpret/exhibits/utconfilm/utconfilm.html [Accessed on June 14, 2012]

  1. Do you think that the Library of Congress is bias? What is the LoC’s definition of culturally significant? Perhaps they too, are avoiding the “peculiar institution”? It’s clear that racism is a huge part of the U.S.’s history and present for that matter, but can we possibly preserve the culture of a nation that is dynamic? Our culture is always evolving…how can some librarians deem what is more significant that the other?
    Also, I think the film version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not as significant as the novel. I bet Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the print version, is located and cataloged at the LoC.

  2. charlesanselmo said:

    As far as bias, everybody brings their own biases and experiences into anything they do. The Library of Congress inducts films that are culturally significant or have historical significance. The Birth of a Nation was an epic film when it was released and that is most definitely the reason it is preserved. I do believe in looking at the various films that have been inducted that the committee that determines which films are inducted have tried to be indifferent as I hinted at above (the fact that GWTW and Birth of a Nation are alongside films such as Malcolm X and To Kill a Mockingbird). There is no doubting that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a literary success, it is rather peculiar I think that the film is constantly remade but none of the film versions hold a candle to GWTW.

  3. Nevertheless Charles you are correct. Any film or literary piece culturally significant to the times should be preserved. However, the comment listed above raises a great question-who determines what it culturally significant. Does it have anything to do with the overall success of the film. Or does it rely mainly on the opinions of a specific panel or group of individuals biased to what’s important to different regions around the country. Nevertheless, films like Gone With the Wind shed such an important light on a specific subject that even today the story still serves as a classic example of a literary masterpiece.

  4. charlesanselmo said:

    That is a very good question, I definitely believe that a specific panel or group of individuals (educated) is the best way to go in inducting these films. I don’t believe induction should be based solely on the overall success of a film, but should rather be done through several different mediums. If overall success of a film was the sole method of determining which films would be inducted – a quick look at films currently enjoying box office success leads one to cringe.

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