History versus Hollywood

In observing the film, Gone with the Wind (1939), I found it very interesting in the way that blacks were depicted in the movie at that time. Even knowing that the roles of the actors were the roles of slaves during the Civil War Period, I still found it shocking to see how ignorant and dumb the blacks were portrayed in the movie. They appeared as to not have any real concern for themselves, their own family, or for the freedom from slavery. The only real concern of theirs that was shown in the film was the concern that they had in taking care of their owners and their owners’ well-being. The slaves were all mostly shown happy and as so ever loyal to the Confederacy.

Loyal and Happy Slaves – Gone with the Wind (1939)

One critic at the time, Lincoln Kirkstein from Film Magazine, wrote: “History has rarely been told with even an approximation of truth in Hollywood because the few men in control there have no interest in the real forces behind historical movements and the new forces that every new epoch sets in motion. Gone with the Wind deserves our attention because it is an overinflated example of the usual false movie approach to history.”* Kirksteins’ remarks make it apparent that the love/hate relationship between history andHollywood is anything but new in society. His remarks also solidify any notion one might have about the film being made as not to tell history as it happened, but to entertain and make the most profitable grandeur films in the process.

Even in the south, before filming had begun, controversy surrounding the historical integrity of the film was brought into question during the search for the actress who would play Scarlet. “Several chapters of the Daughters of the Confederacy threatened to boycott the film because an English actress landed the role. Indignation grew so intense that it spilled over onto the floor of the Daughters’ national convention. Peace finally came when the group’s president-general, Mrs. Walter LaMar, assured the ladies that as a world traveler she had met many British women and found them most delightful.”**

Construction of Hollywood Sign

Hollywood and the film industry, it seems, has always tried and most likely will continue to exploit history for the simple fact that there is money to be made. As historians, it is our duty to continue to watch films that are based on historical events and to critique them based on their relevancy to history and to the truth. For it is in this critiquing by historians, that films that are based on history will hold on to true historical integrity and be a truthful memory for future generations.  

* Bruce Chadwick, The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, 2001), 189.

** Chadwick, 188.

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5 comments
  1. chrisrivera1985 said:

    I couldn’t agree more. One scene that I thought was particularly shocking was when O’Hara was moving about the street and blacks were wearing the clothes of the ‘genteel’ class and were too oblivious to understand the value of forty acres but understood the value of a mule by commenting, “And a mule!?” What is most shocking is O’Hara’s, well, shock. This is a woman that put on curtains with the tassels still showing. Perhaps I agree most with your statement to fellow historians which adds an applicable and necessary requirement in preserving movies of this type.

  2. jadams08 said:

    Your post draws valuable insights to the misleading and over exemplified portrayals of history in films. Even to this day we have films that claim to be 100 percent based on facts and are not even close. I do not really understnd why, in the twenty first century we have not made progress to educate people instead of making money. I think our society would greatly benefit from films that accurately depict historical people and places instead of covering it up or glorifying things to make more money. Hopefully in the future we can move past this and create movies that educate and are accurate versus painting inaccurate pictures of the past.

  3. Amanda Hlavacek said:

    I completely agree with you! Unfortunately, people seem to retreat to movies for entertainment without the expectation of thinking. Audiences want action and not accuracy, which in turn enables the production in documentaries like those of Ken Burns. These, I believe, are created for people like us, who like entertainment that is historically correct. The thing that I believe needs to be remembered is that when GWTW was released, America was throes of the Depression and needed an escape. The South was still struggling with its identity and was still vindicating the leaders of the Confederacy.

  4. catymark said:

    I agree with you 100%!! People look to the films for history, but the history they are going to see is so biased and has so much entertainment value that they often loose their historical value. But people don’t want to see something absolutely boring, or something that does not fit into their already predetermined images of how things worked in the time of the film, and also focus on the time the film was released, as they are getting older. The history of films, the target audiences, the general biases toward certain groups during the time the film was made, etc need to be viewed now. As a historian it is important to understand that GWTW was released during the height of Jim Crow, when the KKK was having annual parades and fairs in public places all across the country, so the depiction of the slaves (turned into house servants after the war) and their loyalty to the family and the south was how most of the target audience for GWTW wanted to remember the time, but it is also a product of the time. If GWTW were to be produced today (even being based on the novel) I think the racist aspects of the war and the time after the war would be underplayed, and other aspects of the film would be more relevant to today’s audience.

  5. magaliq said:

    I think it is important to use the historiographical viewpoint when analyzing a movie such as this. If we were looking at a more recent movie, we would have to delve deeper into the motives. It seems that in our era the reasoning behind movies is to shock. Take for instance, Braveheart or the Patriot (or any other Mel Gibson movie) in current history would be only to sell seats. But can that be said about Gone with the Wind, or was there other reasons behind the inaccuracies?

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