The success of Birth of a Nation helped spawn several Civil War films that emulated Griffith’s work, sometimes in the worst ways possible, making use of Klan iconography. Others just used the Civil War as backdrops for their films. Griffith continued to make silent epics in the 1920s. Silent films were the gateway to the minds and hearts of America. Rudolph Valentino made girls swoon, Douglas Fairbanks gave the cinema swashbuckling excitement, and Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton mesmerized audiences with their amalgam of gymnastics and slap-stick comedy. It was the Jazz Age, a time of limitless possibilities, and a seemingly endless supply of money. Directors like Griffith and Keaton took full advantage of the abundance of money they were given by the studios. Keaton took the money and ran to make his Civil War comedy The General (1926). Keaton portrays a plucky southern locomotive engineer trying to save his love from Union spies that have kidnapped her and are planning to cut off the supply route to the Confederate army. The film showcases Keaton’s abilities as a storyteller, a director, an acrobat, and a comedian. The comedy director and star’s hubris is showcased as he pratfalls over a moving full-sized train and eventually crashes it at the climax of the film; all in sepia tone splendor.
Unlike Griffith, Keaton had no ideology he wanted to communicate to the audience. Laughter was Keaton’s only goal. The General highlights the power and success of the Lost Cause, and how it had seeped into America’s psyche by the 1920s. In the film, the Confederacy is once again populated with heroes fighting against the villainous Union. Johnny Gray (Keaton) personifies the Lost Cause as he fights for honor, love, and family against the overwhelming forces of the Union kidnappers. There is no explicit racism in the film, although the complete lack of African-American actors in the film is noticeable to modern eyes. Keaton’s comedy is a case study in the power of the Lost Cause and cannot be faulted beyond that.
In the years that followed, Griffith’s and Keaton’s stars faded, sound was added to the lips of movies stars, and black and white turned into color. The roller coaster that was the Jazz Age ended with a crash. Americans were out of work, and if one listened closely, they could hear the march of Fascism in Europe. Films were offering escapism for those who could afford it. Under these circumstances, David O. Selznick bought the rights to Margaret Mitchell’s sweeping Civil War novel, about the journey of a young southern woman as she loses everything in her life and must fight to regain it. Released in 1939, Gone with the Wind used the techniques first used by Griffith to create a another Civil War epic that is still revered, disliked, emulated, and spoofed seventy-five years after Scarlett O’ Hara last stood looking over her beloved Tara as the screen faded to black.
1939 is considered by many to be Hollywood’s most illustrious year. Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz opened a few months apart, each under the direction of Victor Fleming. Both films take you to fantastic worlds and introduce you to larger than life characters. Dorothy and Scarlett struggle to gain back all that they lost, a message to which many Americans related at decades end. Paradises, like Oz and Rhett Butler’s Atlanta mansion, turn into traps, and the only safe haven is home. In the case of Gone with the Wind, the warped depiction of slavery and Lost Cause ideology makes the film the most famous case study for Hollywood’s rewriting of history.
One of the important relationships in Gone with the Wind is between Scarlett O’ Hara and the house slave, Mammy. Mammy acts as Scarlett’s mother figure, closest confidant, and conscience throughout the film, a sort of indentured Jiminy Cricket to Scarlett’s Pinocchio. Like Gone with the Wind itself, Scarlett and Mammy’s relationship is purely romantic. The peculiar relationship comes from stories that former slave holders promulgated about a loyal slave that stayed with them, even after emancipation. This fictitious relationship was central to Lost Cause literature and negated the reality that if former slaves stayed with their old masters, it was not out of loyalty, but out of necessity. Mammy is a plump, feisty woman ready to save Scarlett from trouble. The portrayal of Mammy is similar to the loyal slave in Birth of a Nation. Actress Hattie McDaniel (Mammy) became the first African-American to win an Academy Award, but never graduated from playing house servants after her historic achievement.
The representation of slavery as a whole continues to be an albatross around Gone with the Wind’s neck. The first people that are shown in the film are slaves herding cattle as the Atlanta sun drops behind the hills creating a golden hue in the sky. The romantic imagery of plantation life is key to the film and the Lost Cause. The Old South as pictured in Gone with the Wind is filled with chivalrous gentleman, proper ladies, and willing slaves to answer their masters’ every beck and call. Life is one grand party for Scarlett, Rhett, and their contemporaries. Masters are gentle to their slaves, and treat them fairly with an abundance of kindness. Whites treat slaves so nicely in Gone with the Wind that Scarlett’s slaves are overjoyed when they reunite during the evacuation of Atlanta! In one telling scene, Ashley complains to Scarlett about using white convicts to work in their new lumber mill:
Scarlett, I will not make money from the enforced labor and misery of others.
But you weren’t so particular about owning slaves.
That was different. We didn’t treat them that way. Besides, I’d have freed them all when Father died if the war hadn’t already freed them.
Those few lines are laughable today. The glorification of plantation life and the sanitization of slavery make Scarlett and her family sympathetic heroes, free from all guilt, and not violent sociopaths willing to use free labor to better their lives. Gone with the Wind’s success illustrates America’s willingness to believe the stereotypes of slaves and the romantic vison of plantation life in the old South.
Gone with the Wind continues to garner critical praise as well as criticism. There are a growing number of opponents to the film, especially from the millennial generation. NPR recently looked at a younger generation of filmgoers’ views on Gone with the Wind. Many had not seen Gone with the Wind out of apathy, or in protest to the film’s portrayal of slavery and rape. Regardless of the growing number of dissenters, Gone with the Wind continues to have a life in the 21st century. The official Facebook page has more than one million likes, certain lines and images are imprinted onto the American consciousness, and the film continues to be the subject of many articles and discussions as it celebrates its diamond anniversary. Unlike Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind continues to endure, warts and all.
Photography was only in its infancy during the Civil War. Battles were not photographed, as only the dead were still enough not to blur photos during exposure. Photographic evidence of the horrors of slavery was few and far between. This made it easier to allow a mythos to be created around slavery and the war. The Lost Cause ideology surfaced because whites could not face the changes of their society, and a lack of photographic evidence made it easy for ideologues to distort history. Film spectacles like Birth of a Nation, The General, and Gone with the Wind gave photographic proof and credibility to the Lost Cause legacy. Griffith claimed in Birth of a Nation the use of accurate historic illustrations to create scenes in the film. Who could argue? Few historians, if any, countered Griffith’s claim. A respected historian occupied the White House in 1915 and did nothing to disown the film. It is only recently, beginning in the 1960s, that historians started to fight back against the Lost Cause. Some might argue that Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind are only movies and shouldn’t be taken seriously. Yet, the release of Birth of a Nation resulted in the death of many African-Americans and the ignominious return of the Ku Klux Klan.
In the last couple of decades, filmmakers have recognized the social impact of historical films. Movies like Glory (1989), 12 Years a Slave (2013), and Lincoln (2012) have made attempts to use fact and not myth for the basis of their drama. The tide is turning in favor of historical accuracy and shining a spotlight on groups that were forgotten or unjustly ridiculed in cinema of a bygone era. Filmmakers can learn from past mistakes creating new films that help audiences understand the events that shaped America. After all, as someone once said, tomorrow is another day.