by L. Neil Smith
Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
My 13-year-old is home schooled.
My wife and I have always tried to supplement whatever education she receives from the online institution of learning that she attends cybernetically, with whatever else we believe is valuable. Last month, for example, I formally introduced her to Mr. Marion Michael Morrison, beginning, for reasons that seemed right and proper to me, with True Grit. I’m working up the courage to show her The Cowboys and The Shootist. This month it was Gone with the Wind, which we were happy to find on an inexpensive double-sided DVD in a bargain pocket at Wal-Mart. Just to put things in perspective, it was produced in 1939, in the same year, and at the same studio, as The Wizard of Oz. And like The Wizard of Oz, it stands up to six decades with very few signs of aging.
I hadn’t seen the movie myself, not from end to end, for more than 30 years, when a mid-1960s revival brought a very scratched and grainy print to a townie theater during my bright college days. I think there were scenes in this version I didn’t see back then. I was surprised at how much of it I remembered (extended stretches of dialog verbatim, for example) as I watched it this time. Then again, I’ve always believed it to be the best — meaning the most complete — movie ever made.
Notice I didn’t say “film”, a genre reserved for pretentious and boring black and white European wastes of celluloid you have to sit through at the student theater if you expect to receive the attention from female liberal arts majors that you, er … crave, at the party afterward.
I know, with regard to history, that Gone with the Wind has its faults. I’ve never read Margaret Mitchell’s celebrated novel. (I began to, once, while on vacation, but got interrupted by the invasion of Grenada.) I’m sure it tells the reader more about what happened and why. The movie makes no mention I noticed of the real reasons for the War Between the States. There are allusions to northern insults on the south, and enough blather defending slavery to satisfy even the most uncritical Ken Burns fan. But nothing of tariffs, or the right to free trade, or that fundamental human exercise of free association we call secession. Blacks eagerly toil for their homeland, but none of them in uniform.
We never see the massive earthworks and siege engineering that wrecked the countryside around the great southern cities the way Saruman destroyed the countryside around his own establishment. We never see northerners descend on the south like the Nazi hordes they presaged.
Nevertheless, for a long time, it was the best picture Americans had — short of Matthew Brady and D.W. Griffith — of the unprecedented carnage the world’s first total war produced. I watched my daughter, instead of the screen, when we got to the shot of Scarlett O’Hara when the camera pulls back and back to reveal more and more dead and dying bodies, until the entire picture fills, from top to bottom and side to side with war casualties and the tiny handful of Samaritans attending them.
My daughter reacted as I thought she would, her horror profound but thought- provoking, rather than mind-numbing. I’m not sure why, but it made a difference to her that they were all human beings up on that screen — extras — rather than the figments of industrial light and magic that she’s acquainted with from other, more recent blockbuster movies.
At the end of the shot, I said, “Abraham Lincoln did that,” and my daughter nodded, well aware of the revisionist struggle I’ve involved myself in over the last decade, to properly identify the 16th American President as the spiritual predecessor to Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler that he was, and to categorize Grant and Sherman with Himmler and Eichmann. Brought up the way she has been, she doesn’t need to be told (as some adult scholars and writers apparently do) that preserving an imaginary political construct isn’t worth the loss of a single human life.
For me, the most interesting part is watching Scarlett, from the first third, where we learn to despise her for the shallow, selfish, self-destructively obsessed little animal that she happens to be (you keep saying to yourself, “I can’t believe she really did that!” like you do with Julia Roberts’ character in My Best Friend’s Wedding), until she grows something resembling a character in the school of hard knocks and we discover that we respect her energy and courage, even if we never quite come to like her. If I were religious, which I’m not, I could easily wake up every morning thanking God that I’m not married to a woman like Scarlett O’Hara, but I do find the character endlessly fascinating.
My daughter was surprisingly unmoved by Clark Gable — she’s more the Viggo Mortensen type. The limp and languid Ashley Wilkes always makes me want to toss my cookies — er, make that pralines. This time around, speaking of excessive sweetness, I found Miss Melanie a bit of a pain in the ass. So, I think, did my daughter. But I was proud when I asked the inevitable, “Do you think Rhett went back to Scarlett?”, she answered, in effect, “Not enough information — but who would want to?”
My daughter loved True Grit and managed to stay up extra late through Gone with the Wind. I have sometimes been known to lament my hubris in having brought a happy, beautiful child into what often seems an increasingly crappy world, one in which I haven’t yet been able to make a significant difference. Once, when I said that during a convention, the kindly and thoughtful Butler Shaffer pointed out that, like his own daughters, mine has not been raised to be anybody’s helpless victim, and that she’ll doubtless go on to make her own damn difference.
More and more I believe he’s right.
Over the past decade, I’ve gradually come to see that the only way any of us will ever see anything resembling a free country again begins with utterly destroying the paralyzing myth of the “Civil War” (it wasn’t) and the “Great Emanicipator” (he certainly was not). The real pity is that the only place today, within popular culture, where kids can get anything remotely resembling the truth about the most significant event in American history is in a 64-year- old romantic tragedy.
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