This movie was intended to be about "civilization" in the South being blown away by invasion and conquest by "the dirty Yankees" during and following the U.S. Civil War. The movie drew from a book of the same title by Margaret Mitchell, who was from Georgia and learned of the war from aged civil war veterans and others.
The movie begins with great photography and background music, and with text that reads,
There was a land of cavalliers (courtly gentlemen) and cotton fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, gallantry took its last bow.
The movie depicts said cavalier as sensitive to insult and preoccupied with honor. It portrays the South as a land of aristocratic planters and beautiful southern belles, with faithful household slaves and superstitious field hands. And there is mention of the existence of some poor white trash in the distant background.
In reality, the society of great cotton plantation owners was small. The South was diverse and complex. Much of the South was unsuited for plantations, including the hilly regions of Tennessee and western Virginia. The South, moreover, was devoted more to growing food and raising livestock.
Plantation society did have attitudes that differed from what was common in New England. The South's gentry was more into fox hunting, horseracing, and into dueling. The South had a higher percentage of horsemen and soldiers than did the North. They believed more in leisure than did the Puritans, and were aided in this by milder winters. They were interested in the size of their holdings rather than in cash to invest elsewhere in the economy. It was land that they valued – as depicted in the movie – not an accumulation of money. The South's gentry cavaliers might look upon those they called Yankees as boorish money-grubbers.
The movie focuses on Scarlett O'Hara, a childlike young lady who thinks she is in love. The drama involves demands to kiss and a lot of kissing, not military struggle. No soldiers are seening hiking into battle, enduring and dying from cannon shot and bullets from shoulder arms.
The war begins during a big gentry-class party – a happy, joyous occasion. Men in fancy dress are discussing whether there will be a war. It is said that "the South must assert itself by force of arms" and "we've got to fight...There is no other way." No suggestion is made of an understanding that the threat of war is the result of Southern politicians reacting with hysteria and ignorance in response to the election of Lincoln. The movie does not attempt to present both sides of the conflict between President Lincoln and Southern politicians.
One young man says one Southerner can lick 20 Yankees and that gentlemen can alsway fight better than rabble. It just happens that one of the persons at the party is Rhet Butler (played by Clark Gable), a man of the world from Charleston, apparently with a lot of money stashed away in Liverpool, England. He speaks of the South as not having one cannon factory and adds:
The Yankee are better equipped than we. They got factories, shipyards, coal mines... All we've got is cotton and slaves, and arrogance.
"That's tracherous, I refuse to listen to any renegade talk," says a young man who wants a duel. The cool Mr. Butler smiles and says "I seem to be spoiling everybody's brandy and cigars and dreams of victory."
Butler meets Scarlett. He laughs at her childishness but is impressed by her spirit. She speaks of his bad reputation. He is a money man rather than gentry, like the man she is in love with, Ashley Wilkes. Scarlett is repelled by Butler's impudent manner.
The party is interrupted by word that fighting has begun. Joy and excitement erupts among the young men, sort of like the joy that would erupt among Germans, French and Englishmen at the beginning of World One.
Scarlett and the movie then move to Georgia's capital city, Atlanta.
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