The Cinema Behind Star Wars: Gone With the Wind

From a classic poster to "scruffy-looking nerf herder," Gone With the Wind influenced Star Wars in many ways.

1939 is considered by many to be one of the best years in film that Hollywood has ever had, and so after Gunga Din, we go back there to see the influence the Best Picture winner that year had on Star Wars. At first blush, it might not seem like Gone With the Wind has much to do with Star Wars.

I mean, Star Wars, tells the story of two generations of Skywalkers and their struggles through a Civil War across the galaxy, and Gone With the Wind is about the O’Haras and their struggles through the Civil War of the United States.

Okay, maybe they’re a little more alike than we’d have guessed. For those who don’t know, Gone With the Wind is the story of a young girl named Scarlet O’Hara, played by Vivien Leigh. She’s a perfect southern belle in the waning days of the South, but the Civil War breaks out and she’s forced to do a lot of things to survive. The film is equal parts comedy, romance, action, and a document of a time on that is now only “a dream remembered, a civilization gone with the wind.”

Star Wars is very much in that vein of film that is every sort of movie, where the action, adventure, romance, and comedy blend into one thrilling melting pot. It’s no coincidence that both films feature charming rogues in the form of Rhett Butler and Han Solo. And strong women willing to stand up for what they believe in and what they need to do in Scarlett O’Hara and Princess Leia. Han and Rhett are both quick-witted scoundrels, smugglers, and ne’r-do-wells. Rhett made his fortune as a blockade runner and found himself with a heart of gold, but Han Solo is a smuggler looking to finally make a fortune. Han himself finds that he can be a hero.

Rhett and Scarlett have very much the same sort of relationship that Han and Leia do. It’s impossible to ignore the tone between the would-be lovers set by Gone With the Wind and followed brilliantly in The Empire Strikes Back. In fact, think of the scene where Han and Leia first kiss aboard the Millennium Falcon, and compare that to the scene where Rhett is telling Scarlett, “No, I don’t think I will kiss you. Although you need kissing badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed and often and by someone who knows how.”

And Scarlett is able to follow that up by calling Rhett a “conceited, blackhearted varmint.” And you can’t hear her say that without hearing Leia saying, “half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder.”

It would come then as no surprise to find that there was a film poster made for The Empire Strikes Back that is really just a blue, Hoth version of Han and Leia about to kiss that’s patterned after the red and yellow Gone With the Wind poster of Atlanta burning with Rhett about to kiss Scarlett in exactly the same pose. It’s even referred to as “the Gone With the Wind poster.”

There are many more similarities that can be found. One could argue that the loss of Scarlett’s family’s homestead, Tara, could be analogous to Leia’s loss of Alderaan. Others still could argue that Luke Skywalker is the Ashley Wilkes character, finishing off the trifecta of the love triangle and the romance with the female lead that can never be.

But perhaps the biggest similarity between the Star Wars films and Gone With the Wind is that they’re both incredible special-effects pictures, both pushing the envelope for what was possible for filmed stories from their respective eras. The film compositing and matte painting techniques used in color for the almost the first time on Gone With the Wind were perfected for Star Wars. They both pushed boundaries and were overseen by driven men (David O. Selznick and George Lucas) determined to tell stories in their way.

For those of you interested in watching Gone With the Wind, I’d suggest setting aside at least five hours over a Saturday afternoon, or splitting it at the intermission over two nights. It’s a movie that holds up well, and it’s surprising how well it does. The jokes still work, the dialogue is still tight and the story still cleverly constructed, even by today’s standards. And it’s a heartbreaking film in places as well. Hattie McDaniel’s speech in the second half hits me as hard every time I watch it as Order 66.

For kids watching with you, I’d recommend the two-night viewing. It is rated by the MPAA as G as appropriate for all ages, but I’d be prepared to talk to them about the Civil War, slavery, and racism. If they’re capable of sitting through the running time, the film will be a rewarding experience for you and them. It’s something I’ve watched with my kids and have enjoyed both the film and the conversations with them that it’s spawned.

And there’s a reason that, when you adjust for inflation, it’s the highest grossing film of all time, beating Star Wars by almost $200,000. It’s just a great film.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmakerjournalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith.

You can also follow him on Twitter.

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