Love it, hate it, or, perhaps most reasonably, love-hate it, Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind can’t and shouldn’t be reduced to one monolithic statement. It’s too complex a work for that, too much a lightning rod for all sorts of potent American feelings; its greatness lies in the way it so readily seduces us with its sun-dappled, julep-on-the-porch vision, only to—quite literally—burn it all down. It’s also just too damn entertaining.

The easiest route to classifying Gone with the Wind is to decry it as a sentimental piece of wish fulfillment riffing on white Southerners’ longing for the good old days. But what if, as the late, great critic James Harvey posited, it’s really a “kind of ultimate tough comedy, its vitality more a development of ’30s movie comedy than of any historical romance tradition”? Harvey cites the film’s “two terrific, hard-as-nails lovers”—Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler and Vivienne Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara—as its selfish, beating heart. These deeply unlikable opportunists are not intended to be role models; if anything, they’re glaring symbols of why the South, and the times, had to change. And while it’s normal to wish that the era had offered better opportunities for actors like Butterfly McQueen and Hattie McDaniel (the latter of whom won an Oscar for her role, the first Black person to do so), erasing the movie from our landscape, if it were even possible to do so, would do them an even greater disservice. These are both great performances, stealthily subversive in their own way. To close ourselves off to what these women accomplished would only further shrink their world, which was so restrictive to begin with.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at

The Godfather Part II (1974)
Jaws (1975)
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Little Women (2019)