75 Years Later: How “Gone With The Wind” Foreshadowed “Star Wars”

GWTW Poster 2
October 2, 2014 – Yesterday, to mark the 75th anniversary of one of the greatest cinematic accomplishments of all time, Gone With The Wind (1939) was released to movie theaters nationwide for one day only. At the urging of friends, and because I had never seen it before, I committed myself to watching the almost four-hour-long classic (3 hours 42 minutes; longer with intermission).

The payoff was immediate. From the dramatic vistas to the the fully formed characters, and from the incredible costumes to a musical score highlighting the struggles of its characters during the American Civil War and Reconstruction, it is easy to see how GWTW garnered ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Victor Fleming), Best Adapted Screenplay (posthumously awarded to Sidney Howard), Best Actress (Vivien Leigh) and Best Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel, becoming the first African-American to win an Academy Award).

Curiously, my other reward for sitting so long in a dark movie theater was to note similarities between Star Wars and Gone With The Wind. Visually, we can start with this side-by-side comparison of movie posters:

So many parallels: The roguish Rhett Butler embraces a feisty Scarlet O'Hara (L) while smuggler Han Solo embraces a feisty Princess Leia (R). Both montages are set against a dramatic background (Atlanta burning versus Vader's visage). The GWTW poster is a 1967 re-release version.

So many parallels: The roguish Rhett Butler embraces a feisty Scarlet O’Hara (L) while smuggler Han Solo embraces a feisty Princess Leia (R). Both montages are set against a dramatic background (Atlanta burning versus Vader’s visage). The GWTW poster is a 1967 re-release version.

While some “parallels” might seem a stretch, it’s still a fun mental exercise to compare the two blockbusters – and to wonder how George Lucas might have been influenced by GWTW:

● Opening Crawl: All six Star Wars movies begin with a written introductory narrative on the screen, the opening crawl. GWTW (1939) used the same opening technique almost four decades earlier than Star Wars (1977):

“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…”

Granted, many movies have used this narrative technique for decades, and George Lucas admits he was trying to recreate the swashbuckling tone of another classic, Flash Gordon (which used an opening crawl that George Lucas practically copied). But still, these are parallels.

● Rogues and Scoundrels: Which swashbuckling, badboy character said the following line: “I do not care one whit for your revolution, girl. I am only in it for profit. Why so surprised? You knew I was a smuggler.” If you answered Han Solo, you’d be wrong. Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) said these lines almost four decades before Star Wars premiered. The parallels between Rhett and Han almost make them interchangeable: independent smugglers whose first allegiance is to themselves; shoot-from-the-hip-ask-questions-later guntoters; badboys who win over their female cohorts; flawed characters who, deep down inside, have sympathetic and good hearts.

Now compare the dialogue from GWTW:
SCARLETT O’HARA: But you are a blockade runner.
RHETT BUTLER: For profit, and profit only.
SCARLETT O’HARA: Are you trying to tell me you don’t believe in the cause?
RHETT BUTLER: I believe in Rhett Butler, he’s the only cause I know.

Versus this excerpt from Star Wars:
PRINCESS LEIA: It’s not over yet.
HAN SOLO: It is for me, sister. Look, I ain’t in this for your revolution, and I’m not in it for you, Princess. I expect to be well paid. I’m in it for the money.
PRINCESS LEIA: You needn’t worry about your reward. If money is all that you love, then that’s what you’ll receive.

● The Feisty Female Rebel: Scarlet O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) is every much a rebel princess as is Leia Organa. While the opening of GWTW introduces Scarlet as a spoiled girl from the Old South pining hopelessly for a married man (Ashley Wilkes played by Leslie Howard), her genteel veneer is stripped away with the fall of the Confederacy and the near-destruction of Tara, her plantation home. At heart, Scarlet is a feisty, determined, manipulative fighter who will do anything to save Tara and to achieve her ends.

As God is my witness, as God is my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.

● The Burning of Atlanta vs. Rebel Alliance on the Run: Thank God they didn’t have CGI in 1939. GWTW producers set huge sets on fire and burned down a giant left-over wall from the movie King Kong in one of the dramatic scenes of flight. As Union General Sherman approaches Atlanta and the canon fire grows louder and more menacing, the rising fear of Atlanta’s residents is palpable. Chaos ensues as fire and explosions just outside the city tell the Confederate citizens that the end is near, and they flee the city.

The burning of Atlanta echoes similar scenes of panic and desperation in the Star Wars franchise, including rebels abandoning their headquarters on Hoth; Cloud City denizens racing to abandon their city in the clouds over Bespin; and Empire troops seeking cover moments before the Death Star is destroyed.

● Mammy versus C-3PO: American actress Hattie McDaniel (b. June 10, 1895 – d. October 26, 1952) played the role of the no-nonsense, all-seeing house slave Mammy. She reminds me of C-3PO in the opening scenes, providing some comic relief in her surly, sassy, cantankerous manner. And like C-3PO, Mammy sees all and does not hesitate to share her unsolicited advice, if anyone is willing to listen. Both Mammy and C-3PO are faithful servants, and it is through their eyes that the audience sees the madness descending all around.
Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Academy Award, which she received for Best Supporting Actress in GWTW. She appeared in over 300 films, about 80 of them credited. Notice in the photo above (far left), she appears to be holding a shiny golden statue of … C-3PO (right)? No foreshadowing here, it’s just a happy coincidence that the Academy Award she is holding shares a similar golden head and body as C-3PO’s.

● British Actors: Over 1,400 women auditioned to play the role of Scarlet O’Hara. British actress Vivien Leigh (b. Nov. 5, 1913 – d. July 8, 1967), at all of 5-feet 3-inches tall, won the role and an Academy Award for Best Actress. Fellow British actor Leslie Howard (b. April 3, 1893 – d. June 1, 1943) played the married man that Scarlet O’Hara always pined for, but could not have. Similar to GWTW, the Star Wars cast has included a large number of British actors – the late Sir Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi), the late Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), and many, many others.

● Box Office Records: While both Gone With The Wind and Star Wars broke box office attendance and receipts records in their days, GWTW stands apart in one way: To this day, GWTW has generated more revenue (adjusting for inflation) than any other movie in history. GWTW is ranked No. 1 as the highest grossing film (after adjusting for inflation) with a worldwide gross of $3,301,400,000 (2011 dollars). Avatar ranks second and Star Wars third ($2,710,800,000).

You can read a fuller synopsis of GWTW at these links here at Wikipedia and RottenTomatoes. Interestingly, other fans and cinephiles have noticed similar parallels. You can check out their commentary HERE and HERE.

Some movies are just made for the big screen, and the viewing experience cannot be similarly replicated at home no matter how big your flat-screen TV is. If you ever get the chance, watch Gone With The Wind on the big screen. It’s unlike anything in your galaxy.