The other night, while watching The Godfather on television for roughly the 50th time, I was struck by a parallel that had never occurred to me before. The movie’s sentimental musical score reminded me of “Tara’s Theme” in Gone With the Wind. My mother used to whistle that melody all the time; she loved the book, the movie, and Scarlett O’Hara. I never quite grasped why Gone With the Wind had such a hold on her imagination until that moment. Then, in a flash, I saw.
Both films were enormously popular in their day and long afterward. Each embraced a somewhat disreputable side of American life with unexpected sympathy: the Sicilian mob, the slaveholding Southern Confederacy. And the two stories—comprising not only the films but also the novels they were based on—appeal strongly to the feeling that life was better in the old days, a lost era when heroic action was still possible and the individual was not yet dwarfed and crushed by the bureaucracy that goes by the name of Democracy.
Democracy? Face this simple fact: It is exceptional in modern times to deal with an elected official in person. You are far more likely to encounter, and to be visited at home by, an unelected official of the vast state bureaucracy whose mission is to enforce your compliance or collect your taxes, with no pretense of being your servant. Chattel slavery may be gone, but servitude to state bureaucracy seems to be an ineradicable feature of modern life. So we admire and envy those who don’t have to truckle to it: Scarlett, Rhett, the Corleones.
The Princeton historian James McPherson ridicules Gone With the Wind for its nostalgic “moonlight and magnolias” picture of the Old South. He is dead wrong. Margaret Mitchell, author of the novel, belonged to a school of thought that rejected such an idealization of Dixie, and she projected this attitude onto her headstrong hero and heroine. Both Rhett Butler and Scarlett are skeptical of the Confederacy and its cult; no, not only skeptical of it, but cynical about it. They want to get on with life, not dwell in a supposedly glorious past. This means meeting the future on its own terms. They accept the new order of things after the war—Rhett skirting the law in order to prosper, Scarlett making a ruthlessly mercenary marriage to another man. They are a clear-eyed couple, far from idealistic. For both of them, the defeat of the South is a given; Rhett never had any illusion that victory was possible. He realized a distasteful truth: The Northern industrial power would dictate the outcome, never mind both sides’ alleged principles.
In one of the film’s most shocking scenes, Scarlett kills a Yankee soldier—a would-be rapist—who has invaded the family mansion. She shoots him in the face. This is our notice of her resolute intention to do whatever may be necessary to protect Tara. She is no longer the flirtatious belle we met at the beginning of the story. She has become a very bold and resourceful woman, equal to any challenge that may arise. Beauty and charm are only two of the weapons in her arsenal.
The Yankee-shooting incident has an answering scene in The Godfather, of course: when Michael Corleone guns down the gangster Virgil Sollozzo and police captain McCluskey during dinner in a restaurant in order to protect and avenge his father. Like Scarlett, Michael accepts the pitiless logic of a new order, in which old norms and scruples no longer obtain, and he adopts an audacity he thinks the times require. Killing a police officer is an extremely risky maneuver, but Michael judges it to be worth the gamble to destroy his family’s enemies. He thereby proves he is not the effete Ivy League college boy his brother Santino assumes he is; and when Santino is murdered, Michael is ready to become head of the Corleone crime family, the new godfather. Just as Scarlett has repudiated the genteel code of the Old South, Michael abandons the vestiges of Vito Corleone’s code of honor.
Santino, “Sonny,” is an instinctual, reflexive fighter whose uncontrollable temper gets him baited into a trap and killed; but Michael is wiser, more cautious and deliberate. As the saying goes, he eats his revenge cold. After killing Sollozzo and McCluskey, he flees to Sicily, spending an idyllic year in his father’s homeland and living by its ancient ways. Then, when his Sicilian bride is murdered, he is ready to come home and fight—to wage cold-blooded war on Vito’s chief enemies. In a coup of Machiavellian cunning, he has most of them slain in a single day.
Both epics offer the exhilaration of showing us a world in which men are masters of their fates. This may be an illusion, but it remains an inspiring one.