More than seventy years after its conclusion, World War II still casts a huge shadow over our culture and retains an almost mythic place in our imagination.

Stepping back in time, before America’s obsession with that war was rudely stoked at Pearl Harbor, another war loomed nearly as large in American culture. At the time of Gone With the Wind’s massively successful theatrical release, only 74 years had passed since the end of the Civil War.

To this day Gone With the Wind remains the highest grossing film of all time, adjusted for inflation. To put that in perspective, the ticket sales for Gone With the Wind blow Avatar’s numbers out of the water, while the original Star Wars movie sits at a distant third from the top spot.

Times Square, 1939

Modern viewers however may find it odd, if not disturbing, that this rather perverse tale of nostalgia for the slave-holding Old South was such a huge cultural phenomenon, with theatergoers lining up in droves from Atlanta to New York City. One answer as to why this story struck such a nerve may lie in another war that had ended much more recently. Though it’s well documented how World War I had a profound effect on Europe in the interwar period, it is often forgotten how The Great War also cast a dark cloud over the United States as well.

The Forgotten Man

After World War I, there was a strong belief among many Americans that the United States’ first major intervention into foreign conflict had been a mistake. That fact is little remembered today, though a little cultural archeology can be done by observing how Hollywood films were often overtly anti-war in the 1930’s. Most famously there was All Quiet On the Western Front (1930), but even the otherwise lightweight musical Gold Diggers of 1933 closes with a startlingly bleak song called “Remember My Forgotten Man” featuring lyrics like:

Remember my forgotten man

You put a rifle in his hand

You sent him far away

You shouted: “Hip-hooray!”

But look at him today

The words and imagery from that song were especially resonant to an audience familiar with the plight of World War I veterans, who were often struggling with both PTSD and poverty during the Great Depression. A year before that film was released saw the infamous Bonus Army protest of 1932, when tens of thousands of unemployed veterans and their families marched on Washington D.C., only to be brutally turned away by future heroes Douglas MacArthur and George S. Patton.

In this context, the appeal of Gone With the Wind can be seen less as a nostalgia piece for the antebellum South, but rather for the lost era of endless progress and optimism before World War I, a theme especially timely just as Europe was plunging back into conflict in 1939. Watching the movie today, it is a revelation to see how the film uses its considerable dramatic power to create some of the most grim portrayals of war ever recorded.

For example, there is the film’s money shot and one of the single most famous shots in movie history (TRIGGER WARNING: there is a Confederate flag in this clip):

Other iconic scenes include the squalor inside a church turned hospital, the stain-glass windows breaking from the roar of cannon fire:

There is also the scene where families gather to await casualty lists, a grimly familiar event for many audience members:

Tellingly, the film is very much a story about defeat and it allows audiences to become invested in all stages of this defeat, from the rush and romance of the early phase of the war, through its grim conclusion and bitter aftermath, where things are never quite the same again. It’s hard to find another anti-war film telling a story like that, at least from an American perspective.

The story also acts as a rejection of propaganda, a polemic of sorts against the perceived nobility of war. This is told both through the character of Rhett Butler, rebelliously open about his skepticism of the Rebellion, but especially through the arc of the protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara, who may oppose the war for entirely selfish reasons, but must soon suffer the consequences of a conflict for which she never asked.

Endless War

The world became a very different place six years after Gone With the Wind stormed through theaters. World War II exceeded The Great War’s brutality exponentially, yet the Allied triumph over Nazi Germany and imperial Japan restored American’s faith in war as a means for good. And while the Vietnam War shook that faith, the endless conflict of the Cold War through the War on Terror has kept the marriage between warfare and patriotism alive and well.

Today it’s worth remembering that the origins of Memorial Day date back to the melancholy years after the Civil War, where people North and South established traditions to lay flowers on the graves of soldiers who died during that war. Despite the rift between the two regions, both places were united in trying to make sense of the cataclysmic loss of life.

Was it all worth it? Today, that’s not a question that is asked enough, yet with young Americans continuing to sacrifice their lives overseas, it is a question that both politicians and movie producers should never be afraid to ask.