The Great Debate: 'Casablanca' vs. 'Gone with the Wind'

The Great Debate this month is between two old-timey romances set against the backdrop of war: "Casablanca" and "Gone with the Wind." As the home team, I get to represent "Casablanca," i.e., the movie that is clearly the winner, while the opposing view will be ably defended by Movie Mezzanine's Corey Atad. Let's see what happens when we pretend to stand at podiums on a stage and yell at each other!

Eric D. Snider, Team "Casablanca": This is hardly even a fair debate. "Casablanca" isn't just a better film than "Gone with the Wind," it's a better film than almost every film ever made. With its pulpy, melodramatic story, a tragic love affair set against the backdrop of war, "Casablanca" is smooth even as it cuts you like a knife. What movie offers a more entertaining combination of peppy dialogue, heartbreaking romance, thrilling plot twists, memorable characters, and good old-fashioned Tinseltown glamour? No movie, that's what movie. Also, you can watch it like three times in the time it takes to watch "GWTW" once.

Corey Atad, Team "Gone with the Wind": Low blow, sir! There's nothing wrong with a movie being close to four hours long when it's as beautiful and engaging as "Gone With the Wind." Granted, "Casablanca" is a much more "perfect" film in its economical structure and pointed character arcs, but where "Gone With the Wind" has it beat is sheer sweep and emotional complexity. It's an epic romance, set against one of the most devastating periods in American history. The urgency of that backdrop makes for some of the most beautiful and harrowing sequences in cinema, as well as some of the most incredible color cinematography of all time. Furthermore, the central romance between Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler is fascinating and complex in ways "Casablanca" doesn't even bother approaching.

Snider, Team "Casablanca": I'll grant you that "Gone with the Wind" has a more epic scale than "Casablanca," and perhaps that it's more physically beautiful to look at. ("Casablanca's" black-and-white photography is gorgeous, but it's hard to beat glorious Technicolor.) But its epic-ness is partly what sinks it. It's a grand, sweeping romance AND a depiction of antebellum Southern life AND an account of the Civil War -- it's too much for one film, even a 37-hour film. I admire "GWTW" for biting off more than it can chew, and more being so earnest in its lofty ambitions. But if I'm choosing between a movie that doesn't quite measure up to its elevated goals and one that totally nails its more modest aims -- which is what "Casablanca" does -- I'll take the second one any day.


Atad, Team "Gone with the Wind": That's a point of view I sympathize with, and I suppose now is the time to admit that - given the choice - I'd sooner put on "Casablanca." It's quicker, cleaner and in many ways more satisfying. But as a piece of cinematic history, "Gone With the Wind" seriously intrigues me where "Casablanca" has always been simply great entertainment. The film's lofty ambitions are there, but could you imagine any modern studio head spending so much money on a film with such a deeply unlikeable main character? Scarlett is self-centred, bitchy, mean and manipulative, and yet I can't help but be pulled in by her journey through the Civil War and Reconstruction, trying to hold onto her idea of home while also trying to craft a delusional romantic future for herself. Sometimes I root for her, but so often I'm angered by her. It's a conflicting reaction only enhanced by the film's seriously problematic forgiveness of the South's pre-war sins.

Snider, Team "Casablanca": Well, I think the main character in the "Twilight" films was deeply unlikable, and those movies got made, but I get what you're saying. Still, Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind" novel was a massive bestseller, not to mention a Pulitzer Prize winner: likable protagonist or not, it was bound to become a movie.

It's funny you mention its place as a piece of cinematic history, because that's close to where I think its primary value is: as an artifact. The movie's technical qualities, as well as its attitudes about race, the South, and the Civil War, are so distinctly "1939" that it's hard to take it seriously now. You can enjoy it for the pageantry and spectacle, for the familiar story, for the larger-than-life characters -- but for me it's like looking at something in a museum.

"Casablanca," on the other hand, while "dated" in some respects (like any movie made 70 years ago), doesn't suffer from its datedness like "GWTW" does. In fact, its themes about doing the right thing, sticking your neck out for someone else, and avoiding conflict until it becomes morally imperative to get involved are as resonant now as they were in 1942, when the U.S. had just been dragged into World War II. Rick Blaine represented -- and still represents -- America as a nation. Can anything like that be said for anyone in "Gone with the Wind"?


Atad, Team "Gone with the Wind": It's difficult to disagree with the notion of "GWTW" as a museum piece, especially next to the much more contemporarily relevant themes at the heart of "Casablanca." But as a museum piece the film is still striking, and on two different levels. The first, and it's one that really comes down to a matter of personal taste, is that the film is still supremely entertaining, much in the same way as a great television miniseries. It's grand, and long, but it always holds my attention all the way through.

But getting beyond simple entertainment value, I do think the film's thematic weight holds up, only it's buried deeper and under an unfortunate layer of racism. It's still there, though. "GWTW" is ultimately about learning to appreciate the things which are most important to us and to work hard to ensure they don't disappear. The emotionally wrenching part is that the human experience is also unavoidably defined by loss of the very things that make us whole, whether they be family, friends, lovers or even the land that gives us home. It's a partly nostalgic film, and that's where most of its race/history problems lie, but the point of the nostalgia is as a reminder of those important things.

It may be a museum piece, but it's an engaging one, and one with a lot to glean from even beyond its superficial place in history.

Snider, Team "Casablanca": That's an excellent summary of "GWTW's" themes, and I'm man enough to admit it makes me think a little more deeply about the film than I usually do (the majority of my thoughts about "GWTW" typically center on saying "I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies!" to myself). It is a nostalgic film -- not just in the sense that it's wistful for a bygone era, but in the sense that it's about nostalgia. The United States went through some torturously difficult changes, and as necessary as those changes were for the country as a whole, they were painful for many of the people involved.

"Casablanca" is still better in every way, though, and your fervent devotion to "Gone with the Wind" is alarming. We shouldn't allow these geek impulses to take control of the cinematic discourse or we're all doomed!

Any final thoughts?

Atad, Team "Gone with the Wind": Well, cinematic discourse is certainly doomed when we go this whole time without mentioning how dashing Clark Gable is. Come on, now. I'm disappointed in us.

The truth is, you won this debate the second it was "Casablanca" vs. "Gone With the Wind." One film is pure perfection from beginning to end, while the other is a messier, more problematic, and probably less satisfying film on the whole. All that being said, I've found the modern tendency to overlook "GWTW" as a truly noteworthy work of art somewhat disheartening. I love both films, and I hold a special place in my heart for the likes of "GWTW." It's a monumental film, but also a deeply complicated one worth taking seriously.

Snider, Team "Casablanca": Sorry, I stopped reading after "you won this debate." Victory!