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‘Gone With the Wind’ will make you swoon

DVDs: This special four-disc collection takes you inside the making of the film. Plus, another must-own for film buffs, 'The Battle of Algiers.'

“Gone With the Wind”
Four-Disc Collector’s Edition
By now, just about every living soul has seen “Gone With The Wind” at least once. In the South, it’s the law, much the way Margaret Mitchell’s immensely popular novel was required reading in 1936.

The story is magnificent, sprawling, epic and lush. It follows Scarlett O’Hara from the days when she had to beat the boys off with a parasol, to her (and the South’s) humiliation at the hands of the Yankees, to her discovery of an iron will and a survival instinct she never realized she had. All the while, there was the dashing Rhett Butler, teaching her a thing or two about passion.

“Gone With The Wind” is one of the greatest stories ever told in movie history, and the tale of the various steps by producer David O. Selznick (the O stands for nothing at all, a deliberate effort at Hollywood pretension) to go from novel to finished film also ranks up there among the stuff of legend.

Thankfully, the new four-disc collector’s edition of GWTW more than captures the glory and splendor of the beloved nearly four-hour feature film, and covers just about every aspect of its creation.

First, the picture itself was painstakingly restored, and the result is an exquisite spectacle, as vivid today in its Technicolor digital incarnation as it probably was on that first pristine print displayed at the 1939 Atlanta premiere.

But the real goodies for fans of Scarlett and Rhett (not to mention Ashley, Melanie, Mammy, Prissy, et al.) are on several featurettes that tell the story of telling the story. “The Making of a Legend” on Disc Three is the centerpiece. It tells of Selznick’s initial reluctance to tackle what he perceived to be an unwieldy novel that would be impossible to adapt — until he read it. Then it became an obsession.

Selznick originally had George Cukor tabbed to helm the project. Only after two years, and about 10 days of principal photography, did Selznick realize that he and Cukor were not on the same page and were destined to have a Civil War of their own. The directorial duties then went to Victor Fleming, a hard-driving, no-nonsense dictator who also happened to be close friends with Clark Gable.

The casting process depicted here is probably the most fun to watch of anything in this package. Obtaining Gable’s services as Rhett proved to be extremely difficult, contractually and because he really didn’t want to do it. Neither did Leslie Howard, who played Ashley. And Vivian Leigh became Scarlett almost by accident, as she accompanied husband Laurence Olivier to Hollywood, hooked up with Selznick’s agent brother to represent her, and eventually came to the attention of David O. She won an Oscar for this, as did Hattie McDaniel for her turn as Mammy.

But many of the screen tests are a hoot, and it’s fascinating to imagine how GWTW would have come off if Paulette Goddard — Charlie Chaplin’s honey at the time — had gotten the part. She came darned close.

Other excellent extras are a look at the supporting players — including McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen as Mammy and Prissy — which explores how much flak they received at that time in their careers for playing roles perceived by many as demeaning to African Americans. There is also a commentary over the feature by historian Rudy Behlmer, who deserves a medal for talking so long.

One feature that does not work so well is “Melanie Remembers: Reflections by Olivia de Havilland.” She’s a lovely and dignified lady, but unfortunately her insights are rather pedestrian.

In all, this “Gone With The Wind” set will make you swoon like a Southern gentleman in the presence of delicate beauty.

Warner Brothers Home Video, $39.92

“The Battle for Algiers”

Terrorism is a horrible reality, but it’s nothing new.  Whenever there have been people oppressed by others, there will always be extremists among them who believe violence and indiscriminate killing is justified in pursuit of a cause.

In the 1950s, the French occupied Algeria, and most of the people acquiesced. But a radical group called the FLN declared war on the French, and that, of course, included terrorism. That struggle for independence and the efforts by French soldiers to suppress it was depicted with staggering impact in “The Battle of Algiers,” one of the most powerful and influential films ever made.

In 1966, director Gillo Pontecorvo blended Italian neorealism with a stark, documentary-style approach to tell the story of one uprising staged by the FLN and its followers in Algiers. Shot in black and white and using a cast comprised almost exclusively of non-actors, Pontecorvo captures the plight of the Algerian people and the lengths certain fringe elements went to rise up.

It may sound odd to suggest that while Pontecorvo is clearly on the side of the uprising, the film is balanced, but that’s close to the truth. He depicts the French as brutal, showing methods of torture and the use of the guillotine. But he also emphasizes the callousness of the Algerian terrorists as they place bombs in crowded cafes, then look around to see the unsuspecting faces enjoying life, minutes away from destruction. A one-sided diatribe would not have worked as magnificently and eloquently as “The Battle of Algiers” does.

The Criterion Collection does justice to this landmark work with a terrific three-disc set. Disc One contains the crisp digital transfer of the feature, plus trailers for it. Disc Two has most of the featurette treats. Of special note is one documentary on Pontecorvo himself and another on the making of the picture. The logistics proved to be intimidating, yet Pontecorvo managed to ingratiate himself with the population, enlist the efforts of regular folk and make it all come off as reality rather than a re-enactment.

There is also an excellent mini-doc that has interviews with directors Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh and Oliver Stone about the importance of the film to them. Most of them lament the inability of current-day Hollywood directors to make politically-charged films.

The star of this set might be “The Battle of Algiers: A Case Study,” a 25-minute discussion among Richard A. Clarke, former national counterterrorism coordinator; Michael A. Sheehan, former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, and Christopher E. Isham, chief of investigative projects for ABC News. They talk about the influence the film may have had over the years on terrorists, including Al Qaeda;  the parallels between Algiers and the current situation in the world, and the psychology and strategy used by terrorists and those who fight them. Both Clarke and Sheehan contend that fighting the terrorists on the ground is ultimately futile unless there is a corresponding political strategy to turn the populace against the terrorists.

“The Battle of Algiers” is a masterwork and must-viewing for the politically aware as well as the average film buff.

Criterion Collection, $49.95