On the eve of the American Civil War in 1861, Scarlett O'Hara lives at Tara, her family's cotton plantation in Georgia, with her parents and two sisters. Scarlett is discovers that her secret love Ashley Wilkes is to be married to his cousin, Melanie Hamilton, and the engagement is to be announced the next day at Ashley's home, the nearby plantation Twelve Oaks. At the Twelve Oaks party, Scarlett is admired by Rhett Butler, who upsets the male guests when he states that the South has no chance of winning the war against the far superior North. Scarlett confesses her love for Ashley, who rebuffs her. Rhett then reveals to a fuming Scarlett that he overheard the conversation but promises to keep her secret.
In retaliation, Scarlett accepts a marriage proposal from Melanie's brother Charles, and they are married before he leaves to fight.
Scarlett is quickly widowed and returns home to Atlanta on the pretext of her grief, but as guessed by the outspoken housemaid, she has only come back to await the return of Ashley. Scarlett, who should not attend parties in deep mourning, attends a charity bazaar with Melanie, thus shocking the societal ladies. Rhett, now a blockade runner for the Confederacy, offers an inordinately large bid to the war effort fund in exchange for a dance with Scarlett, who tells him that he will not win her heart.
The tide of war turns against the Confederacy after the Battle of Gettysburg in which many of the men of Scarlett's town are killed. Scarlett makes another unsuccessful appeal to Ashley while he is visiting on Christmas furlough, although they do share a private kiss in the parlor just before he returns to war.
Eight months later, as the city is besieged by the Union Army in the Atlanta Campaign, Melanie goes into premature labor. Keeping her promise to Ashley to take care of Melanie, Scarlett and her young house servant Prissy must deliver the child without medical assistance. Scarlett calls upon Rhett to bring her home to Tara immediately with Melanie, Prissy, and the baby. He appears with a horse and wagon and takes them out of the city through the burning depot and warehouse district. Instead of accompanying her all the way to Tara, he sends her on her way with a nearly dead horse, helplessly frail Melanie, her baby, and tearful Prissy, and with a passionate kiss as he goes off to fight. On her journey home, Scarlett finds Twelve Oaks burned, ruined and deserted. She is relieved to find Tara still standing but deserted by all except her parents, her sisters, and two servants. Scarlett learns that her mother has just died of typhoid fever and her father's mind has begun to fail under the strain. With Tara pillaged by Union troops and the fields untended, Scarlett vows she will do anything for the survival of her family and herself.
Scarlett sets her family and servants to picking the cotton fields, facing many hardships along the way, including the killing of a Union deserter who attempts to rape her during a burglary. With the defeat of the Confederacy and war's end, Ashley returns, but finds he is of little help at Tara. When Scarlett begs him to run away with her, he confesses his desire for her and kisses her passionately, but says he cannot leave Melanie. Meanwhile, Scarlett's father dies after he is thrown from his horse.
Scarlett realizes she cannot pay the rising taxes on Tara implemented by Reconstructionists, so pays a visit to Rhett in Atlanta. However, upon her visit, Rhett, now in jail, tells her his foreign bank accounts have been blocked, and that her attempt to get his money has been in vain. As Scarlett departs, she encounters her sister's fiancé, the middle-aged Frank Kennedy, who now owns a successful general store and lumber mill. Scarlett lies to Kennedy that her sister married another beau, and after they marry, Scarlett takes over his business and becomes wealthy. When Ashley is offered a job with a bank in the north, Scarlett uses emotional blackmail to persuade him to take over managing the mill.
Frank, Ashley, Rhett and several other accomplices make a night raid on a shanty town after Scarlett narrowly escapes an attempted gang rape while driving through it alone, resulting in Frank's death. With Frank's funeral barely over, Rhett visits Scarlett and proposes marriage, and she accepts. They have a daughter whom Rhett names Bonnie Blue, but Scarlett, still pining for Ashley and chagrined at the perceived ruin of her figure, lets Rhett know that she wants no more children and that they will no longer share a bed.
When visiting the mill one day, Scarlett and Ashley are spied in an embrace by two gossips, including Ashley's sister, India. They eagerly spread the rumor, and Scarlett's reputation is again sullied. Later that evening, Rhett, having heard the rumors, forces Scarlett to attend a birthday party for Ashley. Incapable of believing anything bad of her beloved sister-in-law, Melanie stands by Scarlett's side so that all know that she believes the gossip to be false. After returning home from the party, Scarlett finds Rhett downstairs drunk, and they argue about Ashley. Seething with jealousy, Rhett grabs Scarlett's head and threatens to smash in her skull. When she taunts him that he has no honor, Rhett retaliates by forcing himself onto her, she attempts to physically resist him, but he overpowers her and carries the struggling Scarlett to the bedroom. The next day, Rhett apologizes for his behavior and offers Scarlett a divorce, which she rejects, saying it would be a disgrace, but it is clear that her refusal is due to her sudden reciprocation of his love.
After Rhett returns from an extended trip with Bonnie, Scarlett's attempts at reconciliation are ignored. She informs him that she is pregnant, but an argument ensues which results in her suffering a miscarriage. As Scarlett is recovering, tragedy strikes when Bonnie dies while attempting to jump a fence with her pony. Melanie visits their home to comfort them, but then collapses during a second pregnancy she was warned could kill her.
On her deathbed, Melanie asks Scarlett to look after Ashley for her and to be kind to Rhett. As Scarlett consoles Ashley, Rhett quickly leaves and returns home. Realizing that Ashley only ever truly loved Melanie, Scarlett dashes after Rhett to find him preparing to leave for good. She pleads with him, telling him she realizes now that she had loved him all along, and that she never really loved Ashley. However, he refuses, saying that with Bonnie's death went any chance of reconciliation. As Rhett is about to walk out the door, Scarlett begs him to stay but to no avail, and he walks away into the early morning fog leaving Scarlett weeping on the staircase and vowing to one day win back his love.
Gone With the Wind is a gigantic, sprawling epic of superlative visual merit and entertainment value, with Clark Gable's roguish, cynical and wily Rhett and Vivien Leigh's vain, self-centered and ultimately hardened Scarlett as the most beloved, enduring and complex fictional love-hate lovers to come out of classical Hollywood. It is endlessly rewatchable and impossible not to fall in love with, largely due to its grand scale, the rich, arterial force of its storytelling and magnificent performances. Gone With the Wind is a purely cinematic experience that is truly unforgettable, brimming with color, spectacle and passion, it is a bombastic melodrama acted, staged and designed to perfection that, to this day, remains the benchmark for all epics.