Friday, December 10, 2010

INHERIT THE WIND (1960): And the Scopes’ Trial

I wonder if the hysteria contained in Inherit the Wind is realistically portrayed, but then it’s difficult to dismiss phenomena that occurred in 1925 when similar happenings are still occurring in 2009.  The insanity may have been overstated in the film, but at least it was plausible.  John Scopes, a twenty-four year old school teacher, violated Tennessee’s Butler Act, a law that prevented the teaching of the theory of Evolution in our schools.  If he had been practicing witchcraft, there would not have been such an outpouring of rage.  Scopes did something much, much worse than commune with the Devil.  He chose to be right rather than try to belong to the good community of Dayton, Tennessee.
Inherit the Wind is the story of the Scopes Trial with some of the names changed.   Dick York plays Bertram T. Cates, a fictional John Scopes.  Frederic March plays the prosecuting attorney, Matthew Harrison Brady, a fictional William Jennings Bryan.  Gene Kelly plays the journalist, E.K. Hornbeck, a fictional H.L. Mencken.  And most importantly, Spencer Tracy plays the defense attorney, Henry Drummond, a fictional Clarence Darrow.  Cates is charged with teaching evolution; Brady comes to town to prosecute him and stir up the town people into a religious fervor; by a strange quirk, Drummond cross-examines Brady concerning his knowledge of the Bible and in the process makes a mockery of Brady’s beliefs; Hornbeck, the cynical journalist that he is, takes glee in the carnival-like atmosphere surrounding the trial; and Cates is found guilty and fined a paltry one-hundred dollars.  Brady, suddenly realizing that he has been made a fool of, suffers a stroke at the conclusion of the trial and falls dead to the floor.  While packing away the material used at trial (and with the intention of appealing the guilty verdict), Drummond walks out of the court carrying Darwin’s Origin of the Species and the King James Bible together in his hands.
There is a side story contained in the film that was made up totally in the imagination of the screenwriters.  In the film, Cates is engaged to Rachel Brown (Donna Anderson) who also happens to be the daughter of the Reverend Brown (Claude Akins).  Reverend Brown happens to be a Fundamentalist Christian and fully disapproves of Cates method of teaching to the point that he would even disown his own daughter for association with the young teacher.  In fact, Reverend Brown represents that type of Christian that believes in infant damnation, the banning of textbooks in schools, and the condemnation of all that disagree with him.  This man of God is the descendent of the Puritans and precursor to modern day fundamentalists like Oral Roberts and Bob Jones.  Though Rachel tries to maintain her loyalty to her father, she eventually rebels and sits next to Cates at the trial.  It is left up to the audience to determine who “troubleth his own house,” Reverend Brown or his daughter, and shall therefore according to the Book of Proverbs “inherit the wind.”  This subplot is probably the weakest portion of the film, though it does allow March to show the human side of the character that he plays.  And, unfortunately, the character of Reverence Brown is too frighteningly real.
The screenplay for the film was written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee some ten years before the film was actually released and was allegedly in response to the HUAC hearings that were presided over by Senator Joseph McCarthy.  Obviously, the film and the play were more aimed at the subject of the right to think freely than it was meant to resolve the debate over Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Just as obvious, the filmmakers take the side of Cates and Drummond over that of Brady and the majority of the townspeople.  Yet despite the willingness of the filmmakers to take sides, the movie still challenges the audience perhaps because our minds have really not opened up that very much since 1925.  Our conception of religion still seems so narrowly and dogmatically tailored that it will not let in the questioning mind or any healthy skepticism.  For during the trial, when Drummond (or Darrow) gets Brady (or Brady) to admit that there are some portions of the Bible that are open to interpretation, the argument at that point should have been all over.  Yet Brady could not admit to being wrong, and it was that rigidity that probably killed him.  Brady, like the real life person upon which the character was based, ran for President three times, represented many of the progressive causes that were vital to the ordinary citizen and who probably truly cared for those same people, will be remembered most during his last days for, in the words of H.L. Mencken, “demagogy so dreadful that his very associates at the trial table blushed.” 
Whether the reactions of the townspeople in the film were overstated, the reproduction of the two protagonists in the courtroom is adeptly played out.  March was excellent in the role of Brady, but only occasionally does the screenplay let his humanity show.  Personally, I think that Kelly played the role of Hornbeck much better than most critics give him credit for doing.  Again, the screenplay fell short as far as characterization.   Spencer Tracy is immaculate in the role of Drummond and is the most well rounded of any character in the movie.  It is the character of Drummond that is trying to announce to the town people and everyone else in the world that Cates was trying to enhance the beliefs of people rather than take any beliefs away from them.  Though always challenging in his approach, Drummond in the end also respects those that disagree with him at least to the point that those same people respect his right to disagree with them as well.
Directed by Stanley Kramer, who also directed The Defiant Ones and Judgment at Nuremburg, this 128 minute’ film seems more like a play than a movie – just like almost every movie that Kramer ever directed.  Kramer is making a quasi-political point about the obligation to be free and independent, even under the most oppressive of conditions.  In Judgment at Nuremburg, Tracy played the role of a judge that made the determination that one single man has to be responsible for his own actions and cannot excuse that obligation by giving into pressure of others.  Inherit the Wind is only a slightly different variation on the same theme.
Many people still wear their ignorance on their sleeve as if it was a badge of honor.  It happens in the field of science and reason, religion and politics (as is evidenced about every four years in our Presidential elections).  We’d prefer to give up and become complacent towards what we call the truth rather than struggle for the answer from which will bring us real spiritual awards.  We are awarded for our compliance by never having to think too hard about what cowards we are in simply giving into the pressure of others.  As Drummond makes the point in the film Inherit the Wind and as Darrow made the point in real life, we have allowed such people to insult religion by making the claim that they are somehow representative of religion as a whole.  If not perfectly portrayed, at least Inherit the Wind shows how bad following the mob can turn out to be and, if not rewarding, how noble standing up for one’s belief in face of the crowd can be.

April 17, 2009
© Robert S. Miller 2009

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