Saturday, 20 October 2012

Inherit the Wind (1960)

Dir. Stanley Kramer
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Frederic March, Gene Kelly, Dick York 

Inherit the Wind takes us back to the America of the 1920s.In a small town in a Southern state a teacher is arrested for the heinous crime of… teaching evolution. Fundamentalist tub-thumpers are up in arms, demanding that the Bible must be understood literally and cursing the name and works of Charles Darwin. Science and progress are seen as the enemy, opposed to the power of God and the miracle of his creation of the world in six days. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? 

Stanley Kramer’s film, based on a stage play, looks back and laughs at this religious bigotry from the cosy perspective of 1960. How we can chortle at the backwardness of these people from a distance of 35 years! 52 years later, however, and it appears that the same battles may need to be fought all over again. Belief in the literal truth of the Bible and in ‘creationism’ seems to be on the upsurge, and not just in the USA. Darwin’s theory of evolution is chided as being just that: a theory. It is notable that, until researching this project, I had never before heard of Inherit the Wind

In the film a mild-mannered teacher by the name of Bertram Cates (Dick York – later of Bewitched fame) is the man who challenges the authority of the town’s overseers by consciously choosing to break the state law which forbids public school teachers from denying the account of the origin of man set down in the Book of Genesis. He is arrested and imprisoned and the news turns ‘Heavenly Hillsboro’ into a national laughing stock. To the delight of the Christian fundamentalists in town the highly-respected populist three-time-presidential nominee Matthew Harrison Brady (Frederic March) arrives to lead the prosecution of Cates personally. However, a spanner is thrown into the works by ths slyly cynical E.K. Hornbeck of the Baltimore Herald newspaper (a non-dancing Gene Kelly) who funds Cates’s defence by the controversial lawyer (and former righ-hand man of Brady) Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy). As the two titanic legal minds tussle over procedure and evidence in the court of Judge Coffey (Harry Morgan, briefly seen in High Noon but most famous for his role as Colonel Potter in the M*A*S*H TV series) Cates and his romance with conflicted pastor’s daughter Rachel (Donna Anderson) are increasingly side-lined. Cates taught a point on principle, and it is the principle that is contested in court rather than Cates’ guilt or innocence. 

Cates was always going to be found guilty. The state law was plain enough, and he contravened it. Drummond’s case is to make it clear that the law itself is at fault. He perorates:

“I say that you cannot administer a wicked law impartially. You can only destroy, you can only punish. And I warn you that a wicked law, like cholera, destroys everyone it touches: its upholders as well as its defiers. Can’t you understand? That if you take a law like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools? And tomorrow you can make it a crime to read about it. And soon you may ban books and newspapers. And then you may turn Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Catholic and try to foist your own religion upon the mind of man. If you can do one, you can do the other. Because fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy and needs feeding. And soon, Your Honour, with banners flying and drums beating we’ll be marching backward – backward! – through the glorious ages of that 16th century when bigots burned the man who dared bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind!”

If the plot seems far-fetched, sadly it really is not. Tennessee did have a law prohibiting questioning the literal truth of the Biblical creation of man. That law was only passed in the 1920s, some 50(!) years after Darwin first published his Descent of Man. And one small-town teacher did face prosecution for teaching evolution in soite of that law. His name was John Scopes rather than Bert Cates and the ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ made headlines worldwide. The small-town was Dayton rather than Hillsboro. And the other main players were William Jennings Bryan (represented here by Matthew Harrison Brady), Clarence Darrow (represented here by Henry Drummond), and sardonic newspaperman H. L. Mencken (represented by E. K. Hornbeck). In fact there is a lovely photo on the Wikipedia page about the Scopes Monkey Trial of Bryan and Darrow – March’s Brady and Tracy’s Drummond look the absolute spit of them, down to their shirtsleeves and hairlines.  

But the film was about more than just the teaching of science. The 1955 play was a product of its decade. Much like The Crucible it is a tirade against the policing of thoughts. The play was a reaction to the McCarthyite era which prescribed what one could think and what one could do. When Drummond cross-examines Brady he asks whether all of God’s creatures have the right to think:
“Do you think a sponge thinks?”
“If the Lord wishes a sponge to think, it thinks.”
“Does a man have the same privilege as a sponge?”
“Of course!”
“Then this man wishes to have the same privilege as a sponge; he wishes to think!”

Inherit the Wind is a play about deciding where you stand. Taking a position because you have seen all the evidence and come to your own conclusions is much more valid than just regurgitating what someone else has said before. It is the refusal to listen to evidence – like the state forbidding even the mention of evolution in schools or the judge forbidding the testimony of scientists in court – which is the real crime. The Bible is just one book; “It’s a good book, but it is not the only book.” 

The impartiality of the jury was cause for concern...

The actual facts of the Scopes trial are today rather mis-remembered. Popular perceptions for many years were shaped by this film. While the main plot, the major characters and a good portion of the action (Darrow’s contempt of court and his withdrawal from the case) were drawn from real-life events a lot more was the invention of the writers. One might say that the furtherance of creationism was seriously hampered while this film lived in the memory of the general public. It is interesting that Inherit the Wind seems to have become somewhat forgotten, just as an increasing number of people put their trust in religious dogma rather than science.

What have I learnt about Tennessee?
The great state of Tennessee is never mentioned by name. Yet it was Tennessee who introduced the state law in question and who was subjected to ridicule thereafter. Hillsboro is depicted as taking a joy in the sudden attention it receives and the arrival of the great and good from across America. The townsfolk are a pious, religious lot – so pious and religious that they can parade through the town singing that they will hand Bert Cates and Henry Drummond from a sour apple tree whilst burning their effigies. Wonderful. Religion in the ‘20s was one of hellfire sermons and outdoor meetings. As Hornbeck comments, “Whatever happened to silent prayer?” Mind you, with Hornbeck being the glib big city type he tends to think that small Tennessee towns are beneath his noticve anyway. 

Can we go there?
The action is set in ‘Heavenly Hillsboro’, though it was actually filmed on the Universal Studios Courthouse Square backlot in Hollywood. Another great courtroom drame, To Kill a Mockingbird was filmed here in 1962. In the 1980s it featured in Back to the Future, Gremlins and Weird Science.
Hillsboro, Tennessee does exist however. It is located in Coffee County, in south-central Tennessee, and is located not far to the west of Dayton, where the real-life Monkey Trial took place. The Rhea County Courthouse has been renovated. The courtoom used during the trial is on the second floor and the Rhea County Museum hosts exhibits relating to the Scopes trial in its basement. For balance a statue of William Jennings Bryan stands in its place. Dayton also hosts a Scopes Trial Festival (even if the 2012 festival had to be cancelled).

Overall Rating: 3/5

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