Lowdown: The story of the 1925 trial that pitted Darwin against the bible.
Back in 1925, in a small American town at the heart of what is known as the Bible Belt, a schoolteacher was arrested for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection to his pupils. The accusation was that he broke a law that said the words of the bible cannot be contradicted. Inherit the Wind, a film from 1960, assumes to tell us the events that took place in the trial that followed. Known as “The Monkey Trial”, it had the effect of removing evolution from USA school curriculums for decades later. We are probably still paying the price today.
The focus of Inherit the Wind is not on Darwin vs. the bible at all. There are hardly any Darwinian arguments raised in the duration of the film, although the bible is questioned for a while (perhaps the filmmakers were afraid of being jailed?). Instead, we have a film that discusses the people on both sides, in particular the defense and the prosecution attorneys. On the bible side we have Matthew Brady (portrayed by Fredric March), an ex presidential candidate very popular in the USA’s south who is also a firm creationist but a pragmatic one never the less. When the trial is first announced, Brady realizes its potential historic importance and volunteers to lead it; in return, a Chicago newspaper sends a cynical reporter (portrayed by Gene Kelly) to cover the events, and later organizes for an ex colleague of Brady and a famous Chicago attorney by his own rights to handle the case for the defense: Henry Drummond, portrayed by Spencer Tracy.
And so we are set on a collision course pitting the two strong personalities, Brady and Drummond, thus pitting the south with the north. All the while we have the community in the background, most of which is very bigoted (with the local priest starring there), some of which is tormented, and a small quiet minority of which wants to release itself from the shackles of dogma.
Put together, Inherit the Wind’s two hours plus are quite riveting. Through family circumstances we had to watch it in bits, but in between sessions I could not stop myself from thinking of the film and wonder what is to happen next (even though I knew of the trial and its result in advance). That said, Inherit the Wind is not without its problems.
To start with, as I have already said, Inherit the Wind is not a film pitting evolution vs. creationism, as I have expected. I was in for a bit of a laugh at creationism but I ended up disappointed even though there is more than a bit of comedy to Inherit the Wind. I was disappointed because the film portrays the legal issue at hand as a conflict surrounding free speech rather than a conflict dealing with truth vs. fiction. In its defense I have to say that if I am to accept the film as a reliable document of what really took place then it has to be said this limitation on the scope of the discussion was imposed by the judge.
Accurate documentation of events is key to my next argument. I would have liked Inherit the Wind to be a neutral spectator and tell things the way they were without having a position of its own; I would have liked facts to lead viewers’ opinions. Instead, that is not the case; it is pretty clear the film sides with the defense in most parts. However, it has to be said that the film takes ownership of the spirit of conciliation, and tries to offer its own take of the trial by arguing Darwin and the bible can live together. Well, one can certainly argue for that; but if one was to accept such arguments then one will also be able to use the same type of arguments to reconcile between Jews and Hitler. The reality is, and a part of the film agrees with me there, that the bible can only be reconciled with facts if we were to pick and choose specific items from the bible and interpret our picks in a specific way that is favorable to our agenda. That is to say, I agree with the creationists who view evolution as a danger to their creed; it's just that what they deem dangerous I consider an illuminating fact.
As styles go, Inherit the Wind has a very theatrical atmosphere. It is as if the actors are playing on stage and use exaggeration methodologies common in the world of theater where the people sitting at the back need to be able to hear and understand what goes on the stage. I can understand this behavior in court scenes, where the jury has to be impressed, but it’s not limited to that arena alone and it resulted in significant interruptions to my suspension of disbelief. Gene Kelly is probably the worst culprit here, playing a character whose every word sounds like a poem, whereas Spencer Tracy plays the only character that can pass for real. Indeed, Tracy gives an excellent act.
The balance of things is in Inherit the Wind’s favor. As a portrayal of an era gone by, a time when air-conditioners did not exist and people didn’t have much to do with themselves as of dusk, it is an interesting film. As a portrayal of a trial with significant historical impact, it is a very interesting film.
Best scene: The two opposing attorneys sit on a veranda and reminisce days gone by, demonstrating how at the end of it all we are all people with much in common that can talk to one another. But then they start discussing the matter at hand and an argument erupts…
Overall: Due to the importance of the events it portrays, I’m giving Inherit the Wind 3.5 out of 5 stars.