In fundamentalist Hillsboro, Tennessee, school teacher Bertram T. Cates is arrested for teaching evolution. As Bertram’s fiancée’s father prays for his damnation, the powerful religious leader Matthew Harrison Brady comes to town to prosecute the case, and cynical reporter E. K. Hornbeck arranges for legal expert Henry Drummond to act as defense council. Surrounded by hatred, bigotry, and betrayal, the two powerful men meet to determine not only the future of one man, but of the rights of all men to think.
“Fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding.”
In 1927, three giants met in a courtroom in Dayton Tennessee: politician turned bible thumper William Jennings Bryan, idealist lawyer Clarence Darrow, and social commentator H. L. Mencken. The event was, as coined by Mencken, The Scopes Monkey trial, and it was, or at least appeared to be, one of the turning points in American society. Inherit the Wind, first in play form, and then as a movie, is a fictionalized account of that meeting. It was in reality and in the movie, a dramatic, insightful, and inspirational courtroom struggle. Producer/director Stanley Kramer wanted the film to correspond closely to the actual case, but also to be exciting and entertaining, and to illustrate both the repressiveness of lockstep fundamentalist religion and of lockstep McCarthyism. He succeeded in every way.
The battle is over evolution and whether a man can state ideas or if we all must be constrained by narrow dogma. The 1925 Butler act outlawed the teaching of anything that didn’t support divine creation, and in “Heavenly Hillsboro” (standing in for Dayton), disillusioned but altruistic Bertram T. Cates decides to test the law. That Cates and all of the characters are so multifaceted and represent so many different positions is just one of the films many strengths. On the side of evolution and freedom of thought is atheistic newspapermen E. K. Hornbeck, who has little hope for mankind, and humanist intellectual Henry Drummond, who sees greatness in man, even if it is sometimes buried in ignorance. There is, of course, Cates, who still holds some faith in God, but none in the Church, and there are Cates’ students, who support him but understand little of the issues being discussed. Supporting intolerance and stepping backwards into the muck is Matthew Harrison Brady, who at one time was a progressive political figure, but a string of disappointing defeats has confined him to the religious arena. He is a mixture of concern for the common man, and blindness to what will actually help him. Backing him are the cruel, fanatic townspeople, who chillingly march together singing, “Bring me that old time religion,” and understand Christianity no better than the students understand evolution. Leading them is Rev. Jeremiah Brown, who is a straightforward manifestation of the viciousness inherent in Christianity, as he calls for God not only to strike down Cates, but his own daughter as well. She is the Christian lamb of the story. She loves Cates, but accepts her place in the religious community and sees no reason to think about anything. Finally, rounding out the positions are the judge, mayor, and banker, who all believe in conservative Christianity, but also believe in functioning in a practical world.
Although many viewpoints and characters play a part in the drama, Drummond and Brady dominate the proceedings. Spencer Tracy and Fredric March put in the best performances of their careers, and it is impossible to choose who is more impressive (Tracy lost the Academy Award to Burt Lancaster and March wasn’t even nominated). As for the characters, it is Drummond who impresses. Rough, gruff, and occasionally foolish, his sometimes intellectual, sometimes emotional pleas on behalf of the human mind and curiosity should ring true to any repeat readers of this site.
The greatest tension is in the courtroom, but the film is riveting throughout. A revival meeting is a frightening account of mankind’s past, and dinner parties are revealing as well as humorous. This is a message picture, but it also shows fascinating characters, and in the case of Rachel Brown, tracks her painful development into a fully aware human being.
In 1960, with evolution generally accepted and Senator McCarthy recently revealed as a bigoted hatemonger, Inherit the Wind must have played as an announcement of the glorious triumph over the primitive forces of ignorance and darkness. Sure, it was a warning, but joy and hope surpassed concern. This was still the case well over a decade later when I first saw it. But times have changed. Those who don’t understand that the word “theory” is used differently in science than in normal conversations (and those who do know that and seek to manipulate the fact for their own ends) have attacked evolution and fought to place their religious doctrine, creationism, into schools. We’re back in a 1927 battle of enlightenment verses self-imposed blindness. As Brady said, “I do not think about what I do not think about.” And so it is today.
While many different perspectives are on display, the film’s sympathies are primarily with Drummond. His is the voice that proclaims that there are great things ahead for humanity. But now, more than forty years later, it is Hornbeck who appears to have the clearest view of the world. To him, wining the battle against stupidity is doubtful and even if it happens, it will have little effect on the greater war. Evolution has done little to be proud of. Man has no more intelligence than the monkeys, and Cates, who is the best of men, is just a monkey who tries to fly, and then finds there is no one there to catch him. The title comes from Proverbs 11:29: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.” I have to wonder if Hornbeck isn’t right, and that is humanity’s destiny.
Even if times have made it feel a bit depressing, Inherit the Wind is one of the finest films ever made. It is thoughtful art and should be in the library of any free thinker.
In the actual case, Scopes was found guilty and fined a paltry $100. The decision was appealed by Darrow and the ACLU and was overturned on a technicality. The Butler act was left on the books till 1968 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all such laws violated The Constitution because they establish and support religion. Bryan died peacefully in bed a few days after the trial ended.