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One of the great courtroom dramas of the screen, Inherit The Wind is based on
the infamous Scopes 'monkey trial' of 1925, an event bearing an uncomfortable reminder
of debates still occurring today in some American states. A young high schoolteacher
was brought to court for violating a state law prohibiting the teaching of the theories
of Charles Darwin in schools, and thereby denying the biblical account of divine creation.
It was a new law back then, and controversial - one in fact not overturned until some
40 years later, and is still being fought over - and the first prosecution under its
terms quickly aroused widespread interest. Facing each other across an overheated courtroom
on the day (in more senses than one, as the judicial jousting took place in sweltering
weather) were two pre-eminent lawyers and orators: the defence attorney Clarence Darrow,
and three times presidential candidate William Jenning Bryan. The Baltimore Sun
newspaper, whose editorial coverage included that by cynical and acerbic staff member
H.L. Mencken, paid many of the expenses incurred by the defence.
For some reason, perhaps in the famous phrase 'to protect the innocent' - though it seems a little unnecessary - Inherit The Wind changes these names, but not the events and much of the courtroom sparring - especially the climactic verbal duel between the principals, taken from the court records. But for the purposes of the recreation of these momentous events here Darrow becomes 'Henry Drummond' (Spencer Tracy), and Bryan becomes 'Matthew Harrison' (Frederic March). Mencken is now 'E.K. Hornbeck' (Gene Kelly) while the unfortunate schoolteacher is rechristened 'Bertram Cates', played by Dick York, more familiar from his later appearances in the TV show Bewitched.
It's a rare American film that takes the grand clash of ideas as almost its entire central subject matter, and Inherit The Wind has for that reason alone for long been a personal favourite. It's also a film that features some outstanding, larger than life acting, notably from the leads, whether it is Tracy, playing the crusty liberal for whom "an idea is more important than a monument" or the superb March, his performance full of facial tics and movement, and whose fundamentalist character does "not think about what I do not think about." Director Kramer clearly places his sympathies in the former camp, although he does not bludgeon the audience with preconceptions. In fact as a filmmaker he had a reputation for making movies that held opinions and took stands, with a particular weakness for courtroom scenarios. Inherit The Wind came after the post-apocalyptic On The Beach, and just before the sombre Judgement At Nuremberg (also with Tracy). In the mid-1970s the director also made three 'judgement' films for TV based on other real trials.
Whilst On The Beach offers a verdict of its own on humanity's military foolishness, and Judgement At Nuremberg is a just as sombre account of another judicial milestone of different significance, arguably Inherit The Wind falls neatly between the two in ways other than just the order of production. Like On The Beach, it makes its judgement too: not on a worldwide disaster visited by man upon himself, but on the perils of stifling free thought. And, as in Judgement At Nuremberg, it's a trial of ideas here too. But whereas the evil ideology of the Nazis ultimately brought millions to their deaths and stands condemned with its architects, it is enough in Hillsboro that "That if you take a law like evolution and you make it a crime to teach it... tomorrow you may make it a crime to read about it. And soon you may ban books... because fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding."
In fact Tracy and March, with Kelly's able help, hold the centre stage for so much of the time that despite their best efforts the supporting cast seem a little enervated. The romantic subplot between Cates and his girlfriend (ostracised by her father for straying into the wrong camp) is occasional a little cloying and, upon reflection is too much of a reflection from the main event. More damagingly, the character of the Rev. Jeremiah Brown, as portrayed by a miscast Claude Atkins, is so fervent and cold hearted in the cause of the righteous that it occasionally wonders too close to self parody. An improvement to historical events is made by the introduction of a, for the most part, even-handed trial Judge Mel (Henry Morgan). It he who provides an anchor for the audience in court as the two heavy weights slug it over points of order and procedural objections. Judge Mel also provides one of the trials more memorable, quiet moments when, just as it did in the real case, he finds the increasingly frustrated Drummond in contempt of court - only to see the fine which he levies paid for by the parents of a drowned child condemned by the fundamentalist lobby.
In the light of today's religious debates in the US, Inherit The Wind seems braver than ever, and Tracy's character is allowed several hard hitting outbursts which, one wonders, would remain as so powerfully expressed if rewritten for a modern retelling. When he says, "I don't swear for the hell of it. Language is a poor enough means of communication. We've got to use all the words we've got. Besides, there are damn few words anybody understands" we all know what he means. And when he campaigns for a man to have the same right to think "as a sponge" it's a moment that remains starkly memorable. Curiously, a less emotional Darrow variant was essayed a year earlier by Orson Welles in Compulsion (1959), a version of a famous criminal trial. Inherit The Wind has been remade thrice more to good, but ultimately less memorable, effect (including once with Kirk Douglas) but the Kramer version remains ahead.
Dramatic variances aside, inevitably any presentation of the Scopes trial, and such controversial material as it contains, will never please everyone. The source play upon which Kramer's film is based simplifies matters a little too readily and this is a criticism that can be made: for instance the original textbook from which the schoolteacher was convicted of teaching illegally contained an advocacy of racist policies and eugenics unacceptable today while it accepted the notorious Piltdown forgery as genuine proof of a 'missing link'. Again, the relationship between Bryan and Darrow was more complicated in real life than the film has time or care to show - although ultimately one is so caught up in the fairground of judicial combat as the case progresses that one forgives such accommodations with the truth.
Inherit The Wind stands badly in need of a decent special edition, a golden opportunity perhaps being offered by the widely followed 2005 debate that took place in Pennsylvania. The current disc offers little more than the film, although the widescreen presentation does justice to the splendid black-and-white cinematography of Ernest Laszlo, which effectively conveys the sweaty claustrophobia of small town, Bible-belt America. Whether or not the hesitation in bringing out such a potentially controversial, expanded package is a matter of intelligent design or just random selection, the public will have to judge for itself.