Talkie of the Week: Inherit the Wind
USA 1960, 128 minutes, black & white, United Artists. Director: Stanley Kramer, Screenplay by: Nedrick Young (originally as Nathan E. Douglas) and Harold Jacob Smith, Based on actual events (the so-called Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee, 1925) and the play by Jerome Lawrence & Robert Edwin Lee, written in 1955. Cast: Spencer Tracey, Fredric March, Gene Kelly, Dick York, Harry Morgan, Donna Anderson, Claude Akins, Noah Beery Jr., Florence Eldridge, Jimmy Boyd
Plot summary: In America’s small town South, a young teacher is being prosecuted for teaching Darwin’s evolution theories instead of creationism to his students. His trial turns into a spectacle of arrogance and extremist views from both sides of the law. In the end, the question remains which conviction will prevail. It’s up to the audience to draw their own conclusions.
Review: Inherit the Wind is an intense film for an audience who isn’t looking for simple answers. Picking up on the 1950s drama of McCarthyism, the film illustrates the power of conviction and words in a public arena. It points out how easily masses of people can be swayed to believe one theory without listening to an opposing argument. The weight of familiar and established contents over unknown theories. The danger of half-truths and half-knowledge in a democratic society. The intimidating qualities of both, religion and science, if looked at exclusively.
What the film offers is an often surprising look at the ideals and origins of its protagonist characters, the counsel for the defense, Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracey), and the counsel for the prosecution, Matthew Brady (Fredric March), a look back into their interwoven past, their own evolution and motivation. Spencer Tracey is a perfect sparring partner for Fredric March. Their courtroom scenes are both painful and delightful to watch, they are both so brilliantly bouncing off each other.
The supporting cast is equally worth mentioning: Gene Kelly is a convincingly slick reporter whose own ideals and beliefs are constantly in limbo. Florence Eldridge gives a beautiful performance as Matthew Brady’s loyal wife who admires her husband’s faith, his creed. It is heartbreaking to watch her observing her husband’s decline in credibility. Dick York delivers a persuading performance as the young defendant whose own motives and faith get tested during his trial. He comes across as a teacher who didn’t mean to start such a public fight. He seems genuine in his portrayal of an average citizen whose own little act of courage was blown a little out of proportion.
And this is what Inherit the Wind is all about. The setting may be the Tennessee “Monkey Trial”, but in essence, this film raises many more questions than only one. It is a tale about the human condition that’s still as current today as it was in 1925 when the actual trial took place, or in 1955 when the original play was written and first produced or in 1960 when this film won a statue at the Berlin Film Festival.
Available on VHS and DVD. Movie trailer here.