Inherit the Wind

Director: Stanley Kramer
Screenplay: Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith (based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee)
Stars: Spencer Tracy (Henry Drummond), Fredric March (Matthew Harrison Brady), Gene Kelly (E.K. Hornbeck), Florence Eldridge (Mrs. Brady), Dick York (Bertram T. Cates), Donna Anderson (Rachel Brown), Harry Morgan (Judge), Elliott Reid (Davenport), Philip Coolidge (Mayor), Claude Akins (Rev. Brown)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1960
Country: USA
Inherit the Wind DVD Cover

All the names were changed, but the events depicted in Stanley Kramer's Inherit the Wind were based on one of the most spectacular court battles of the first half of the 20th century. The trial is usually referred to as the "Scopes Monkey Trial, "which in a single phrase combines the name of the defendant (Tennessee schoolteacher John T. Scopes), the major bone of contention (whether he had broken a state law forbidding the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution, including the notion that humankind evolved from apes), and the generally farcical nature of the whole case (calling it a "monkey trial" is almost too kind). It took place in the stifling heat of July 1925 and marked one of the most heated and public battles between the forces of fundamentalist Christianity and scientific progress.

What made the trial so notable was not just what was at stake (particularly the intrusion of a dominant religion into the realm of state-sponsored education), but the people involved. Defending Scopes was the noted criminal defense attorney Clarence Darrow, an agnostic who was well known for his work with labor unions and his strong opposition to capital punishment. The prosecution was headed by the great orator William Jennings Bryan, a Bible-thumping fundamentalist Senator who had already run for the Presidency three times. Both of these men were old warriors in the twilight of their public careers, and the Scopes trial offered them one of their greatest moments in the spotlight, where they feverishly argued their cases, appealing to authorities—for Bryan, God's revealed word in the Bible, and for Darrow, the rationality of scientific enquiry—that seemed at the time (and to many, still do) utterly irreconcilable.

Inherit the Wind sticks mostly to the general facts of the case, starting with the arrest of the schoolteacher in the small town of Hillsboro, Tennessee (the real town was Dayton) and following the development of the trial. Through and through, this is an actor's movie, and the leads chew the scenery with great gusto and aplomb. Two-time Oscar-winner Spencer Tracy, looking portly but still agile, tackles the Darrow role (renamed Henry Drummond) with great zeal—you can almost feel his frustration at the unwillingness of his adversaries to even consider any other possibilities beyond what is explicitly stated in the Bible. In the Bryan role, here named Matthew Harrison Brady, Fredric March plays up the resolute stiffness of the fundamentalist, at times sinking a bit too deep into near parody as he scowls at any criticism. Even Dick York, in the small role of Scopes surrogate Bertram T. Cates, has a few moments to shine, as his position as the martyr/heretic in the trial is constantly complicated by his engagement to Rachel Brown (Donna Anderson), the daughter of the local hellfire-and-brimstone preacher (Claude Akins).

In an against-type casting choice, Gene Kelly plays a reporter for the Baltimore Herald named E.K. Hornbeck (based on real-life columnist H.L. Mencken) who supports Scopes' plight if only because it makes for great copy. Hornbeck is the faithless cynic in a roomful of partisans, and he provides consistent comic relief, although it always comes at the expense of Brady and the people of Hillsboro, a town that he describes as being "the buckle on the Bible Belt." Hornbeck's sarcastic outlook provides the film with a running commentary, and it is hard not to let it become the dominant lens through which we view the action, especially because the film turns on him in the end and attempts to isolate his cynicism, rather than unquestioned religious idolatry, as the real problem.

Adapted from a Broadway play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Inherit the Wind captures the heat and the clamor of the Scopes trial, although it misses any opportunity for subtlety or true understandings of both sides of the case. As adapted by Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith, Inherit the Wind plays as one virulent speech after another, in which scientific discourse clashes violently with deep-seated religious zeal.

The film's ideological agenda is more than clear, as its obvious caricature of fundamentalist Christian beliefs makes Drummond's ranting about the end-all-be-all of Enlightenment-era scientific rationality seem relatively demure in comparison. At times, this is taken to somewhat questionable extremes, as in one scene that visually juxtaposes the townspeople, who have devolved into something of a lynch mob, with a statue of blindfolded justice. The best idea the film might offer is that faith (whether in God or science) that is never questioned or explored can lead to stasis and a freezing of the mind, and every once in a while this leaks out, most notably in the juxtaposition of both Drummond and Harris to the cynical Hornbeck, whose lack of faith in anything makes him a villain in his own right, albeit a pitiful one.

Producer-director Stanley Kramer (High Noon, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World) ably handles the incendiary material visually, making good use of deep focus and careful compositions that emphasize the oppositions in the room. Some of the best scenes in the film, though, are actually the least contentious, in which Drummond and Harris, who were once old friends, sit down together and talk to, instead of yell at, each other. Rather than opposing each other face-to-face, they sit side-by-side, suggesting for a brief instance that disagreement can exist harmoniously without one side capitulating to the other. That these brief respites always end in harsh words is a reminder of the volatility of the human mind and how the danger of the imposition of one person's beliefs to the detriment of another's, no matter how well-intentioned.

Inherit the Wind DVD

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioDolby 1.0 monaural
LanguagesEnglish, French, Spanish
SubtitlesFrench, Spanish
SupplementsOriginal theatrical trailer
Distributor Metro Goldwyn Mayer Home Entertainment
Release DateDecember 11, 2001

Inherit the Wind is presented in its original 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio in a nonanamorphic transfer that looks good, but not great. The image is sharp and clear throughout, with good detail and only a few scenes that look any bit soft. There is a fair amount of speckling from time to time, however, and although it is never particularly distracting, it is noticeable.

The soundtrack is presented in crisp Dolby monaural. All the dialogue is understandable and clear, and ambient hiss is kept to a minimum.

The only supplement included is the film's original theatrical trailer.

Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3)

James Kendrick

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