Science Or….?-Spenser Tracy and Frederic March’s “Inherit The Wind” (1960)-A Film Review
By Sam Lowell
Inherit The Wind, starring Spenser Tracy, Frederic March, 1960
Science in any age, even today in the 21st century witness the climate change deniers against the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, has had a tough road to hoe what with all kinds of special interests to bat it away from whatever was inconvenient. A lot of the fight has been against religious obscurantism and that challenge was not backdated to some long ago idea when let’s say like when they forced Galileo to recant under penalty of the rack or some such torturous expedient but as the film under review, Inherit The Wind, based the Scope trial in Tennessee in the 1920s within memory. Of course the prerequisite for scientific inquiry is an open mind, a thoughtful mind and so defending that strand of human experience rather than an all-out assault on an individual’s religious convictions is what drives the film (and what drove the writers as well who were writing at the edges of the McCarthy era in American life, a trend not dissimilar to the fury around Scopes case or today for that matter).
Here’s how the film played out (and be aware that although based on the 1925 case it is a fictionized work not an historical drama and so not all the story line adheres to that case). Cates (Scopes), a high school biology teacher in small town Tennessee, taught, contrary to enacted state law if you can believe this, Darwin’s theory of evolution which might just upset any firm belief in Genesis as the mainline story of how we got to today. He was going to trial for this transgression no question since the townspeople, like many small towns and some big ones too, don’t like to have their apple carts upended. What took this from an isolated small town incident though was the cast of “outsiders” who were coming in to do battle-for or against the Lord if that was to be the way things worked out. Matthew Brady (William Jennings Bryan), played by Frederic March, was to enter the lists for the creationists, Henry Drummond (Charles Darrow), played by Spencer Tracy, to defend Scopes and his right to differ, and E.K Hornbeck (H.L. Menckin), played by Gene Kelly, the famous newspaperman to report the whole story to a candid world (and whose Baltimore newspaper was picking up the tab for Drummond’s services).
The clash was on as the film then turned into a battle of wits between the religiously driven Brady who spoke with some eloquence to the fears of the townspeople and their deeply held religious convictions and the cool, rational and thoughtful Drummond with various snipes and witty comments by the admittedly cynical Hornbeck. There was plenty of dramatic tension between the sides with a couple of outstanding examples being the tension between Cates’ fiancée and her fundamentalist minister father and between her and Cates when the whole trial was becoming to her eyes a circus and an bad example to set if they were married and expected to live in the town. Of course going along with the true story this fictionalized version was based on Cates was duly found guilty by twelve of his peers. A temporary defeat for the forces of scientific inquiry no doubt but also a temporary defeat for allowing a thinking person to differ from his brethren in matters of conscience. Certainly a cautionary tale for today.