This 1960 movie was based on the play of the same name by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Even though the story is based on fact, the authors claim that Inherit the Wind is not history. Only a few phrases have been taken from the actual transcript of the trial. To quote the authors, “So Inherit the Wind does not pretend to be journalism. It is theatre. It is not 1925. The stage directions set the time as ‘Not too long ago’. It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow.”
The historical facts have been put down in many writings since the famous trial. In 1925, school teacher John T. Scopes was arrested in Dayton, Tennessee for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution, which was against state law. The law forbade the teaching of any doctrine denying the divine creation of man as taught by the bible. The Scopes Trial took place from July 21st to July 25th, 1925. The trial promised a confrontation between fundamentalist literal belief of the bible and people who believed the bible was allegory or myth. The attorney for the defense was the famed trial lawyer Clarence Darrow and the prosecutor was the orator and statesman William Jennings Bryan.
During the trial, no test of the constitutionality of the law was allowed by the trial judge, nor was any statement allowed that tested the validity of Darwin’s theory. The trial was limited to questions on whether or not John T. Scopes had taught evolution–a fact which he’d admitted to. He was found guilty and ordered to pay a fine of one hundred dollars. Later, on appeal, the state supreme court upheld the constitutionality of the law but acquitted Scopes on the technicality that he’d been fined excessively. The law was finally repealed in 1967. William Jennings Bryan died five days after the initial trial.
The character in the movie, E. K. Hornbeck, was based on the legendary journalist H. L. Mencken who had a sharp wit and a biting tongue. He attacked with words such things as organized religion, business, and the middle class. He worked as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. He is quoted as saying about Americans: “the most timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob of serfs and goose-steppers who ever gathered under one flag in Christendom since the end of the Middle Ages.” Sadly, he was right and that statement is probably more true today than it was back then.
The opening scene in the movie is of the Hillsboro (the town being portrayed instead of Dayton, Tennessee) courthouse where the mayor (Phillip Coolidge) looks at his watch and strolls across the street to the background music of Give Me That Old Time Religion, sung in the movie by Leslie Uggams. After crossing the street, he meets up with the sheriff and his deputy. The trio continues walking and Reverend Jeremiah Brown (Claude Akins) joins them. The group continues on to the school they arrest high school biology teacher Bertram Cates (Dick York) in his classroom for teaching evolution. Soon, town officials realize that their small community is being vilified in newspapers across the country. There is apprehension among the town fathers about what kind of image of their town they may be projecting to the nation until they find out that the great Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) is joining the prosecution team.
To complicate matters, Bertram Cates is engaged to Reverend Brown’s daughter, Rachel, played by Donna Anderson. The reverend is a strict fundamentalist and this causes friction between Rachel and him. Rachel begs Bertram Cates to apologize for his wrongdoing but Cates wants to stick to his principles and let the trial go on. “Tell them if they let my body out of jail, I’d lock up my mind. Could you stand that, Rachel?” he asks her.
Then we are introduced to the irascible E. K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly) from the Baltimore Herald. He is a swaggering individual whose paper has agreed to furnish Cates with a lawyer. He has a line in the movie which probably best describes his outlook: “I do hateful things for which people love me and I do loveable things for which they hate me. I’m admired for my detestability.”
Matthew Harrison Brady arrives in town with his wife Sarah (Florence Eldridge) to the accompaniment of marching bands and townspeople parading while carrying placards and singing Give Me That Old Time Religion. Mayor Carter makes a speech where he confers upon Brady a commission as honorary colonel in the state militia. It is at this gathering that Hornbeck announces that his newspaper has hired Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) to defend Cates.
Mr. Drummond arrives in Hillsboro with no fanfare at all. In fact, few people seem to even notice he’s there. We next see him in the courtroom where the legal battle is about to take place. During jury selection, Drummond objects to his opponent being referred to as “Colonel Brady” on the grounds that it prejudices the case of his client. The judge (Harry Morgan) asks Drummond what he suggests they do. “Break him. Make him a private. I have no serious objection to the honorary title of Private Brady.” The issue is resolved when the mayor makes Drummond a temporary honorary colonel in the state militia.
Most of the remainder of the movie consists of delightful courtroom sparring between Drummond and Brady. This movie is highly recommended to anyone who hasn’t seen it. There is a 1988 made for television version of the motion picture starring Kirk Douglas and Jason Robards that is equally well done and entertaining. There is also a 1999 television version starring Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott which we haven’t seen so we can’t comment on it.
- Spencer Tracy – Henry Drummond
- Fredric March – Matthew Harrison Brady
- Gene Kelly – E. K. Hornbeck
- Dick York – Bertram T. Cates
- Donna Anderson – Rachel Brown
- Harry Morgan – Judge
- Elliott Reid – Prosecutor Davenport
- Philip Coolidge – Mayor Jason Carter
- Claude Akins – Reverend Jeremiah Brown
- Paul Hartman – Meeker
- Jimmy Boyd – Howard
- Florence Eldridge – Mrs. Sarah Brady
- Noah Beery Jr. – John Stebbins
- Norman Fell – Radio Announcer
- Gordon Polk – George Sillers