Tuesday 25 March 2014

Movie Review: Inherit The Wind (1960)

A courtroom drama fictionalizing the real trial of a schoolteacher who dared teach the theory of evolution in a rural and deeply religious community, Inherit The Wind is an engrossing battle of wits between entrenched traditional beliefs and the relentless forces of progress.

It's the 1920s in the small southern farming town of Hillsboro, and young school teacher Bertram T. Cates (Dick York) is arrested and charged for violating a law prohibiting the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution. The town leaders insist that the Bible's Book of Genesis is the only true description of human creation, and Darwin's scientific theory about the evolution of species contravenes the word of God.

Three time presidential candidate and celebrated Biblical scholar Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) volunteers his services to prosecute the case, and he receives a hero's welcome in Hillsboro. Much less warmly received is the controversial Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy), a strong believer in the power of independent thought and scientific exploration, who arrives to defend Cates. Also arriving in town to join the growing circus and report on the trial is journalist E. K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly) of the Baltimore Herald.

Bible salesman: Are you an evolutionist? An infidel? A sinner?
E. K. Hornbeck: The worst kind, I write for a newspaper.

To compound Cates' misery, his girlfriend is Rachel (Donna Anderson), who happens to be the daughter of Hillsboro's local religious leader Reverend Jeremiah Brown (Claude Akins). Brown whips the locals into a frenzy against Cates and Drummond, surprising even Brady with his venom. As the temperature rises literally and figuratively, the trial commences with Judge Mel Coffey (Harry Morgan) presiding, and Drummond facing a hostile gallery and the seemingly impossible task of defending Cates against deeply held but simplistic beliefs.

Drummond: An idea is a greater monument than a cathedral. And the advance of man's knowledge is a greater miracle than all the sticks turned to snakes or the parting of the waters.

Timelessly potent, Inherit The Wind is based on the 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, written at the height of the McCarthy communist witch hunt. The play's intent was to use the real 1925 trial of schoolteacher John Scopes, in what became known as the Scopes "Monkey" Trial, as a parable on the need to vigorously defend the right to think, discuss, and debate, without fear from stifling laws and lawmakers.

The film takes artistic liberties with some of the facts of the trial, but keeps the essence intact. And it is astounding that Inherit The Wind remains relevant not as a historical artifact but as contemporary social commentary. Director Stanley Kramer shines the spotlight on the frustrating intransigence that results when literal, simplistic solutions are applied to complex issues. The film also highlights the ease with which ignorance can be enshrined in law, effectively legislating intellectual atrophy from one generation to the next.

Kramer creates all the trappings of a dangerous media circus in the fictional little town of Hillsboro, the real Scopes trial apparently instigated with at least the partial intent of placing Dayton, Tennessee on the map. Kramer then delights in teasing out the fine line between exuberant religious belief and the creeping spectre of mob violence, the townsfolk often slipping into threats, and Reverend Brown completely swallowed up by his own zeal in wishing for his daughter's destruction.

The complex relationship between Drummond and Brady is at the heart of the movie. Spencer and March bring the two grizzled men to life as aging veterans of many a political battle, often fought side-by-side, but this time fate has landed them on opposite ends of a polarizing religious and social divide. Despite the bluster, anger, and emotion, Drummond and Brady never lose respect for each other, and the scene where they share quiet words in rocking chairs on the front porch of their hotel is pure movie magic.

Brady: Why is it, my old friend, that you've moved so far away from me?
Drummond: All motion is relative, Matt. Maybe it's you who've moved away by standing still.

When the two men engage in the climactic battle of wills after Drummond places Brady on the witness chair, Kramer unleashes the fireworks in extreme close-up, dogma and independent thought clashing with breathtaking intensity.

Brady: We must not abandon faith! Faith is the most important thing!
Drummond: Then why did God plague us with the capacity to think? Mr. Brady, why do you deny the one faculty of man that raises him above the other creatures of the earth? The power of his brain to reason. What other merit have we? The elephant is larger; the horse is swifter and stronger; the butterfly is far more beautiful; the mosquito is more prolific. Even the simple sponge is more durable. But does a sponge think?

In a dramatic yet humourous role, Gene Kelly is a surprising success as the sharp-tongued Baltimore journalist E. K. Hornbeck, playing the role of the big city observer not mincing words when it comes to the backwardness of Hillsboro and its people. Kelly gets the film's best one-liners, but also serves as a serious sounding board to Drummond in the raging insanity of the farcical trial.

Townswoman: You're the stranger, ain'tcha? Are you looking for a nice, clean place to stay?
E. K. Hornbeck: Madam, I had a nice clean place to stay... and I left it, to come here.

An epic film about ideas and the essence of being human, Inherit The Wind delivers its message with plenty of punch and a wry smile.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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