Last night on Turner Classic Movies was an overly rare airing of INHERIT THE WIND, Stanley Kramer's most excellent epic tale of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, wherein a high-school teacher in Dayton, Tennessee was criminally charged for teaching human evolution in the classroom in violation of a recently-minted state law banning the practice. The movie doesn't represent the history of the actual trial, not by a log shot. It's closer to what would, today, be called a "reimagining." The reimagining in this case being the work of the 1955 play on which the film is based.
It isn't history.
It is, however, a great history lesson. It's just that the history in question isn't the Scopes trial; it's the McCarthy era. The environment recreated in the film isn't that of Dayton in 1925; it's that of the U.S. in the years immediately preceding the play's creation. The dour, sour, assbackwards herd uncritically following mouthy demagogues to the point of threatening to blot out the spirit of inquiry itself is a representation of those who mindlessly fell in behind the likes of Joe McCarthy in those dark, early-Cold-War years. This is what the film really portrays, and this is what it resoundingly, thoroughly, and very effectively repudiates.
The man in charge behind the camera, the always-socially-conscious Stanley Kramer, cooked up a whole slew of classics as both a producer and a director over the years--HIGH NOON, THE DEFIANT ONES, JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG--but this one is definitely one of the best (and my personal favorite). He masterfully melds what is, on the surface, a snarling, snapping cage-match between free inquiry and superstition with the obvious McCarthyist subtext to form a firm alloy of daringly first-rate drama that starts with a bang and doesn't let up until the final curtain. One way in which the movie is very true to the spirit of the real Scopes trial is in presenting the atmosphere surrounding it: It was one big show. A whole town and trial proceeding-made-carnival. In 1925, the whole world really was watching, and everyone in that little town with the big spotlight on it seemed to revel in it. The movie is a very loud, unsubtle, gloriously bombastic tale about Really Big Issues, writ really large, and writ damn well, as well.
That "damn well" is brought to life by as good a cast as one could ask. Long-time Hollywood hands Spencer Tracy and Frederic March take the top billing and center-stage, squaring off as the film's stand-ins for real-life Scopes trial combatants Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. Twenty-nine years earlier, in 1931, March had starred in an excellent version of DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE. Ten years after that, Spence took over the role for a solid remake. The two films are rightly considered the best screen adaptations of the tale, and one wonders if this may have been part of the reason their stars were chosen for INHERIT THE WIND. Tracy and March both get to show a little Jekyll and a little Hyde in the course of it. Gene Kelly doesn't dance a step, but does kick all sorts of ass as the H.L. Mencken stand-in who gets some of the funniest lines. Always-rock-solid Claude Akins is suitably misguided as the awful town preacher who reigns rhetorical hellfire and brimstone down on his earthly enemies, in a subplot that gives March's Bryan a look at the terrible genie he's unbottled. Dick York is, to be honest, a little undercooked as the films' John Scopes stand-in, but his part isn't as loud, and he can't help but look a little small when everyone else is chewing the scenery as vigorously as they do here.
And chewing scenery they do, indeed. Tracy's Darrow and March's Bryan are old pals, but they couldn't disagree more over the issue at hand, and they go at each other like two great, carnivorous dinosaurs, locking horns with blustery elan over a choice piece of meat. Their two-man riot comes to a head in the film's climactic setpiece: Tracy's Darrow, prevented from presenting a defense, opts for the unusual maneuver of calling to the stand March's Bryan--the prosecutor--as an expert on the Bible. The antagonists turn the froth up to 11 and try to bash one another into oblivion, with the prize being the future itself. INHERIT THE WIND makes the issue that big--The Future Itself. It's incredible to think this big courtroom showdown really happened. It seems like the sort of thing that could only happen in a movie, but in spite of this movies' many liberties with the historical record, it does, in fact, lift a great deal of that epic battle royale directly from the trial transcripts. March-as-Bryan holds his own, at first, giving the sharp quips as well as he gets them, but every McCarthy eventually has his Joseph Welch moment. He represents religious myth given the force of law against free inquiry, and as the examination moves along, Tracy-as-Darrow digs in, mercilessly exposing him as without knowledge or even curiosity about the world in which he lives. The implications are as obvious as they are devastating.
Forget that O.J. Simpson bullshit. This was the trial of the 20th century. INHERIT THE WIND, it's true, isn't really about it, but it effectively takes some of the issues it raised, used them to comment on McCarthyism, and its message is as important and, in the age of Glenn Becks and Sean Hannitys, as current as it ever was. And it's a damn good movie.