The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - INHERIT THE WIND (1960) | The Movie Waffler

Blu-Ray Review - INHERIT THE WIND (1960)

inherit the wind review
Dramatisation of the 1925 'Scopes Monkey Trial'.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Stanley Kramer

Starring: Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly, Dick York, Donna Anderson, Harry Morgan, Claude Akins

inherit the wind eureka blu-ray

In 1925 Tennessee, high school teacher John Scopes found himself in hot water when he attempted to teach his students Darwin's theory of evolution, the bible belt state having outlawed such scientific teachings on the subject of our origins. The subsequent court trial would become America's most notorious, at least until a former football player and actor found himself accused of the murder of his wife in the '90s.

Inherit the Wind began life as a 1955 theatrical production which dramatised the Scopes trial, changing the names of those involved for legal reasons. Stanley Kramer's 1960 film isn't strictly an adaptation of the play, but the director was so influenced by it he felt it only right to officially acknowledge the work of playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, even if his appointed screenwriters, Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith, ignored the text of the play.

inherit the wind

Adding to the notoriety of the original trial was the involvement of lawyer Clarence Darrow (who had become an infamous figure after helping hated killers Leopold and Loeb avoid the death penalty), acting in defence of Scopes, and former Democratic presidential candidate and staunch Christian fundamentalist mouthpiece William Jennings Bryan, acting as the prosecution. With the media flocking into the small town of Dayton from across America and the world, and the proceedings broadcast live on radio, it was the very definition of a show trial.

Perfect material then for the sort of politically tinged dramas Kramer favoured (he had just delivered the racially charged The Defiant Ones in '58 and the nuclear war thriller On the Beach in '59). As with the play, names were altered, with Darrow becoming Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy), Bryan becoming Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) and Scopes becoming Bertram Cates (future Bewitched star Dick York). The casting of Tracy and March is ironic, as in reality the former held conservative views while the latter leaned more towards liberalism, and the real life Darrow bore a far greater physical resemblance to March than Tracy. Baltimore Sun writer HL Mencken had been instrumental in covering the case, and here he becomes Gene Kelly's cynical newspaperman EK Hornbeck of the Baltimore 'Herald'.

inherit the wind

"Gimme that old time religion," sings Leslie Uggams (now known to younger viewers as Deadpool's blind roommate) over the opening credits - "It's good enough for me." Such boasting of wilful ignorance sets the tone for the considerable task ahead of Drummond in convincing the townsfolk that Cates has only good intentions for their children. Played by Claude Akins, the town's spiritual leader, Reverend Jeremiah Brown, is as villainous and intimidating a figure as any of the heavies the actor was known playing in the western genre, a far cry from the noble men of the cloth Hollywood had portrayed prior to Kramer's film. When an argument with Brown's daughter, who happens to be in love with Cates (awkward!), leads the pastor to kneel and babble in biblical platitudes, Kramer's camera tracks into a closeup not of Brown's face, but his clenched fists, creating the unsettling idea that this is a man using religion to suppress violent urges.

Kramer claims he argued incessantly with Tracy over their theological differences, and the actor can't have been too happy with the atheistic rhetoric his character spouts ("An idea is a greater monument than a cathedral," perhaps the most memorable line), but to watch his committed performance you would imagine Tracy as much a bastion of liberal ideals as his great friend Katherine Hepburn. Much of the film's latter half lets Tracy and March take centre stage as their characters go 15 full rounds, arguing their opposing cases back and forth, landing spiritual and philosophical body blows, sometimes below the belt. It's a compelling dual, two titans of the screen duking it out over a fascinating subject.

There's a danger that a film like Inherit the Wind, made by a Hollywood liberal like Kramer, might come off as elitist and condescending in its portrayal of 'smalltown folk', and initially it appears as though we're in for a black and white case of Northern intellectuals battling Southern ignoramuses in an ideological civil war reenactment. Thankfully, as the narrative progresses, the duel becomes more nuanced, as locals like Noah Beery Jr's farmer John Stebbins, who was cruelly told by Reverend Brown that his dead child wouldn't have a place in heaven due to her professed interest in science, and a local banker, worried the portrayal of his town in the media could ruin his business, step up in defence of Cates and his progressive notions.

inherit the wind

On the other side, Drummond surprises the disbelieving Hornbeck by revealing his sympathy for those who hold onto religious beliefs. In the film's final image, Drummond picks up both a law textbook and a bible, weighing them as though his big broad hands were the scales of justice themselves. Pressing the books together, he leaves the courtroom with both under his arm, perhaps an indication that America will always be split when it comes to tradition and progression, but the two must learn to accept one another and live in unity.

In the period spanning the release of the play and the film, the adaptation of the Scopes trial was viewed as an analogy of McCarthyism. With America involved in the Space Race, the nation had embraced scientific ideals like never before, and the backward views of the Dayton townsfolk seemed to belong to the past. It's a damning indictment of modern America that the events of the film resonate with a 2018 audience, not as a metaphor for communist witch hunts but as a straightforward look at the political, religious and philosophical divide currently tearing that nation apart. Evolution has once again become a dirty word in many parts of the US, and the religious right are now so powerful that it's unlikely Hollywood would produce a film as critical of Christian fundamentalism as Inherit the Wind in today's climate. As an opportunistic hot dog vendor tells Tracy's Drummond in the film, "Opinions are bad for business."

Original trailer, as introduced by Kramer; an interview with the always informative film scholar Neil Sinyard; and a booklet featuring an excerpt from Kramer's auto-biography.

Inherit the Wind is on dual format blu-ray/DVD from Eureka Entertainment now.