Based on the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925 and adapted from Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee’s play of the same name, Stanley Kramer’s 1960 film is a searing indictment of religious fundamentalism and anti-intellectualism. Inherit the Wind’s relevance continues beyond its immediate parallels with McCarthyism.
Opening with an impressive crane shot of a statue of Blind Justice outside of “Heavenly” Hillsboro’s Courthouse – a shot that becomes increasingly ironic with repetition – Inherit the Wind tells the story of Bertram Cates (Dick York), a school teacher on trial for teaching evolution, forbidden by a law outlawing any science teaching that contradicts a literal interpretation of the Bible.
As large portions of the modern US establishment continue to resist basic scientific fact, such a fable remains tragically relevant. Inherit the Wind is at once an attack on arcane faith, McCarthy-era skullduggery, and an inadvertent warning from the past on the current swathe of anti-intellectualism in the western world.
Hollywood’s very own paragon of virtue Spencer Tracy stars as lawyer for the defence, Henry Drummond. A high-powered, liberally minded advocate from the North, Drummond is brought in after the prosecution elects to make the case in the tiny town of Hillsboro a national show trial. Rhetorical blowhard Matthew Brady (Frederic March) is Drummond’s prosecuting counterpart, equally skilled in oratory but invested with the unshakeable faith in the literal word of God.
Meanwhile, news hack Hornbeck (a typically magnetic Gene Kelly) offers ambivalence as a cynic on the right of history, and Cates’ girlfriend Rachel (Donna Anderson) is conflicted as the daughter of Hillsboro’s fundamentalist preacher Jeremiah (Claude Akins). The courtroom sequences are predictably gripping, increasing in intensity as Brady’s faltering, empty rhetoric is exposed under Drummond’s immovable scrutiny and intellectual agility. Juxtaposed against the daytime court scenes are increasingly unhinged sequences set at night – culminating in Jeremiah’s frothing sermon which, all dutch angles and classically expressionist lighting, boils over into outright mania.
Adding emotional and moral ambivalence into the mix, it transpires Brady was once Drummond’s mentor, and despite their opposition, both men retain great respect for each other. In one quiet, standout scene, Brady and Drummond, sitting on a moonlit porch, debate the merits of the comfort of religion. As Brady’s gently emotive grandiloquence works its magic, the camera subtly moves him into the centre frame, sympathising with his sentimental position.
However, as Drummond offers his counterpoint – a childhood anecdote about a beautiful rocking horse that broke on his first go on it – the camera snaps back to Tracy’s indomitable face as he coolly points out the folly of glittering false promise over substance. Standing alongside To Kill a Mockingbird and Twelve Angry Men, Inherit the Wind is a stunningly clear snapshot of the past, present and future of American political discourse.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell