In the mid 1950s, at the height of Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist campaign of political repression, a bold new courtroom drama opened on Broadway that allegorised a dire incident from America’s Christian fundamentalist history to excoriate the current climate of fear and repression. The play’s impact on the culture of America and the wider world is attested to by its numerous revivals and its continued presence in schools and universities. Then, two years after Arthur Miller’s The Crucible opened, its more palatable milquetoast relative followed along, crouching like an ape behind its more evolved cousin. If Stanley Kramer was as bravely controversial a director as he advertised himself to be, perhaps I would now be writing about Eureka’s blu-ray release of a 1960 adaptation of The Crucible, and not Inherit the Wind.
Which is Kramer’s adaptation of a political stage play, dramatising a court case that two politicians used as their stage on which to play with politics: the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial of 1925, in which infamous criminal defence lawyer Clarence Darrow and failed Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan squared off over a Tennessee substitute teacher’s right to let his students know that they evolved from apes. I don’t want to be too cynical. Yes, the trial was originally concocted by a local business owner in order to get his town in the news as well as challenge a bad law (he persuaded Scopes, who remained forever unsure whether he had actually mentioned evolution in his classes, to incriminate himself). Yet despite its somewhat ignoble origins, it did become a significant national news story that would re-energise interest in Darwin’s theories and the scientific method.
And Inherit the Wind is perhaps more popular in America’s classrooms even than The Crucible. If courtroom dramas are already suited to classroom presentation, with their similar municipal settings and dialectical treatment of important questions, what is more appropriate than a courtroom drama about the classroom itself, especially one that features the brave stand of an energetic young teacher? It’s a civics lesson within a civics lesson, a brilliant lawyer using the tools of a liberal democracy in order to advance the liberal progress of that democracy; it’s an Aaron Sorkin wet dream. It’s 12 Angry Men for teachers who are uncomfortable with serious discussions about bigotry and prejudice— 2 Men Who Get Flustered In The Heat of the Moment, But They’re Old Friends Actually.
That’s one of the many liberties the film takes with history. Darrow and Bryan may have both been members of the Democratic party, but they were never politically aligned or supportive of each other. Whereas Spencer Tracy’s Darrow stand-in Henry Drummond and Fredric March, heavily and not totally convincingly costumed as the rotund blowhard Matthew Harrison Brady, spend a few scenes reminiscing over the good ol’ days, and Drummond’s final speech is centred around his admiration for his once-great opponent. The film’s greatest sin is reducing a political and social struggle to a bloodless contest between two individual personalities, two outlooks on life thrown arbitrarily into a polarised contest with each other, erasing in the process the much larger team of attorneys and experts that helped argue both men’s cases and supply their own nuances to the debate. The film’s saving grace, though, springs from the fabrications with which it enriches these semi-biographical personalities: in the rich, unresolvable complexities of both these two central characters, not to mention the supporting roles.
Speaking of, the uncontested standout is Gene Kelly, in a rare dance-free dramatic role. He proves the remarkable range to which his carefully cultivated star persona could stretch. He’s E.K. Hornbeck, a sharp-tongued journalist who covers the trial intending to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’. If you manage to forget that he’s based on the noxious satirist H.L. Mencken (sort of the Seth MacFarlane/Ricky Gervais of his day), he starts to sound like the film’s most genuinely progressive voice, the only character who refuses to weep performatively at the misfortune of a bigoted demagogue (a strikingly modern moment that the New York Times could learn from). Kelly’s roles always carried an undercurrent of cynicism, self-conscious hucksterism, deep-rooted insecurity mixed with theatrical confidence. But as Hornbeck his usual dark side becomes almost an abyss, his saving grace of romantic idealism almost entirely worn down until all that is left beneath his natural charm is bitterness and melancholy. The genius of Gene Kelly is that when he puts on that smug look, you don’t want to punch him in the face; you know how fragile he really is.
And then there’s Donna Anderson as Rachel Brown, girlfriend of the accused teacher, who seems as if she might have been at home in a Sirkian melodrama. She transforms the staid debate about educational freedom into a struggle against patriarchal violence and abuse, the stoked-up societal forces that threaten to spill over into fervid authoritarianism. In one of her earliest scenes, she admits to her fundamentalist Reverend father that, as a little girl, she was always more scared of him than even her worst nightmares. Her journey out from under the thumb of her father and his small town is the film’s liveliest development, the only story not weighed down by heavy dialogue. Her eventually hostile relationship to her surroundings is the film’s only honest treatment (at least the only one that provokes any strong feeling) of the kind of dangerous environment in which Jim Crow laws and the KKK operated. In fact, the film notably omits the real-life police escort that protected the defence lawyers against the Klan.
We tend to give actors praise for being ‘believable’. At least, that’s what we say we want, without considering whether we really believe, or whether we ought to believe, in a given character. Spencer Tracy was an extraordinary actor, adept at forcing the camera to look at him doing nothing for long stretches of time, conjuring up a universe of possibilities in a moment’s silence before pulling a surprise out of thin air. But his Drummond, whose ideas are all his own, whose genius is singular and unassisted, is a myth. It’s a fundamental American myth that the play explicitly celebrates, with Drummond holding the ‘individual human mind’ to be sacred above all, insisting that its independence and capability is what’s really on trial, insisting that the teacher be afforded the right to ‘think’. This theme must have touched Kramer, who was a uniquely progressive filmmaker compared to most of his contemporaries, working in opposition to the studio system, but who often cast himself and his protagonists as lone prophetic voices. He opposed the Hollywood blacklist and the wider anti-communist crusade, but only insofar as it put restrictions on freedom of thought.
I just can’t look past the fact that freedom of thought was never on trial in the way Drummond, and Kramer by extension, present it. McCarthyism wasn’t an attack on the individual, but on the rights of people to organise themselves into a group that might meaningfully change society through strength of combined action. Similarly, even anti-evolution laws, which are a poor allegory for McCarthyism anyway, are not an attack on the teacher’s right to think, but on the efficacy of the education system as a whole. Neither of these problems can be comprehensively dealt with by highly publicised courtroom debates or platitudinous defences of personal freedom. Nobody had more belief in the power of one man to stoke up a media frenzy, single-handedly prosecute a just crusade and purge society of its evils than Joe McCarthy himself. Inherit the Wind is a stirring fantasy, but a misleading one. Like Spencer Tracy, its enduring appeal is that it offers the viewer something to believe in— which is not always the same as offering the truth.
INHERIT THE WIND IS OUT NOW ON EUREKA CLASSICS