It is hard to say which is the most significant factor making this film a classic. It could be the fine direction by Stanley Kramer. It could be the excellent story based on actual historical events. It could be the fine cast and great performances they give in this outstanding film. What’s certain is all of these things combine to make this film one of the best of its era.
This movie is based on the events surrounding the 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial” (concerning the law against the teaching of Darwin’s theory of the Descent of Man) which occurred in Dayton, Tennessee pitting William Jennings Bryan (a former Presidential candidate) for the prosecution of John Scopes (the teacher) against Clarence Darrow (the famous defense attorney) as his lawyer, while the media event was covered by the famous libertarian journalist H. L. Mencken. The movie changes the players' names so that Bryan is Matthew Harrison Brady (masterfully portrayed by Fredric March), Darrow is Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy, great as usual), Scopes is Bertram Cates (Dick York, who does a good job) and Mencken is E. K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly, surprisingly good in this dramatic role with no choreography). The “disguises” afforded by the name changes are intentionally very thin.
The movie begins with the credits being displayed on screen while a single voice sings “Give Me That Old Time Religion” as a group of townspeople gather while walking in a very resolute fashion. After a time the destination of the walkers is revealed as a school and a particular room where a teacher is beginning a discussion of Darwin’s theory of the Descent of Man when the walkers arrive. One of the walkers (a deputy) approaches the teacher and arrests him for teaching evolution.
If this movie were only about teaching evolution in public school it would be interesting, but it is about more than that. This movie deals with some very large issues: free thought, free speech, science vs. religion, nonconformist individualism and others; it barely touches on the issue of “public education” – which was really the root of the problem for Scopes/Cates.
It seems odd to consider that less than one hundred years ago in Tennessee it was illegal to teach Darwin’s theory while today it is the teaching of the Creationist theory which is causing the media hubbub. Instead of the particular issue of evolution, the movie focuses on the more general question of “truth” and how such matters are decided. These are very interesting problems and the movie doesn’t disappoint in its treatment of them.
Later in court while discussing his own motivations for taking the case with Cates’ (Scopes’) fiancée, Drummond (Darrow) says: “I didn’t come here to make Hillsboro different, I came here to defend his right to be different, and that’s the point.”
When the court rules that Drummond’s (Darrow’s) expert witnesses cannot testify, he calls Brady (Bryan): the opposing attorney and champion of the fundamentalists, to the stand. This is as it was and where the contest becomes most interesting.
Many people have disputed the historical accuracy of the movie. I will not attempt to defend that, as I doubt it is accurate in many of its fine details. However, in its broad outlines the story is close to the events as they actually occurred. Much of Mencken’s coverage of the trial for the Baltimore Evening Sun (not the Baltimore Herald as his newspaper is known in the film) is available online.
As is often the case with movies reviewed here, the villain in this movie is the State. Today, the same as it was in Tennessee in the Twenties, the State is involving itself more and more in what should be private decisions about education and truth as it entwines about society with its many interventions and coercions. The great cast and direction along with the essentially true story help to make Inherit the Wind a movie you shouldn’t miss.