It is the mid-nineteen-twenties, and in the Deep South there is controversy afoot when schoolteacher Bertram Cates (Dick York) of the small town of Hillsboro is commencing his lesson about evolution and Darwin's delineation of how humanity evolved from the lower creatures. Just as he begins, a collection of town officials marches in with a photographer and arrests him for breaking the law, for such legislation has been passed that bans the teaching of anything but Creationism in the state's schools, that is the idea that the world and all its inhabitants were created by God as told in The Bible. The scene is set for a clash of ideologies as science and religion square up against each other...
You may have heard of the Scopes Monkey Trial, and if you had, you may imagine it played out something like this, with a group of religious fundamentalists demanding their beliefs and not science's facts be treated as indisputable and those who dare to dispute them be hauled up in front of the courts. That trial took place in 1925, when there really was a law set in place that banned anything but Creationism to be taught in schools, and it hung around until the mid-nineteen-sixties before being overturned, but this film, based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, did not stick as closely to the facts of the case as it has been supposed by those who saw it, but read no further.
Actually, the town of Dayton, Tennessee, wanted publicity for themselves, and instead of installing the world's biggest ball of twine or whatever, they opted to make waves by setting up a trial that would bring the nation's media there. In producer-director Stanley Kramer's film, Cates is not party to the accusation, whereas in real life Scopes agreed to be put on trial in collaboration with the town's officials as what essentially amounted to a publicity stunt, and while the truth of The Bible was debated by legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow and political exponent William Jennings Bryan and the play took much of its courtroom dialogue from the transcripts, it was not quite as it seemed in actuality.
But what this did serve up was an opportunity for two acting heavyweights to go at it in full-on thespian intensity with searing speeches and the sense of more than one man's reputation at stake, and that's what Kramer gave us here as Spencer Tracy took the Darrow role (renamed as Drummond) and Fredric March the Bryan role (renamed as Brady). More or less all the movie's renown rests on those two veterans and how they handled their performances, and it was true they were electrifying when in full flow: Kramer never claimed to be an artist, but he was a very fine director of actors in that he could convey his famously liberalist ideas by guiding them to be as crystal clear in their character's motivations as possible: you never emerged from a Kramer work and wondered "What the Hell was that all about?"
Kramer was much respected by directors like Steven Spielberg for this skill in clarity of purpose when it came to crafting talking points, and you won't find a better example of a film that makes you think than this, not in this era anyway; some equals, but Inherit the Wind continues to find admirers in that respect. To break up the sweltering courtroom scenes there were bits of business of varying degrees of effectiveness, from Cates' love interest (Donna Anderson, the minister's daughter) who feels she has been duped into testifying against him, to the townsfolk holding a rally where they burn Cates in effigy; ironically, none of that happened in real life, but this film was picketed by fundamentalists in 1960 in much the same self-righteous manner. Which was where we got to the core of what Kramer was saying: if you allow morons and bigots to make laws that go against freedom of thought, then you end up with bigoted, moronic laws, it could not be blunter than that. Some criticised Gene Kelly as the H.L. Menken stand-in set up as the genuine bad guy for his cynicism, but in effect the conclusion was more ambivalent, leaving you to make up your own mind. After two hours of guiding you to the sensible path, that was. Music by Ernest Gold.
[Eureka's Blu-ray is nicely presented, sounds crucially clear as a bell, and has a booklet, the trailer and a featurette from the literate Neil Sinyard as extras.]