"He wishees to think!", Charles Darwin, Christianity, Courtroom Narrative, Dick York, Donna Anderson, Education, evolution, Evolution is not JUST a theory, Film, film review, Frederic March, Gene Kelly, Harry Morgan, Henry Drummond, history, Human evolution, Human Ideas are Grander than any Religion, humanity, Idealism, Individual Will, Inherit the Wind, Jerome Lawrence, John Thomas Scopes, Philosophy, Play, Political Discourse, Politics, Public Education, Public speech, religion, religious corruption, Robert E. Lee, Robert Osborne, Scopes Trial, Spencer Tracey, Spencer Tracy, Stanley Kramer, Turner Classic Movies
Honestly the most disappointing part of the film is the fact that Gene Kelly doesn’t tap dance. The man shines as a wisecracking journalist who always has something clever or witty to say, but after a while I kept wondering what was keeping the man from dancing right in the middle of the courtroom. I recognize that Inherit the Wind is based on an actual play and that drama typically avoids frivolities like dancing, singing, and general merriment, but I mean, it’s Gene Kelly.
One of the greatest pains about living with the cable package that I do is that I don’t get Turner Classic Movies. Though I get plenty of other channels I usually wind up watching only PBS or Cartoon Network for Adult Swim, although I will admit without shame that Steven Universe and Adventure Time are also some of my favorites. But I miss TCM because so much of my childhood was my parents turning the station on and then taking care of chores or other household tasks leaving me alone with Robert Osbourne who would introduce film after film with his encyclopedic knowledge of cinema history. On one side note when Robert Osbourne passed away earlier this year it the first celebrity death which really made me cry because so much of my childhood was tied with that man. TCM always promised wonderful movies, and it’s because of that channel that I eventually discovered films like Annie Hall, Spirited Away, The Seventh Seal, the original Scarface, The Great Dictator, and eventually Inherit the Wind.
Growing up in a private Christian school it’s nothing short of a miracle (though I despise using that poor word) that I ever came away knowing what evolution was, let alone what it argued. Fortunately, I had a biology teacher who was a scientist as much as he was a Christian and so he taught us the scientific theory without remorse or shame. When I got to college I eventually wound up tutoring biology and more or less teaching it for four years to freshmen and so in that time I managed to learn a great deal about the scientific principle, being able to argue against anyone who argued that it was “just a theory.” During that time I met my wife, who herself is a biologist, and so recently when I discovered that the library had a copy of Inherit the Wind on DVD, I checked it out and showed it to her.
To be honest, she didn’t really respond much to it, and this is probably because I forgot that Inherit the Wind is more of a film about lawyers and philosophy than it is about the principle of evolution.
Based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (no not the Civil War Era general, unless that man had a secret past historians
don’t know about) Inherit the Wind is based upon the Scopes Trial, sometimes referred to as the “Monkey Trial,” which took place in the early 1920s. The case in question centered around a man named John Thomas Scopes who dared to teach his high school students about the theory of evolution despite there being a state law which prohibited the practice. Inherit the Wind rewrites the case but insofar as it changes the names of the characters involves and loads the court proceedings with grand speeches about individual will and human initiative.
Most of these come from Henry Drummond the Clarence Darrow substitute played by Tracey in one of his most iconic roles. Tracey shines continually during the film offering one beautiful statement after the other about the human race. During one exchange he speaks with Matthew Harrison Brady whom he has called to the witness stand, and during his interrogation he offers this gem:
[challenged to say if he considers anything holy]
Henry Drummond: Yes. The individual human mind. In a child’s power to master the multiplication table, there is more sanctity than in all your shouted “amens” and “holy holies” and “hosannas.” An idea is a greater monument than a cathedral. And the advance of man’s knowledge is a greater miracle than all the sticks turned to snakes or the parting of the waters.
I regularly read the early essays that I wrote for White Tower Musings, and with some embarrassment, but not much, I recognize this exact sentiment dominates most of my writing. I was reading a lot of Christopher Hitchens at the time and so the humanism just infected my prose. But even after the embarrassing grammar errors have been corrected and I’m left with that rough early material I still find in my early arguments this exact position to be true in my heart. I’ve written regularly about atheism, but never outright about my humanism.
I’ve developed into my own self and am now comfortable with who I am and what I believe. My life is a godless one, and while there are some that would pity me for that I stand firm by the conviction that ideas are a far greater testament to humanity than any church or sermons preached therein. The ideas of Marx, Freud, Hobbes, Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus, Voltaire, Steinem, Trotsky, Bradbury, McCloud, Nietzsche, and yes even Darwin constitute a greater monument to the capacities of human beings. These ideas inspire and drive more personal ambition, innovation, discovery, and insight than any god could possibly do. Ideas offer up new visions of reality, and this to me has always been far more interesting than any Psalm or Prophet.
The ultimate conflict with religion, and this comes from having grown up in it and reflecting upon the experience, is that it offers only one vision of reality: god is the source of everything. Once one has accepted this worldview the achievements or discoveries of mankind becomes secondary. What is the origin of life, god. How did DNA develop, god. Why should man be benevolent to his fellow creatures, god. I could go on with this but I’m supposed to be writing about a film. I’ll settle on the fact that religion as an ideology is constricting because it limits the ultimate potential of man into one single reality rather than leaving him open to new ideas, and when Christianity festers into the realm of politics it has a limiting effect on free will or free thought.
Drummond’s regular speeches note this when he further questions Brady about Cates and faith:
Matthew Harrison Brady: We must not abandon faith! Faith is the most important thing!
Henry Drummond: Then why did God plague us with the capacity to think? Mr. Brady, why do you deny the one faculty of man that raises him above the other creatures of the earth? The power of his brain to reason. What other merit have we? The elephant is larger; the horse is swifter and stronger; the butterfly is far more beautiful; the mosquito is more prolific. Even the simple sponge is more durable. But does a sponge think?
Matthew Harrison Brady: I don’t know. I’m a man, not a sponge!
Henry Drummond: But do you think a sponge thinks?
Matthew Harrison Brady: If the Lord wishes a sponge to think, it thinks!
Henry Drummond: Do you think a man should have the same privilege as a sponge?
Matthew Harrison Brady: Of course!
Henry Drummond: [Gesturing towards the defendant, Bertram Cates] Then this man wishes to have the same privilege of a sponge, he wishes to think!
This line alone has become its own sort of icon in terms of the legacy of the film. Most of the “commercials” that saw on TCM would always have this one line, with Spencer Tracey making his grand and dramatic gestures. And the word “grand” seems the most fitting in describing much of the approach of Inherit the Wind because so often the film feels like one speech after the other. This can sometimes come at the expense of the narrative, but at the same time this doesn’t kill the film.
Ultimately Inherit the Wind is a courtroom narrative, and such stories tend to be limiting in terms of what a director can do in terms of narrative. Within such narratives the viewer is given a lawyer, maybe two if the director wants to develop both sides of the case, and so the viewer is usually left becoming a member of the jury as they try to decide who’s side is right. The exception to this would be To Kill a Mockingbird where the viewer is given no chance to see the opposing lawyer’s arguments because they know already that Atticus Finch is the “right” lawyer. But the courtroom narrative is classic in that its origin are in antiquity. The ancient Greeks are attributed with establishing most of the traditions and foundations of Western civilization, and the use of the courts and rhetoric is perhaps one of the most crucial developments of their culture. Though each city state was different in their application of the law, a policy existed in ancient Greece where, if a man found himself compelled to go to trial, he would be forced to act in his own defense or else serve as the prosecution. As such a study of rhetoric wasn’t just something for leisure, it was of paramount importance to the individual citizen. A man (because it was ancient Greece, don’t forget that) had to know how to arrange words so that he could defend himself. The setting of the courtroom is one as old as recognizable civilization, and so while Inherit the Wind can feel like one long series of speeches, in the film’s defense, that’s exactly what a courtroom is.
Stanley Kramer who directs the film would only a year later direct the movie Judgement at Nuremberg which also starred Spencer Tracey and as in both films he manages to construct real characters outside of the courtroom so that the viewer isn’t left simply listening to speech after speech that are devoid of personal character. The strength of Inherit the Wind isn’t just that it constantly sings the praises of humanism in defense of Darwinism, it is instead a film about a strained friendship that climaxes in a courtroom.
Henry Drummond and Matthew Harrison Brady are two old friends who have had a falling out because of their difference of opinion about religion. In one scene the pair of them are rocking on the front porch of their hotel and discussing the nature of faith when Brady asks his friend a question:
Matthew Harrison Brady: Why is it, my old friend, that you’ve moved so far away from me?
Henry Drummond: All motion is relative, Matt. Maybe it’s you who’ve moved away by standing still.
The success of this scene is largely on Tracey, but then again, I’m biased in this capacity. Tracey as an actor manages to convey a down-to-earth man who has ingested and processed the humanities and knowledge of mankind but not gone so far up his own ass that he’s lost the ability to shoot straight or be humble. Inherit the Wind as a film is often a film about Henry Drummond and his attempt to level the people around him who have gotten so concerned with the religious abstract and one quote in particular seems the best demonstration of this.
Matthew Harrison Brady: [to Henry Drummond] They’re looking for something that’s more perfect than what they already have. Why do you want to take that away from them when it’s all they have?
Henry Drummond: As long as the prerequisite for that shining paradise is ignorance, bigotry and hate, I say the hell with it.
I’ve written, some would say too much, about my upbringing in East Texas and my observation of religious people so I won’t go back over stories that are beginning to become adages rather than accurate memory, but I will defend this line because I’ve heard this argument before. “Even if god doesn’t exist it gives people hope,” is a line that reeks of false conviction and is in fact one of the most pathetic arguments I have ever heard. If I can stay on topic, the film Inherit the Wind portrays Christianity often as an antithesis to reason and moral virtue and so the reader who believes in god may shout harrumph and not bother seeing the film.
I would hope they would consider the opposite.
Rather than being a film that does nothing but damn Christianity, the film in fact is a call for sanity. I’ve seen by the example of a small handful, what can happen when those who are religiously inclined, open their minds and hearts to new ideas and allow their faith to deepen because of the challenges of science, technology, and discovery, and while I will continue to debate them about the foundation of their reality I will always respect their level head. Inherit the Wind is not a film that damns Christianity, it only damns those who would prostitute religion for political gain.
The Christianity that is on display in the film is not a sane ideology, it is a bullying, stunted cancer that eats away at the people of Tennessee by leaving them terrified and in a place where progress is associated with the devil.
Drummond answers this in what is quite possible the most beautiful lines of the film:
Henry Drummond: Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, “All right, you can have a telephone but you lose privacy and the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder puff or your petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.”
There’s a great number of reasons for watching a film like Inherit the Wind, the largest being that it’s a film that helped establish the courtroom drama as a narrative structure. But for my opinion Inherit the Wind is a beautiful film about humanism overcoming bigotry and the importance of individual integrity. Even if the reader disagrees with the theory of Evolution and what it argues about the origin of human life, they would hopefully agree that an individual person has the right to believe what they want to believe and think what they want to think. I believe that flat-earthers are idiots, but if they believe that the earth is flat and they have come to that decision on their own that I have no business telling them how to think.
It is when one uses violence or intimidation to justify their world view that action is necessary. Hiring lawyers and going to court will not provide the satisfaction that might come from punching somebody right back in the nose, but it will keep more violence and bigotry from occurring. The courtroom is a space where philosophy can be argued and defended against the cruel and fanatics. It is a space where the ideas and progress of humanity can be argued and defended and where a man can stand up and say firmly, “I think.”
This year will mark 92 years since the original Scopes “Monkey” Trial, and a film like Inherit the Wind is wonderful reminder that even close to a century later we’re still having the discussion of evolution, and whether or not teachers should be allowed to teach it. The clouds smell a little more like Gasoline, but there are far more people willing to stand up and say without shame or fear, that “I think.”
There’s also people like me who are still waiting for Gene Kelly to start tapdancing. But you can’t always get what you want.
Having more or less taught biology for four years it’s important to make sure the reader knows this: Evolution is not JUST a Theory. This unfortunate, bullshit line has been crafted by critics of evolution, however it demonstrates their ignorance of what a scientific theory actually is. In the humanities a “theory” is just an idea about reality than can be easily accepted or rejected. The reason for this is that in the humanities you are dealing with subjectivity of human experience. What I see and believe is different from what the reader sees and believes and so we could look at the same painting by Rembrandt and come to different conclusions about what it means or what its origins were.
The humanities are SUBJECTIVE, while science and mathematics are OBJECTIVE.
If something is a Scientific Theory that means it has been tested literally millions of times by scientists all over the world who are trying to refute the conclusions of the original hypothesis. This constant testing is not just an effort to disprove other people, it’s an effort to make sure that the facts that are being expressed by science are accurate. Human beings can observe evolution in lab settings as well as the wild, and the mountains of evidence in the fossil record only further demonstrate the fact of evolution. If something is a “theory” in science it is because scientists are firm in their conviction that it is a fact. There is a “chance” that it could be refuted by new evidence, but it is a “chance” the way there’s a “chance” that I could go out on a date with Matthew Lewis. It’s not that it isn’t possible, it’s just probably probably probably not going to happen, but, I can dream.
If the reader would like a more nuanced explanation of the difference between a scientific Law and Theory they can follow the link below to an article my wife found for me when I asked her about the difference: