Directed by: Stanley Kramer | 128 minutes | drama, history | Actors: Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly, Dick York, Donna Anderson, Harry Morgan, Claude Akins, Elliott Reid, Paul Hartman, Philip Coolidge, Jimmy Boyd, Noah Beery Jr., Norman Fell, Gordon Polk, Hope Summers, Ray Teal, Renee Godfrey, Florence Eldridge, Gail Bonney, Jack Daly, Richard Deacon, Lester Dorr, George Dunn, Donald Elson, David Fresco, Sam Harris, Earle Hodgins, Wendell Holmes, Frank Mills, Robert Osterloh, Bob Perry, ‘Snub’ Pollard, Addison Richards, Harry Tenbrook, Charles Wagenheim, Justice Watson, Will Wright
Twice someone was on trial in the United States for wanting to convey Darwin’s teachings to school children. The most recent case, from 2005, was that of Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District. Eleven parents of students at the school took the case against the school board, which wanted to oblige the teaching staff to teach the students that evolution was “only one theory”, “just like the creation story and intelligent design”. The parents won the case convincingly. During the so-called “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925, 24-year-old teacher John Thomas Scopes took center stage. He had taught Darwin’s theory of evolution to his students. And that was not allowed, for less than a month earlier the state council had passed a law that “forbade the teaching of any theory that denies the creation account as recorded in the Bible.” It was not the least who interfered in the matter. For the defense, Clarence Darrow, the country’s best-known lawyer, came to Dayton. Three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan served as prosecutors. Great orators who knew their attention from all over the country. Scopes’ “crime” soon no longer mattered; here it was, in the eyes of some, a direct attack on the Bible.
Years later, in response to the lawsuit, Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence wrote the play “Inherit the Wind,” after a phrase from the Bible that applies to the events: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.” The play premiered on Broadway in 1955 and proved very successful. A film adaptation could therefore not fail. Stanley Kramer was hired to direct the film a year before he would make the ultimate courtroom drama, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). Top actors Spencer Tracy, Frederic March and Gene Kelly were contracted for the lead roles. The names were changed, but there is no doubt that the Monkey Trial was the basis for this film. Dick York plays Bert T. Cates, the teacher on trial for teaching Darwin’s theories of evolution. The devout residents of the fictional town of Hillsboro are shameful. Their hero Matthew H. Brady (March) – an exceptional orator, former presidential candidate, and staunch preacher of the faith – is appointed prosecutor. The chances of Cates seem to be forgiven in advance. Thanks to the progressive journalist E.K. However, Hornbeck (Kelly, modeled after Henry Mencken), the case draws the attention of top attorney Henry Drummond (Tracy), who once collaborated with Brady. However, the two grew further and further apart. The arrogant Brady suddenly seems a lot less sure of his case when he faces Drummond.
To keep a film that consists of 85 percent legal action interesting, you have to come from a good background. Stanley Kramer knows better than anyone how to deal with such material. ‘Inherit the Wind’ not only has a particularly intriguing theme – the battle between the supporters of the theory of evolution and they believe in the creation story in the Bible is curiously still topical – but Kramer also sets up a number of other (personal) dilemmas . The one between Drummond and Brady, for example. They were once good friends who shared the same goal. But they grew apart because Brady began trotting on his love for the Bible, while Drummond kept his sense of reality. Only one thing is sacred to him: the fact that man is able to form his own ideas and opinions. Kramer further sketches the conflict in Hillsboro by depicting both camps in pretty black and white. The believers are very firm and unshakable in their opinion. At first glance, Kramer takes a somewhat simplistic approach here. But diametrically opposite, he puts the slippery and equally unshakable journalist Hornbeck (excellent, wonderfully cynical role of Gene Kelly, who can now keep his legs still).
In the gray middle area, the divergent points of view meet in the person of Rachel (Donna Anderson), the daughter of the pastor (Claude Akins) and the fiancé of Bert Cates. As the film progresses she learns more and more to rely on her own opinions and ideas and no longer relying solely on what her father tells her. She represents reason together with Drummond. It’s just a shame that Anderson portrays her pretty weak. Certainly with regard to the acting violence of Tracy and March (both of whom are particularly strong), her contribution – which could (and perhaps should) have been very important – falls a bit into nothing. Florence Eldridge, who plays Brady’s devoted wife Sarah, manages to differentiate herself between the unleashed Tracy and March. She is reasonable and comes across as very warm and understanding. Although “Inherit the Wind” is clearly mainly focused on the story, Kramer plays with perspectives here and there to make his film more visually exciting. He is especially close to the characters during the court scenes. The music completes the picture. The traditional gospel “(Gimme Dat) Old Time Religion”, sung by Leslie Uggams, may get on your nerves, but it is particularly appropriate, justifying the choice of that song.
Few directors can handle court drama as well as Stanley Kramer. Although “Inherit the Wind” is not as brilliant as its successor “Judgment at Nuremberg”, Kramer still manages to hit the nail on the head. Not only does he manage to provoke discussion from a thematic point of view, he also dares to emphasize contradictions in his characters. The acting is strong across the board, with the outliers Spencer Tracy and Frederic March who show (again) why they can be counted among the best actors of the twentieth century. “Inherit the Wind” earned four Oscar nominations (best actor for Tracy, best cinematography for Ernest Laszlo, best editing and best adapted script) and there is nothing to be said about that. With “Inherit the Wind”, Kramer delivered a tasty starter before serving his masterful main course “Judgment at Nuremberg”.