It is sad and a bit puzzling that, 80 years after the events that inspired this film, the battle is still going on. In 2005, almost six years into the 21st Century, numerous school district all over this country are attempting to insert the dubious concept of intelligent design into biology textbooks. Despite claims that it represents an alternative theory to Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution, the primary intellectual thrust of intelligent design never seems to extend past the same anti-evolutionism that led to the passage of the Butler Act which precipitated the actual Scopes Trial.
Inherit the Wind, both this film and especially the original 1955 play on which it was based, were not meant to give a historical account of the Scopes but rather to use it as an allegory for the Red Scare era. Even so, playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee used the trial transcript for much of their in court dialogue, so the scenes that focus on the trial itself stay close to the historical record.
In the film, high school biology teacher Darren Stephens, I mean Bertram Cates (Dick York) is arrested in his class room for violating the state law against teaching evolution. The case attracts one of the most vociferous opponents of evolution, two-time Presidential candidate and populist hero Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) to assist the prosecution. At the behest of Baltimore newsman E. K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly in a rare non-musical role), world-famous defense attorney Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) to defend Cates. Of course, Cates is really John T. Scopes, Brady is William Jennings Bryan, Drummond is Clarence Darrow and Hornbeck is H. L. Mencken. Changing the names allowed the playwright to take the necessary liberties with the facts to make their point.
The play and film veer from the facts primarily at the beginning. John Scopes was never actually arrested. When the Butler Act was passed, the ACLU went looking for a test case to challenge the law. The city fathers of Dayton, Tennessee, coveting the publicty that the case would bring to their town, talked Scopes into volunteering to stand trial. All the participants in the case, from Darrow and Bryan on down, knew that a conviction was a forgone conclusion and necessary to appeal the constitutionality of the Butler Act. Also, Scopes did not have a girlfriend at the time, much less the pretty daughter (Donna Anderson) of the local preacher (Claude Akins).
Fidelity to the facts aside, Inherit the Wind is a powerful, well-made film. Spencer Tracy, Fredric March and Gene Kelly all create indelible performances worthy of the larger-than-life figures that inspired them. The message of the film, tolerance for intellectual freedom, is as relevant today as it was in 1925 and 1955.
I think that the actual events of the Scopes Trial would still make for an interesting film, should anyone decide to make it. In the meantime, the Pulitzer-winning book Summer of the Gods by Edward J. Larson is a superb account of the trial.