Thursday, 26 October 2017

Random thoughts and questions about life

Random thoughts, questions and observations - just for fun

I’d be happy to discuss any reactions or thoughts prompted by the questions and reflections below.

I can be contacted at

Which is the wiser course – to travel to see beauty or to appreciate beauty in what you see?

Where should man seek truth – without or within?

If God is the creator of man and is infinite, where did He get the idea of the finite?

Art is an attempt to encapsulate and share an observation or point of view with beauty and clarity.

An author reveals himself in his writing.

Opportunities should be equal, even if the capacity to take advantage of them is not.                                                                  

When confidence outweighs competence, the consequence can be crisis.

Mutual respect is a basis for harmony.

Everything is subjective.

Time is a man-made construct which does not exist in nature.

Philosophy is a fascinating subject which ultimately achieves nothing, however the method used to philosophise may help achieve something.

Treat a person reasonably, and you create a reasonable person. 

Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone learns from them.

It’s not the length of experience that counts, it’s what you make of it. 

Nationality is an accident of birth.  

Fame means you are known, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are worth knowing.

Recognition of one’s ignorance is essential to the measurement of one’s knowledge.

Careerism is the enemy of professionalism.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Reflections on the nature and resolution of regret

Reflections on the nature and resolution of regret

Regret is a painful reminder of the past that may help guide you in the present.

Regret, guilt and anguish may ultimately be destructive. Regret can become an obsession that colours other (even all) aspects of your life and can prevent you from functioning “normally”. In extreme cases, it can lead to despair and depression, altering your view of life so it is difficult to keep things in proportion or maintain a balanced perspective. Feelings of responsibility and guilt may become overwhelming and prevent you from seeing positive aspects of your character and life.

Regret, however, is not all bad. It suggests intelligence and sensitivity. You may have done, said or felt something you regret, but the very fact you regret it suggests recognition of and a desire to embrace certain values and principles. Mistakes may have been made, but that does not make you worthless, nor does it invalidate positive actions and decisions you have taken in the past and may take in the future. If you feel bad, it is probably because you are good, and you need to recognise that.

To state the obvious, we cannot change the past. If we feel regret, the most we can aspire to is redemption in the form of our future actions. If we learn from our mistakes and channel our feelings of regret into a positive way forward, or learn to see that what we regret may be just one part of a bigger and brighter picture, or even recognise the positive influence our regret may already have had on our conduct, we may appease some of our guilt. Self-forgiveness may not be possible – perhaps we need pain and remorse to help us evolve and to prod us into acts of compassion and understanding, but it may be possible to live with our remorse if we recognise our failures (but also our successes) and set about doing our best in the future.

Stuart Fernie

A poetic comment from Daphne Buckingham:

A lovely offering of peace to the soul. Regret knows its place in the heart. We too often live in such ways that seek to avoid this necessary emotion; therefore we delay our own evolution. That we can feel regret is one of the characteristics that makes us uniquely human. Next, how we respond to it and how we calculate our future actions is key to the responsibility that regret calls up to us. When we take time to listen to the sad music of regret, we allow ourselves the possibility to transcend what is our most humble and ordinary existence. 

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Reflections on "Dunkirk" (2017)

Reflections on “Dunkirk” (2017)
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan,
starring Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy

Watching “Dunkirk” was something of a visceral experience. It felt like more of a participation than a viewing, and I think that was probably Christopher Nolan’s key intention and purpose when planning his film – he wanted his audience to share the experience he is presenting.

Nolan engages the senses of the audience. The movement of the camera and positioning of shots allow us to be involved in the action and to be impressed by sweeping vistas and the sheer scale of the task of evacuation of so many men. Yet he is equally adept at handling intense, confined scenes which allow us to share the immediate experiences of all concerned in the evacuation process. Scenes are built reflecting the fear, hope, safety, loss, destruction, devastation, insecurity, defeat and celebration (survival is the enemy’s failure) of the evacuees and those trying to ensure their evacuation.

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard better use of sound than in this film. It wasn’t just loud, it was sharp, intense, encompassing and heightened the sensations and reactions of the audience so they could virtually feel the sheer power and deadly force of each bullet.

The music (courtesy of Hans Zimmer) became part of the sound experience and enhanced not only the action and the drama, but the very sensations felt by the audience. At one point the steady increase of sound/music and its intensity reflected not just the physical approach of fighter planes and bombers, but an ever more concentrated sense of expectation and imminent danger.

While I understand Nolan’s desire and intentions in showing the same events from different perspectives, emphasising the existential nature of actions and their impact on others (often without realisation), their nonlinear presentation within the ongoing timeline caused some confusion.

Throwing us in at the deep end (having the audience join the action without preamble or explanation) means no meaningful background or exposé of situation or character, so we have no historical overview or perspective (we’re really no further forward in terms of our historical knowledge and understanding by the end of the film), and we have no real opportunity to build emotional ties to any of the characters (beyond sympathy and understanding for their immediate circumstances).

Indeed, this amounts to a certain emotional detachment for virtually all the characters in the film because although we share their awful experiences, there is no construct in the script to allow us to know or care about the characters beyond admiration for their determination and courage, and sympathy for their situation.

The one exception is the young lad on Mark Rylance’s boat who is hurt by the shipwrecked Cillian Murphy. This story within a story seems tagged on and requires greater development – as it is, it just rather tragically fizzles out. These are the only “artificial” scenes in which an emotional situation and response are created and imposed – all other scenes are “natural” and arise from the drama and genuine possibilities of real events which could have applied to any of the evacuees.

So, a worthwhile venture whose strengths in involvement in action and sharing experience bring about a few weaknesses in engagement of emotion and historical context.

My thanks for taking the time to read this page.

Stuart Fernie

Friday, 1 September 2017

Multimedia - a narrowing of horizons?

Multimedia – a narrowing of horizons?

A video presentation of this material is available here.

The internet and modern multimedia offer the gift of global communication and the capacity to share information, knowledge and opinion with virtually everyone on the planet.

These are the most powerful tools for the development and spread of education, culture and thought the world has known, yet in many nations general standards of education are slipping, general knowledge is on the wane and social skills are in decline.

How can it be that these stupendous technological aids have produced seemingly negative effects along with the plethora of positive aspects of their implementation?
I think the answer is choice.

The pre-internet and multimedia generations had few TV channels and experienced relatively rigid programming and timing. Children’s programmes were restricted to certain times and days, as were news, current affairs, light entertainment and religious programmes. This meant that as a young man, I was “forced” to watch programmes that did not necessarily appeal to me, but which (in retrospect) I realise contributed to my general knowledge, personal development and understanding of people, the world and its values. I watched serious current affairs programmes such as “World in Action” or “Panorama” (focusing on political, legal and social issues), light documentary shows such as “Whicker’s World” (investigating many aspects of modern life across the world) and social dramas such as “Sam”, “A Family at War” and “When The Boat Comes In” (all dealing with the fabric of society). I would never have opted to look at such programmes, but there were few alternatives and the thought of turning off the television never entered my head.

A further result of the lack of choice was that watching these programmes became a shared and social experience. Friends, family and colleagues were in the same position and this led to discussion and the sharing of opinion the following day, compounding whatever informative, educational or thought-provoking effect the programme itself might have had.

Compare this to the situation today, where viewers have the choice of a multitude of TV channels, internet sites, YouTube and online gaming. The young can easily opt out of informative and potentially character-developing programming in favour of entertainment, music on tap or endless series inviting their audiences to share personal details of private lives and possibly encouraging admiration of a descent into backstabbing, public bickering and humiliation – all in the name of “entertainment” and the advancement of fame and notoriety.

Why would the young opt in to something demanding and even difficult when something less challenging and more accessible is more readily available and probably better publicised?

At the dawn of the televisual age, and in its early development, opportunities in this new field encompassing entertainment, education and information attracted the most enterprising, talented and skilled candidates in their disciplines. In general, these were people who didn’t just burn with a desire for fame and glory, but who had original ideas, talent and had something to offer or say. They saw this new medium as a means of sharing their views and vision.

It appears that many involved in modern programming are driven less by vision and integrity and more by ego and ambition to succeed in personality-driven television, often taking minimal talent the maximum distance.

Of course, there are still many high-quality programmes and contributions from individuals, but given the exponential increase in channels, programming and the media in general, I think it is probably fair to say standards have been diluted in proportion with the vast increases in demand to fill schedules.

Quite apart from the ailing quality of some programmes and the resultant lack of challenge and thought, the sheer vastness of choice means viewing is now a greatly fragmented experience. In choosing what suits individual mood, character and preference, viewers may have less of a common experience to discuss with friends, family and colleagues. There is less to unite us in one to one conversation, discussion and debate. Indeed, discussion tends to take place online as individuals post comments and opinion aimed at the anonymous masses. Even sharing a reaction has become less sociable.

In terms of communication and research (where possibilities are virtually endless), there is a tendency to restrict oneself to a group of like-minded friends or individuals, potentially bolstering and entrenching belief systems and avoiding challenge and debate. It has become easy to opt out of or avoid topics and ideas that don’t appeal, and this attitude seems to extend even to education where students may be tempted to drop a subject if they encounter a level of difficulty they find uncomfortable. Stamina and determination are to be encouraged, but they are ill-served by the expectation that quick and easily accessible solutions should be available on the internet, and if they aren’t available it’s easier to give up than to work out your own solution.

Increased consultation of the internet seems to have brought about a certain lack of respect for knowledge (both on the part of students and some educators) as it is felt that information can be accessed on the internet, used for a short time, and then jettisoned (and sought again if required later on). This seems to be a rather short-sighted approach, however, for if knowledge is limited or not retained, students will fail to make connections with other facts or information (a process which is the basis of intelligence), and this will reduce both understanding and the capacity to understand, and will thus limit the ability to develop and grow.

Of course, substance and integrity still exist within all this choice, variety and diversity. We simply need to ensure we exercise judgement and control over the choices we make in order to make the most of the extraordinary opportunities afforded us by these technological marvels, but in order to do that, we must first be aware of the potential side-effects of our modern multimedia.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

I can be contacted at

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Reflections on Kevin Costner's film of "Dances With Wolves"

Reflections on “Dances With Wolves”,
directed by Kevin Costner, written by Michael Blake,
starring Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell and Graham Greene

A video presentation of this page is available here 

“Dances With Wolves” starts with a battle in the American Civil War during which Lt. John Dunbar is badly wounded and is due to have his foot amputated. Rather than face the pain and (as he sees it) degradation of this life-changing amputation, he sets out to face his enemy one last time in a vain attempt to secure death. Although he fails in his mission, he inspires others to action, victory is gained and he is rewarded with foot-saving surgery and his choice of a new posting (he opts for the Western frontier). Thus begins Dunbar’s great adventure and transformation.

The Civil War, apart from being the catalyst for Dunbar’s future life, may also be viewed as the encapsulation of the breakdown of the society Dunbar has grown up with, with men no longer able to live together without dispute and the eruption of violence over issues such as race, creed, colour, social standing and social structure.

Dunbar is clearly a man of honour, dignity, principle and courage, and we see him react to personal circumstances rather than out of political or social motivation. While he has fought out of a sense of duty (doubtless in common with many of his fellow soldiers), he is keen to turn his back on conflict and what has become of “civilisation” to set off west and explore the frontier (and his own character and nature).

As he heads west we are treated to panoramic views of wide open spaces and beautiful vistas. Nature (in all its forms) is a recurring and pervasive theme – Dunbar is visibly more at ease and relaxed as he distances himself from “civilisation”, and he regularly expresses admiration for the beauty around him, even gently stroking the long grass during a break in his journey. This respect and admiration will also be displayed through his relationship with various animals, repeated inclusion of images of water, land and trees, and of course man’s natural tendency toward society and friendship where these are allowed to develop untroubled by bias, jealousy, ego and ambition.

The farther Dunbar leaves behind civilisation, the more “natural” he becomes, though there are reminders of the effect and influence of the society he has left behind in the form of his rather uncouth and dismissive driver (who is harmless enough, but has failed to appreciate and embrace his surroundings as Dunbar appears to do). And then there is the outpost commander who simply cannot cope in the face of the spare and difficult living conditions imposed by nature.

Once Dunbar arrives at his isolated fort, survival and development become his priority – he establishes himself through sheer hard work and effort and is pleased with the progress he makes. He leaves behind the conflict, social ambition, greed and selfishness associated with society and there is a steady lessening of military mentality and protocol embodied by his gradual abandonment of uniform (he is entirely naked at his first encounter with Kicking Bird, surely suggesting Kicking Bird sees the man and not what he represents within the framework of society).

As he abandons military structure and conventions and he becomes increasingly self-reliant, he learns to appreciate the loyalty and friendship of his horse Cisco. He also develops a relationship with a wolf he names Two Socks, eventually gaining enough of the wolf’s trust to allow him to feed the wolf by hand, demonstrating not just his respect and admiration for nature but also his willingness and desire to work with it.

Through respect and consideration developed in his isolation, and by focusing on essentials rather than on social conventions, Dunbar learns to be at one with the land and wild life, and this attitude extends to social interaction.

The story of the evolution of Dunbar’s relationship with the Sioux may be somewhat idealised, but it displays and underlines the potential for good relations and friendship between people when this is based on mutual respect, understanding and tolerance, and when focus is maintained on what they have in common rather than what divides them.

Both Dunbar and the Sioux are wary and defensive on their first encounters, but neither resorts to violence and each shows respect for the other, though that trait is not necessarily shared by everyone. Dunbar’s driver was dismissive of all Indians, but Dunbar’s first impression of Kicking Bird (who is seen stroking the long grass in exactly the same way as Dunbar did earlier) is that he is a “magnificent looking fellow”, while the Sioux talk of white men in disparaging terms, but Kicking Bird respects Dunbar as he showed no fear at their first meeting. There are clearly similarities in character and attitude between Dunbar and Kicking Bird, despite having been brought up in apparently vastly different cultures.

We discover that Dunbar and the Sioux share the same core values, share adherence to similar familial and social structures, and share a closeness to nature. Dunbar’s first view of the Sioux encampment suggests beauty, peace, tranquillity and above all else, a oneness with nature with tepees set up next to a fast-flowing river, surrounded by green plains and alive with the hubbub of people happily going about their business of getting by.

Communication is achieved first through mime and then through language as Dunbar’s curiosity and willingness to learn enable him to gradually adopt the language of his friends. He does not insist on English or try to impose his culture on the Sioux. Rather, he adapts to a life and culture he finds appealing. Language is seen as nothing more than a tool (as opposed to a symbol of authority imposed on others), and loyalty to formative education and social influences can be abandoned in favour of something more personally satisfying and enriching.

Stand With A Fist (or Christine) has also adapted to her circumstances. Originally kidnapped by some Pawnee as a child after a massacre, Stands With A Fist accepted her lot, adapted and evolved, finding happiness and fulfilment with the Sioux, marrying, and even contemplating suicide after the death of her husband. She demands respect and within the Sioux social structure, she receives it.

As Dunbar shares experiences, adventures and life-threatening situations with the Sioux, he becomes an integral part of their community (and vice-versa), cemented by his romantic involvement with Stands With A Fist and his ever-increasing use of Lakota, the Sioux language. Belonging is not necessarily restricted to birth, but can be brought about by action and conviction. When Dunbar (who has been given the name Dances With Wolves due to his friendly interaction with Two Socks) marries Stands With A Fist in an Indian ceremony and in Lakota, his transformation is complete and he has abandoned his former life. He has found people who share his values, share his respect and admiration for nature and who, above all, are willing to share their lives with him. He is happy to leave behind his former existence in favour of a simpler yet more profoundly satisfying existence based principally on an appreciation and acceptance of nature.

Of course this idyll in isolation cannot last – the basis of drama is conflict and Dances With Wolves must face his past and his former culture.

Reinforcements reach Dunbar’s outpost and Dances With Wolves realises he has left behind his highly detailed (and lovingly maintained) journal of his experiences (and transformation), a journal that could provide potentially devastating information about the Sioux if it were to fall into the wrong hands. Dances With Wolves therefore sets off to retrieve it.

Dressed in Indian clothing, Dances With Wolves is captured, beaten and chained, and is to be transported to Fort Hayes for hanging as a traitor. The contrast between the conduct and attitudes of the soldiers and those shown by Dunbar on course to his transformation could not be more striking and informative. At the same time as underlining how far Dunbar has come in his sojourn out West, the conduct and attitudes of the soldiers do much to explain his desire to leave behind “civilisation”.

In contrast to Dunbar’s hesitant and wary, yet curious, respectful and positive initial meetings with the Sioux, the first reaction of the military is to fire upon their “enemy”, thoughtlessly killing Cisco in the process (in total contrast to the mutually meaningful development of friendship and loyalty between Dunbar and Cisco).

Dunbar’s lovingly kept history of his evolution is discovered by illiterate, immature and distinctly unprofessional young soldiers who proceed to use its pages as toilet paper, once more emphasising the distance between Dances With Wolves/Dunbar and his former colleagues who appear to be unwilling to entertain customs or cultures outside their own.

As Dances With Wolves is being transported for hanging, his captors spot Two Socks (loyally following his friend) and, purely for their own indulgence, they take undisciplined pot shots at him until he is fatally wounded, again in complete contrast with the patient development of trust and friendship between Dunbar and Two Socks, and Dunbar’s determined attempts to be at one with nature.

Dances With Wolves is saved by his Sioux friends who attack his captors with vigour and pride. They are fired by a sense of righteousness and moral outrage while the decidedly uninspired young soldiers defend themselves, but through fear and without conviction or belief in their cause.

This battle takes place in the middle of a river (an image of nature used frequently in the film) which may symbolise the flow of nature and constant change. Dances With Wolves enters the river on one side and leaves it on the other, a different man with no chance of going back. If his transformation was complete before, he has now broken all ties with his past. As though to emphasise this, there is a shot of his journal (containing the story of his life) floating away down river – the past is gone, now he must think of the future.

The film concludes with the departure of Dances With Wolves and Stands With A Fist in order to protect the rest of the tribe from vengeful action by the soldiers who continue to pursue Dances With Wolves/Dunbar.

There is much sadness as all are prevented from seeing out a peaceful and natural destiny due to the imposition of one culture on another. Much is made of being remembered and appreciation of the influence of friends on one’s life, and ultimately there is, I suppose, little more one can hope for.
“Dances With Wolves” is a rare feat in that it manages to combine poetic content with an engrossing storyline. The achingly human tale of John Dunbar’s transformation into Dances With Wolves is brilliantly told with beautiful photography, excellent pace and stunning music which captures the sweep and elegance of the surroundings while at the same time expressing the feelings of the characters. Huge kudos to Kevin Costner for managing to create such a heart-warming yet thought-provoking film, especially with liberal doses of humour mixed with the pathos.

Additional notes

After recently viewing “Dances With Wolves” for the first time in years, it struck me that the splendid photography and sweeping shots of stunning scenery merited investment in a Blu-Ray disc. As I picked up the disc in a local store, I looked along the row of Westerns and spotted "The Searchers", a film I’ve long admired. With both discs in hand, I realised both westerns were influenced by the Civil War, involved kidnap victims and solitary central figures involved with Indians. In my head, I sought other areas that might be worthy of comparison and quickly came to the conclusion that actually, “Dances With Wolves” is virtually the antithesis of “The Searchers”. While that term might be a bit strong, there are several points of diversity and contrast:

In “The Searchers”, Ethan remains virtually the same throughout the film – his character is examined and reasons for his mindset are only hinted at or alluded to. Much of the interpretation of his character remains in the mind of the viewer, but Ethan is very much an anti-hero who doesn’t really develop in the course of the film. We see the same dogged determination tinged with hints at personal trauma in a variety of situations, but it is his unwavering resolution that makes him admirable and useful.

In “Dances With Wolves”, on the other hand, John Dunbar develops, evolves and adapts almost constantly, and his reactions and reflections are shared with the audience so we can follow the various stages in his transformation. Dunbar is also undoubtedly heroic – his attitudes and actions are clearly intended to be inspirational.

Where Ethan is single-minded and reduces life to a single purpose, Dunbar is open-minded and desires new experiences.

Ethan is profoundly disgruntled and disappointed in life (and may have indulged in criminal activity) while Dunbar remains principled and generally positive, even idealistic.

In “The Searchers” there is no real exploration of Indian culture (beyond what helps them in their search for Ethan’s niece). The only Indian we really get to know is Scar, who is just as damaged as Ethan. In “Dances With Wolves” there is total exploration. Kicking Bird is as open as Dunbar and is as ready and willing to learn as Dunbar.

Ethan eventually finds the kidnapped Debbie and returns her to civilisation, while Dunbar meets Stands With A Fist and joins her in an attempt to get away from “civilisation”.

Stands With A Fist adapted and developed within Sioux culture, unlike the vision of the insane kidnappees presented in “The Searchers”.

Society is presented in the form of homely, hard-working and principled homesteaders in “The Searchers”, while Dunbar finds his militaristic society prejudiced, bigoted and uninspiring.

At the end of “The Searchers”, Ethan is virtually shunned by those he has supported, while Dances With Wolves and Stands With A Fist opt to leave their friends in order to protect them, much to the chagrin of their fellow tribesmen.

I do not necessarily contend that Michael Blake (author of “Dances With Wolves”) set out to produce a work which contrasted so markedly with Alan Le May’s “The Searchers”, but I do consider that comparison of the two works offers a valid and rich source of discussion.

My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value.
I can be contacted at .


Stuart Fernie

Friday, 17 February 2017

Reflections on characters and themes in "Inherit the wind"

Reflections on “Inherit the Wind”,
produced and directed by Stanley Kramer,
script by Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith
(based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee),
starring Spencer Tracy, Fredric March and Gene Kelly.

A video presentation of this material is available here. 


The film (1960) and the play before it (1955) are based on the Scopes Trial (commonly known as the Scopes Monkey Trial) of 1925 in which a young teacher of science (John T. Scopes) was brought to trial for teaching the principles of evolution, thus infringing the recently passed Butler Act which forbade the denial of the Biblical account of the creation of life in state-run schools.

Although the film is generally faithful to the events, arguments and spirit of the trial, with Matthew Brady replacing William Jennings Bryan (former Secretary of State and three times presidential candidate) who prosecuted Scopes, and Henry Drummond taking the place of Clarence Darrow (noted lawyer and member of the American Civil Liberties Union) who defended him, there are some notable differences.

The trial was envisaged (indeed concocted) by some dignitaries of the town of Dayton in 1925 as a means of drawing attention to their community and thus earning some cash. These dignitaries approached Scopes to volunteer to be accused, though he wasn’t even certain he had actually taught the principles of evolution as he simply followed the course book provided for him by the state (information courtesy of Wikipedia).

There was no rabid preacher and no romance between his daughter and Cates (who replaces Scopes) and, given the nature of Scopes’s initial involvement and the fact he was never actually incarcerated, it is unlikely there were any burning effigies or threats of hanging. Sadly, William Jennings Bryan did die, but some five days after the end of the trial.

Clearly, changes and embellishments were made for the sake of dramatic engagement, and these changes serve largely to clarify the arguments and the potential impact of the monumental clash of principles and standpoints on display in the film.

The film and main characters

The film opens with a meeting of local dignitaries (town office bearers, civic leaders and businessmen) who are discussing whether or not to prosecute teacher Bert Cates for violating the Butler Act by teaching the principles of evolution. Some react against the challenging ideas of Darwinism and want to uphold the status quo, and some want to bend with the wind of change. However, all factions are united by the prospect of financial, political and social gain for themselves and for the town as they realise the extent of national interest likely to be aroused by the legal case they are proposing, especially if none other than Matthew Brady (devout politician who has run for the presidency three times) is willing to conduct the case for the prosecution as he will attract even more attention and publicity.

It is clear, then, from the outset that although we are dealing with high principles (boiling down to the place of God and science in society), smaller minds are happy to take advantage of the situation for more immediately secular gratification.

Before meeting the two representatives of the opposing sides of the argument (Brady, against the teaching of evolution and pro-Creationism, and Drummond, in favour of science as a means of attaining truth, and opposed to blind faith and Creationism), we are introduced to Hornbeck (based on journalist Henry Mencken), a reporter whose newspaper is paying for Cates’s defence.


Hornbeck (played by Gene Kelly) is a wise-cracking cynic who pours scorn on religious fervor and seems to hold the town’s stance (staunchly conservative and in favour of Creationism) in no high regard. He is intelligent, educated, eloquent and knows his Bible, but he is disillusioned and playful with almost everyone as he gently mocks nearly every adopted stance. Every walk of life is likely to fall victim to his cutting, if often insightful, remarks as he has perceived guileful manipulation of events and self-seeking promotion in the stories he has covered. He may, however, have an underlying respect for truth, justice and idealism (he tells Cates and his fiancée Rachel that he is on their side and chides Rachel for her position that teachers should deliver lessons they are instructed to teach, championing fresh ideas and original thought), but he is only too aware of the selfish posturing of people in authority and the mindless rejection of evidence and fact by the faithful. His outlook appears to have been soured by his encounters and his experience, and he copes by treating all situations with humour as he perceives apparent absurdity in them all.

Apart from providing some comic relief, Hornbeck may also serve to keep the viewer “grounded”. His remarks can deflate the occasionally haughty arguments and defuse potential conflict, and they remind us quickly and entertainingly of an alternative view of things.

Bert Cates

The character of Bert Cates, although clearly essential, can be viewed as little more than a catalyst, certainly within the courtroom. He is a principled and upstanding nice guy who makes a stand and wavers only once but is fairly easily persuaded to maintain his position as his relatively minor crime is seized upon, magnified and used by forces well beyond his normal domain for their own ends.

He is of more interest in terms of his relationship with Rachel Brown, though once again the changes he inspires in her character may be viewed as of greater interest than his own.

He comes into his own in his conflict with the Reverend Brown when he refuses to accept the Reverend’s heartless pronouncement on the fate of the soul of young Bobby Stebbins who drowned in a tragic accident. As a result of his disagreement, Cates abandoned the Church (though not God, according to Rachel) and this displays far more strength of character and a willingness to think challenging and independent thoughts than merely teaching a “questionable” lesson in a book. As such, he inspires interest, admiration and support that he had perhaps lacked up to that point, and with this storyline he makes a real contribution to the themes of the piece.

Reverend Brown

Reverend Brown (an invention for the play/film) represents an extreme of religious fervour. His “fire and brimstone” approach to faith involves rabble-rousing, incitement to hatred and violence, cursing his own daughter, and a refusal to admit challenge or a differing point of view. Rather than Christian love, he inspires Old Testament fear in his own daughter who, out of blind respect, obedience and even a degree of brain-washing, is tempted to deny her own instincts and turn away from her fiancé, Bert Cates. When questioned and confronted by his daughter, he speaks directly to God and refuses to enter into a discussion with her.

The Reverend Brown’s faith in the Bible and the dogma of the Church are such that he declared that a young lad who drowned in a tragic accident would burn in the fires of Hell because he was not baptised. Bert Cates could not accept this and challenged the Reverend’s whole perception of religion, suggesting it should offer consolation, comfort and hope in times of despair, rather than condemnation. This situation also leads to the beginning of a rift with his daughter Rachel who comes to share Bert’s view of a kinder, gentler and less dogmatic religion, and who tries to broach the subject with her father only to be shunned and ignored.

The creation of Reverend Brown provides dramatic impetus (both in terms of his relationship with Bert Cates and a more emotionally charged reason for pursuing him to court, and in terms of his terribly flawed and restricted relationship with his daughter), but it also provides a picture of religious extremism – the possible result of blind and total faith which denies challenge, interpretation, thought or humanity.

Rachel Brown

Few of the characters evolve as such in the course of the film – there is exposition of position and a deepening understanding of their natures, but in terms of character development, Rachel Brown is one of the most interesting characters due to the change she undergoes during the film.

At the start, she is a meek and timid girl who does not truly understand her fiancé’s stance (more or less denouncing him), and we discover she is downright fearful of her father. We realise the position she espoused vis-à-vis Cates is the result of her father’s black-and-white view of life, but she has been influenced by time spent with Cates and especially the conflict of views over the fate of young Bobby Stebbins, and her rejection by her father when she tries to reason with him causes her to doubt not just the validity of his stance with regard to Bobby Stebbins, but his position on religion and life in general.

When the Reverend goes overboard and tries to incite a crowd to violence, and then curses his daughter for consorting with Cates, she is “saved” by Brady who offers a voice of moderation and reason, calming the crowd and encouraging Rachel to confide in him. She recounts the story of Bobby Stebbins and Cates’s reaction and it is clear she shares Cates’s condemnation of her father’s hard-line mode of religious interpretation. She pulls away from her father’s influence to become an independent thinker, believing in a gentler and kinder interpretation of Christianity, but without accepting Cates’s view either – she will not go so far as to accept evolution. This represents a genuine evolution in her character and demonstrates the advantages of the freedom of thought advocated by Drummond.

When Brady puts her on the stand and tries to manipulate her evidence about Cates and his abandonment of the Church to his advantage, Rachel is terribly upset and disappointed by Brady’s abuse of her confidence and his attempt to twist her evidence. This exploitation of her trust may push her farther down the road of disillusion, self-reliance and independent thought, while it also reveals a darker and more desperate side of Brady’s character.

Matthew Brady

From the outset, Matthew Brady seeks and enjoys the attention and publicity surrounding the case. In a deliberate (and at times undignified) campaign of promotion for the case, Brady not only participates in the veritable circus atmosphere, but is more than willing to take on the role of ring-master. Speaking loudly, forcefully and at every opportunity in defence of faith over reason and denying the importance of knowledge, Brady is something of a rabble-rouser who encourages people to be pleased with themselves and the status quo, and reject science and the challenges it brings with it. Of course, there is no substance to his “arguments” – he merely insists upon the traditional view of morality and standards and suggests that science and knowledge may actually erode the values by which people live, encouraging them to view advances in knowledge as harmful and to be viewed with suspicion. He depends largely on his personal charm and presence, resembling a dynamic and spirited evangelist trying to drum up support for his cause.

Because of his constant performance and his good-humoured attempts to ingratiate himself with the crowd and manipulate their feelings, one wonders if he is as sincere as he might be. He appears to be seizing an opportunity to promote himself as much as the cause he purports to represent.

Presumably used to winning arguments and debates with less charismatic and self-assured speakers (which he would expect to face in the small town of Hillsboro), he is visibly shaken when he discovers he will face Henry Drummond, “the most agile legal mind of the twentieth century” (according to Hornbeck, whose paper has hired Drummond). Brady’s reaction, though slightly comical, reveals something of the man behind the act and suggests he is indeed producing (and maybe even living) a performance. He may be less sure of himself than we imagine.

Brady and Drummond are good friends and have known one another for years, suggesting society can survive even profound differences of opinion. Late in the film there is a lovely scene in which they hold a discussion while swinging in rocking chairs (moving in different times to represent differing rhythms of life). Brady shares that he sees religion as offering hope, and in response Drummond recounts a tale of an idealised rocking horse he coveted as a boy and was sorely disappointed by the poor-quality reality once it became his. He contends that hope is not worth it if it requires ignorance, bigotry and hate in order to be maintained. While Brady affirms faith in his convictions, Drummond seeks and supports tangible truth and evidence.

Brady continues to “grandstand”, whether it be in court or at a meal, currying favour with the courtroom audience or pontificating for the benefit of reporters.

However, while attending a meeting called by Reverend Brown at which he tries to incite violence and curses his own daughter, Brady intervenes to preach forgiveness and defuses the situation. Rachel turns to Brady as the embodiment of Christian values and confides to him why Cates abandoned the Church and has an ongoing disagreement with her father. Unfortunately, later in court Brady tries to use Rachel’s information for his own ends, causing severe upset to the devout and sincere Rachel, and revealing himself to be less high-minded and ethical than he might have appeared. In desperation to bring Cates into disrepute and to win his case, Brady resorts to verbal bullying of Rachel on the stand, which is frowned upon by all present.

Brady has been reduced to attempted character assassination because his attempts to prevent the proving of the validity of the theory of evolution (experts were not allowed to provide evidence) and defend the Biblical version of the creation of life have failed:

Unable to call witnesses in defence of the validity of Darwinism, Drummond is forced to seek weaknesses in the Biblical version of creation. He calls Brady himself as an expert on the Bible to the stand, and through a number of questions (the original courtroom exchange lasted two hours), Drummond is able to cast doubt on the Biblical version due to inherent omissions, internal contradictions and what are now seen (due to accepted scientific knowledge and understanding) as impossibilities. Drummond then pushes Brady into conceding that man should be free and allowed to think, suggesting that God had perhaps spoken to Darwin (Drummond initially wanted to pursue a theory that Darwinism and Genesis may not be irreconcilable, but as Brady had no knowledge of Darwin’s book, this was abandoned), whereupon Brady claims God speaks to him and he is God’s messenger, suggestions which lead to loss of confidence and even derision in the public gallery.

An excess of faith can lead to delusion, and many who profess a faith in God can confuse this with faith in themselves.

Somewhat crushed at losing this argument and at least some of his standing in the community as a result of this and his bullying of Rachel, Brady hopes to redeem himself with a final flourish in the form of a powerful summing-up, but he is denied this chance due to legal technicalities. Incensed by the situation, Brady starts to spout his speech anyway at the end of the trial, but is largely ignored. Overwhelmed, Brady collapses and dies, leaving the question of his sincerity unanswered. Did he participate in this circus merely for his own ends, seeing the case as an opportunity to relaunch his flagging career? Did he genuinely seek to defend the validity of Genesis? Was his collapse due to loss of face and standing which his ego could not bear, or was it due to his strength of feeling and his desire to defend the place of God in our society?

Henry Drummond

Just as Matthew Brady stands for faith and the maintenance of the status quo, so Henry Drummond represents advances in science, education and the development of free thought (at one point Brady’s wife states Brady has stayed still while Drummond has moved on). Drummond is the voice of reason whose guiding principle is the pursuit of truth. For Drummond, this case is not just about evolution versus Genesis, it is about the right to be different, the right to think and the right to express those thoughts.

According to Drummond, an idea is greater than a cathedral and the advance of knowledge is a greater miracle than any in the Bible, but the cost of such ideas and knowledge (which Drummond is willing to pay) is the abandonment of faith (or, as he has it, frightening people with a fable).

Drummond and Brady are very different characters and there is a considerable contrast in their personalities and style. While Brady arrives with great fanfare and loves being the centre of attention, Drummond arrives quietly and humbly by bus and is met by Hornbeck alone. When Brady dines grandly and holds court surrounded by representatives of the media, Drummond eats alone and very simply. While Brady ingratiates himself with the local populace and the public in the courtroom, Drummond suggests the community is an insult to the world and states he wishes to withdraw from the case because he feels his client has already been found guilty due to the narrow-mindedness and bigotry of the local inhabitants.

Drummond’s purpose is relatively simple – he is there to champion truth and defend/protect the advancement of knowledge and understanding. In order to do so, he sets out to establish that evolution is perfectly reasonable and that the law (in the form of the Butler Act) is at fault and is not justifiable as it effectively impedes education.

One of the principal purposes of education is to gain knowledge (as well as the skills that allow the accumulation and processing of such knowledge, including reasoning and thinking). If individuals are to achieve independence and dignity (further purposes of education), then knowledge, thoughts and opinions should be freely available so individuals can draw their own conclusions. All positions in an argument should be justifiable and should be open to doubt and question. After all, one cannot be sure one is right if one doesn’t admit the possibility of being wrong. If a stance cannot be justified, or if it collapses in the face of reasonable challenge, it may indeed be wrong.

Drummond sets out to prove the basis in reason and fact of evolution, but he is dogged by bigotry and intransigence – there is a sign saying “Read your Bible” above the entrance of the court, the judge announces a prayer meeting at the end of a session, there are public marches threatening violence and Drummond’s highly respected men of science (called to act as witnesses for the validity of the theory of evolution and therefore support its inclusion in the education programme) are rejected as irrelevant to the case. Drummond is accused of putting the law on trial rather than defend his client, and that is indeed what he attempts to do, in order to defend his client.

Unable to adequately defend evolution, Drummond is forced to try to cast doubt on the validity of Genesis and calls Brady to the stand as an “expert” on the Bible. At first the fundamental incompatibility of faith and reason prevents Drummond from making any progress (one need not justify beliefs based on faith, only maintain them as the faithful may simply deny the consequences of reason, as does Brady when he claims God can do anything he pleases). However, by use of reason and by appealing to accepted rules of science, Drummond identifies sufficient internal contradictions and physical impossibilities in Genesis to fluster Brady, and he coerces him into admitting that man should have the right to think and therefore develop his theories and knowledge of himself and his world.

When pushed about the nature of the Bible, Drummond willingly accepts it is a good book, but adds it is not the only book – there are other ways of looking at things. Man cannot live by faith alone, though he does not suggest he should do without it, entirely. Indeed, at the end of the film when Drummond is tidying away his things, he picks up both a copy of Darwin’s work on evolution and a copy of the Bible, perhaps suggesting that man is a physical and spiritual being and that while neither book may contain all the answers, much can be learned from both.

Before this, however, Drummond has an exchange with Hornbeck whose sneering cynicism has rankled him. Drummond reveals a sneaking regard for faith and denounces Hornbeck’s insistence on believing in nothing. For Drummond, it is better to believe in something than nothing, and he may even have a little faith himself (or at least he finds the notion appealing). It appears man cannot live by science and knowledge alone.

The decision of the jury is that Cates is guilty as charged. Given the circumstances and the fact that he did, in fact, break the law, there was surely never any real doubt as to the legal outcome. However, the judge goes on to impose a very moderate sentence, fining Cates just $100. So, while the principle of the Butler Act is maintained, its impact is greatly diminished. The judge’s ruling appears to recognise the inevitability of change and the eventual abandonment of the principle behind the Butler Act. That said, it was finally repealed only in 1967 in face of concerns over comparison of education programmes in other nations, especially Russia, and the increasing separation of religion and public education.

The script (and I’m afraid I don’t know to what extent the original play was adapted by the screen writers) is remarkably literate and engaging given the potentially dry and academic premise. Sincere and rousing proclamations of faith are countered by concise and insightful arguments and observations. Each character makes a contribution to the whole, and in addition to dramatic exposition which helps develop and clarify the conflicting positions, the authors manage to inject a reasonable amount of humour to make the whole more palatable and entertaining.

Of course, the intention of the authors of the play was to draw parallels with McCarthyism (the Cold War was at its height in the 1950s and there was a movement to protect America and its perceived values from potential communist infiltration which led to something of a witch-hunt of left-wing authors, or those who offered any challenge to the political and social status quo), and defend the right of citizens to think and express views that might be at odds with the accepted political and social values.

A few of the performances may be a little staid or stagy by comparison to modern standards, but all acquit themselves well, and the towering performances by Spencer Tracy and Fredric March make it worth watching by themselves. Each brings humanity, complexity, sincerity and wiliness to his role, and each brings just enough knowing humour to allow relief from the intensity and high drama of major scenes.

Stanley Kramer manages to inject life and interest into almost every scene and treats his audience with respect and intelligence as he (and the writers) transform what is fundamentally an intellectual argument into an emotionally engaging piece of entertainment, the theme of which is as relevant today as it was at the time of production and at the time of the trial itself.

My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value.

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Stuart Fernie