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.
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 (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.
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.
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?
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.
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