ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Inherit the Wind (1960) Blu Ray & DVD (Eureka!)
Evolution in a Bible Belt town
Stanley Kramer’s film is an adaptation of a play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee which, in itself, was based around the real-life 1925 trial of Tennessee high school teacher John T. Scopes. However, the character names and a few other details have been altered. The play’s fictionalised version of Scopes, Bertram Cates (played by Dick York) is imprisoned at the behest of Rev. Jeremiah Brown (Claude Akins) for teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to his classroom. Since this U.S. Bible Belt town’s fundamentalist version of Christianity firmly believes in the concept of Creationism, his views are considered to be in breach of local laws.
The prosecuting attorney is a flamboyant politician named Matthew Harrison Brady (played by Fredric March) who is greeted with a rapturous parade. He’s an impassioned fire-and-brimstone speaker who looks almost certain to win the case. However, some unexpected help comes Cates’s way in the shape of Chicago newspaper reporter E. K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly), who sees his stand against this bastion of religious conservatism as something of cause célèbre - and, of course, the source of a great story. He hires ace lawyer Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) to defend him in the courtroom.
Amid the circus, two other pieces of human drama play out. Firstly, the Reverend’s daughter Rachel (Donna Anderson) is in love with Cates and finds herself torn between the staunchly unyielding beliefs of both of the men in her life. Secondly, Drummond’s old flame, Sarah (Florence Eldridge) is now married to Brady and while she stands beside the latter, she clearly wants to moderate his ire.
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A gripping courtroom drama
In many ways, Inherit the Wind is comparable to 12 Angry Men (1957) in that it is a filmed version of a play which focuses heavily on a tense courtroom drama - and one where the guilty verdict hangs less on justice in its truest sense of the word, and more on blind ignorance and prejudice. However, whereas the latter remains almost entirely confined to within the four walls of the room where the verdict is being furiously debated, Stanley Kramer’s film broadens the scope out to depict the surrounding milieu of a suffocatingly conforming Bible Belt town.
Inherit the Wind’s uncanny depiction of religious fundamentalism and group dynamics is as truly disquieting and chillingly relevant now as it was then. The opening credits roll over a wordless sequence, accompanied by a version of the Gospel song Old-Time Religion, as Jeremiah Brown and his cohorts stroll purposefully down this little town’s seemingly idyllic streets in the steely manner of gunfighters seeking out a local bandit. However, this tense build-up leads not to a gunfight, but to the arrest of Cates in his own classroom. Brady’s arrival in town is celebrated by an impeccably-choreographed parade of cheery, singing townsfolk which is eerily similar to equivalent displays of ultra-conformity seen in Nazi Germany or North Korea. Another parade, later on, involves the burning of hanging effigies. Not only do these scenes have the cinematic flair to sidestep the play-to-film trap of falling into “staginess”, but they also help to augment the atmosphere of such blinkered group dynamics seeping right into the courtroom itself. This blindly conservative mentality even appears to corrupt the one man in the room who should be remaining impartial - Judge Coffey (Harry Morgan).
Kramer, a director well-known for his liberal “message movies” including The Defiant Ones (1958), On the Beach (1959), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and this one, has often been accused of being unsubtle and preachy by his detractors. On the other hand, one gets the impression nowadays that we, as a human race, still need to be reminded about messages which, in an ideal world, should be obvious to everyone. Religious fundamentalist dogma continues to plague the world today in its many forms, of which the disturbingly ridiculous Creationist theories are amongst the milder examples.
Moreover, the antagonistic characters here, while clearly wrongheaded and, at worst, outright bullies (a classic example being Brady’s brutal verbal dismantling of Rachel in the witness box) are portrayed in a nuanced enough manner to avoid becoming pure one-note villains. For instance, when Jeremiah sobs on his knees in front of a picture of his deceased wife, we can see that his complete submission to blind faith has reduced him to nothing more than a snivelling victim. Even the ruthlessly consummate firebrand that is Brady has a well-meaning side to him: he feels that his flock need something to believe in to help them to cope with their lives. He, too, ends up becoming more a figure of pity than the fearsome lion which he initially appears to be.
The core of the film is so strong because of the powerhouse performances and extended verbal sparring between Tracy’s Henry Drummond (a character modelled on real-life lawyer Clarence Darrow) and March’s Matthew Harrison Brady (based around real-life politician William Jennings Bryan). We genuinely get the feeling of two impassioned, dedicated men fighting tooth-and-nail for their irreconcilable beliefs. However, Gene Kelly turns in a fine piece of supporting work as Hornbeck, who provides a measure of (comparatively) light relief as he regales the other characters with such witty epigrams as:
“Mr. Brady, it is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Although relatively long in terms of runtime (128 minutes), Inherit the Wind never leaves the viewer feeling like it is flagging or spinning its wheels. It makes for courtroom drama at its most tension-laden and provocative.
Runtime: 128 mins
Dir: Stanley Kramer
Script: Nedrick Young, Harold Jacob Smith, from a play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly, Dick York, Donna Anderson, Harry Morgan, Claude Akins, Elliott Reid, Florence Eldridge
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The restoration work here is first rate. The black and white contrast levels are almost faultless, while the dialogue remains clear through the many moments of overlapping talk and full-on shouting.
Interview with Neil Sinyard
Film scholar Sinyard, who ultimately describes Inherit the Wind as Stanley Kramer’s finest hour, takes a look at the film and its real-life historical parallels. As well as being based on the aforementioned 1925 court case it also took a few thinly-veiled jabs at the intolerant climate of McCarthyism. Actor Gene Kelly was “greylisted” for his Liberal Democrat affiliations, meaning that he was forbidden from taking certain roles. Screenwriter Nedrick Young, meanwhile, was blacklisted outright and had to pen it under the pseudonym of Nathan E. Douglas.
It was a controversial film at the time and was picketed in some U.S. states by fundamentalist Christians holding placards bearing such overblown slogans as “Kramer the Antichrist!”. The law upon which the original case was based wasn’t repealed until 1968 and some similar cases have resurfaced from time to time, including one in Pennsylvania in 2005.
A trailer and enclosed booklet round out the extras.
Inherit the Wind is an utterly gripping look at how religious dogma and populist politics can threaten to tip the scales of justice away from reason and open-minded inquiry. A highly recommended watch for, well, pretty much anyone.