The other day I remarked to my Dad how unfortunate that there are still people who completely refuse the idea of evolution and stick by the general idea of “God did it”. I also said that I couldn’t understand why anybody would vote for someone who shares these viewpoints. And then I summed up my viewpoint by saying that we should respect other’s viewpoints, but there’s only so long we can tolerate a flat-out ignorance of scientific fact. It’s appropriate that only a few days later I would end up viewing Inherit The Wind.
Based on the play of the same name by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, the film presents a fictionalized account of the Scopes trial, in which John T. Scopes was put on trial for teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. This is given to us in a same basic story involving a teacher named Bert Cates, who causes an uproar among his fellow town members when he’s arrested for teaching this theory to his class. By the time the trial begins, he’s earned the scorn of the town’s citizens and officials, and this is added to when he’s represented by controversial lawyer Henry Drummond, whom is somewhat notorious for his controversial views on religion. On the prosecuting side is Matthew Brady, former Presidential candidate and avowed Christian. When the separate ideological forces collide, one would expect something quite compelling.
Except, the problem is, when all of these elements come together, the result isn’t all that engaging on either an intellectual or dramatic level. The character of Bert Cates is, for the most part, relegated to the side and isn’t given any real screen time to make him a real character. The film tries to have its cake and eat it too, but it stumbles when it doesn’t decide upon who its main character should be. If they had tried to make this an ensemble piece, it could have been balanced better as I wouldn’t be trying to find a storyline to cling to. The acting is ultimately good, despite the script underscoring the characters they’re all playing. The climactic scene that has an intellectual showdown between Brady and Drummond as the former is questioned on the stand by the latter. It provides more excitement and tension than most big-budget action spectacles. Also faring well in a small role is Claude Akins, as Reverend Jeremiah Brown, who ironically would reverse his stance and prove that Evolution does exist by starring as villain Aldo, leader of the gorilla faction, in the weakest film of the original Planet of the Apes series, Beneath the Planet of the Apes. The rest of the cast, as stated above, is good and the movie also stars Gene Kelly.
Works like Singin’ in the Rain show that Kelly can be a strong actor of the classical type that has sadly disappeared from the screen today. But his performance in this movie is less than exemplary, often coming off like a characterization as opposed to how he should appear, which is not resembling a cartoon character. In fact, that’s an appropriate way to sum up his performance, a cartoon character, since when he first appears on screen, wearing a hat and biting into an apple, I immediately thought of, no hyperbole, Lyle Lanley, voiced by Phil Hartman in one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons entitled “Marge vs. the Monorail” (monorail, monorail, monorail, monorail!). He doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose in the plot other than a form of exposition, which is one of the worst reasons for a character’s existence in any work.
And then there are the townsfolk. As someone who prefers the specifics of science to what I feel are the vague promises of religion, I naturally found myself identifying with the Cates character over the fire and brimstone citizens of Darrow, but their portrayal had me in shock as to how biased the film was towards them. They’re presented as little more than hateful, ignorant pieces of shit when in fact historical records show that this was not how they actually behaved. If you want to color things slightly to present a more dramatic story, that’s fine. But when you take things to such an extreme where you have no way of seeing where the other side is coming from, it takes a lot to pull yourself out of the narrative hole you’ve dug yourself into.
Because of these significant narrative flaws, it would be hard for me to recommend Inherit The Wind. It’s a well made film on a technical level, but the writing feels shallow and poorly outlined. As wrongheaded is it may sound, I gave up on caring about anybody outside of the Cates character, and that was because of my own personal beliefs and not because of anything the story did to service him on an emotional scale. As it stands, the film itself could use some evolving.
What do you think of Inherit The Wind?