Stanley Kramer's Inherit the Wind is the perfect ode to Darwin.
I did a double-take when I read the Telegraph headline “Charles Darwin film too controversial for religious America”. The film in question is the British-made Creation, with Paul Bettany as the legendary naturalist whose theory of evolution gave us the first scientifically rooted explanation for the history of life on our planet. Darwin’s 200th birth anniversary has rightly been celebrated far and wide this year. Yet this biographical film has had trouble finding a US distributor — an astonishing thing to contemplate, even if you’re aware of the extent of Christian fundamentalism in non-metropolitan America. (Polls indicate that fewer than 40 per cent of the US people believe in evolution.)
A friend and I were talking recently about religious intolerance/sensitivity in India probably being greater today than it was 50 years ago, when the country’s most popular Prime Minister was known to be an agnostic. Today, it would be almost unthinkable for a PM to criticise organised religion or the idea of a personal god as sharply as Nehru did in his widely read book Discovery of India.Perhaps the US is seeing a similar “devolution”. Some days ago I re-watched a favourite old film, Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind, about the trial of a schoolteacher arrested for teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. The movie, based on the real-life Scopes Trial of 1925, stars one of Hollywood’s best-loved actors, Spencer Tracy, as a rationalist lawyer who defends the schoolteacher and fiercely challenges literalist interpretations of the Bible. It was made 50 years ago, but in light of recent developments it seems more topical and bolder than ever.
Kramer’s film opens with a dark, visually striking scene, as a group of men silently move across a deserted town square and the soundtrack plays the gospel song “Give Me That Old-Time Religion”, its lyrics a paean to unquestioning belief: That old-time religion / If it was good enough for Joshua, / It’s good enough for me… There’s something menacing about the group — they’re like a sheriff’s posse heading in single file to haul in a notorious criminal. It turns out that this isn’t far from the truth, except that the “criminal” in question is the mild-mannered teacher Bertram Cates, and his crime is explaining Darwin’s theory of the origin of man to his students and encouraging them to think for themselves.
For townsfolk living in America’s “Bible Belt”, such an act is intolerable. It’s also against the law that states that nothing that contradicts the Biblical version of Creation can be taught in a school. The incident draws countrywide attention; the veteran conservative politician Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) is called in to prosecute Cates, while Henry Drummond (Tracy) leads the defence. For the duration of the trial, the town turns into a carnival, with barkers sitting about displaying chained monkeys and handing out placards that say “I’m not descended from no ape!” and “Don’t monkey with us”. (Ironically, this behaviour makes them seem more simian than human.)
Meanwhile, inside the courthouse, the two men go hammer and tongs at each other, and the result is an unbroken stream of powerful dialogue. “Is nothing holy to you?” asks the exasperated Brady at one point. “Yes. The individual human mind,” replies Drummond. “In a child’s power to master the multiplication table, there is more sanctity than in all your shouted ‘amens’ and ‘hosannas’.”
“An idea,” he continues, “is a greater monument than a cathedral.” This perfectly sums up what Darwin was all about. In the bicentenary year of his birth, if you want a quiet way of paying tribute to the man who taught us about the power of original thought, you can do worse than to watch Inherit the Wind.