Sunday, February 14, 2016
Inherit the Wind
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
This 1960 film from producer/director Stanley Kramer based on the 1925 Scopes Monkey trial conveys its relevance to the present in the title, which comes from the Bible. In Proverbs, it basically says that he who troubles his own house shall inherit the wind – that is one gains nothing. The movie implies that the United States is the “house” in this story, and the trouble comes from the split between fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible, and Darwin’s theory of evolution. The war between science and religion has been waged recently, with the attempt to place Creationism as an alternative to Darwinism in school science classrooms. This movie also echoes our current state of political polarization which springs from entrenched ways of thinking in both political camps.
The film is not subtle, but it is not as one-sided as it appears at first glance. It takes place in the community of Hillsboro, where teacher Bertrand Cates (Dick York) presents the theory of evolution to his high school students. Men walk to the school to arrest him for his educational actions. The audience sees the blurring of the separation of church and state immediately: one of those accompanying the legal authorities is Reverend Jerimiah Brown (Claude Akins). The law itself does not respect the Constitution’s separation of church and state because it prohibits teaching Darwin since it contradicts the words stated in Genesis about how man came to be on the earth. The Rev. Brown has no shades of gray – he is a fire and brimstone, scripture quoting cleric, who would even condemn his own daughter, Rachel (Donna Anderson), for being engaged to Cates. He says that he loves God and hates his enemies – not exactly what Jesus taught. He tells his daughter that Cates is dangerous, which she should know, being a teacher, because he says it is easy to mold young minds. Of course, because he sees his beliefs as the only true ones, he does not realize the irony in how he has shaped those same young minds into his way of thinking. Many of the townspeople share the reverend’s outlook. We see the force of the community on the noncompliant individual when one of the women of the town scowls at Rachel and gestures that she should join in with the singing of “Give Me That Old Time Religion,” which is the song which accompanies the opening arrest of Cates.
Reporter E, K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly) now enters on the scene. He is modeled after the real journalist, H. L. Menken. Hornbeck is at the other extreme of the belief system. He believes in nothing, a cynic about any redeeming characteristics of the human race, who sarcastically skewers the bible-thumpers. He has some effective lines showing his disdain for Hillsboro, such as when he says it is “the buckle on the Bible belt.” He effectively sums himself up when he says, “I’m admired for my detestability,” concerning his fame as a newsman. He gives dubious support to Rachel when he says, “I may be rancid butter, but I’m on your side of the bread.” He makes a good argument for the role of a questioning free press in a democratic society when he says its job is “to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comforted.” Hornbeck revels in his negativity. He secures Cates’ defense, bringing in lawyer Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy as a character based on Clarence Darrow), but it almost appears that he wants the man to lose so he can suck people into his black hole of hopelessness for humankind. He says at one point to Drummond, “Henry, why don’t you wake up. Darwin was wrong. Man is still an ape.” Drummond at the end pities him, saying, “When you go to your grave, there won’t be anybody to pull the grass up over your head. Nobody to mourn you. Nobody to give a damn. You’re all alone.”
There are characters who are not so one-sided. The sheriff lets Cates out of his jail, treats him respectfully, and good-naturedly plays cards with him. Cates’ students greet Drummond and offer their support of his defense of their teacher. Johns Stebbens (Noah Beery, Jr.) puts up his farm as collateral to get Drummond out of jail when the attorney is charged with contempt of court. He makes this offer because the drowning death of his son brought him and Cates to question the existence of horrible, unfair events under the watch of a supposedly benevolent God, and because Reverend Brown said the 13-year-old boy would burn in hell because he was not baptized before his death. Bertrand Cates, the defendant, appears to be an idealist when he says that he can agree to uphold what he considers an unjust law, but that would mean “I let my body out of jail if I lock up my mind.” But, he is also a pragmatist, because he sees that to Hornbeck he is a headline and to Drummond he is a cause. And, he realizes that his town’s version of religion isn’t the only viewpoint, and acknowledges that the Christian religion is without such extremism elsewhere. He also shows how rigid he can be because he gives Rachel an ultimatum when it comes to her father: “It’s your father’s church or our house, you can’t live in bother.” Even the prosecution’s main lawyer, Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March, playing the William Jennings Bryan character), despite his fundamentalist bombast, chides the Reverend Brown when he condemns his own daughter before a prayer meeting. It is Brady who delivers the “inherit the wind,” quote, saying that being overzealous can cause one to destroy what someone is trying to save. Drummond campaigned for Brady when he ran for President because the man championed suffrage for women and a better life for the common man. Kramer uses the camera to emphasize different points of view by focusing on a character at any given moment by placing him or her in the foreground, while others are in the background.
As for Drummond, he argues for the progress that science brings to our understanding of the world. He says that without new ideas to loosen up the stranglehold on the mind that comes from untested self-righteous beliefs, harm is inflicted on others with a different meaning system. As he tells Cates, the teacher is treated like a murderer because he is trying to kill one of the community’s ideas, and some people consider that a threat to their way of living. He worships the individual mind, and says that “an idea is a greater monument than a cathedral.” There is a scene where Brady and Drummond sit on a porch, each swaying back and forth in rocking chairs. It is significant that the two chairs do no go back and forth in tandem, stressing the different views of the two. Brady says that common people are “looking for something more perfect than they already have. Why do you want to take that away from them when that’s all they have?” Drummond tells a story about how much he wanted a hobby horse when he was young that was gleaming and fancy on the surface, but collapsed when he sat on it because it was poorly made. He makes the analogy to what Brady espouses. “As long as the prerequisite for that shining paradise is ignorance, bigotry and hate I say the hell with it.” However, in the courtroom he admits that there is a price to pay for progress, too: “Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it.” He admits that we lose the wonder of the birds when we fly in airplanes, and we fill the air with the smell of gasoline. He says we can have the telephone, but we sacrifice privacy. He also concedes that technological advances are not worth much if not used properly: he voices disdain for the radio microphone when what he wants to say into it will be censored.
Drummond appeals to Brady’s ego by getting him to take the stand as an authority on the Bible. It is in his grilling of Brady that the audience sees the danger of mixing religious belief with factual science. Brady, as do other fundamentalists, believe in so literal interpretation of the religious texts that they use it as a scientific instrument to measure the age of the earth, which totally contradicts how old fossils really are. Drummond eventually gets Brady to concede that the seven days that it took God to create the world were of indeterminate length. By so doing, he undermines a strict interpretation of scripture. Drummond warns of the dangers of rigid thinking when he says, “fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding.”
Drummond, unlike Hornbeck, doesn’t want to wipe out religious thought. He says Brady, who dies in the film right after the verdict and sentencing, had greatness in him, but sought God too far away. He argued that science, instead of destroying religion, could be used to better understand God’s creation. That is why he leaves the courtroom after holding both Darwin’s book and the Bible together. He earlier said that right and wrong have no meaning for him, because of their subjective absolute nature. But, he said that truth was important. It is significant that the song sung at the end of the movie is “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and we hear the words, “His truth goes marching on.”
Perhaps the words of Brady’s wife, Sarah (Florence Eldridge), to Rachel sum up the need for not thinking in terms of absolutes. She says to her about Rachel’s impression of Brady at first as being a saint who can only do no wrong, and then as a devil, who can only do what is wrong. The truth lies in between, as in most things. All we can do is believe in something based on experience, and fight for it. But, first we must rely on ourselves, not others, for belief. She says to Rachel, but also to the audience, “What do you stand for? … What do you believe in?”
Next week’s movie is 2001: A Space Odyssey.