Last week, Blue York wrote a review of several movies involving a trial entitled “Legal Dramas.” One of the movies he discussed was Inherit the Wind, and that in turn inspired me to write a review of my own. The movie is a reasonably faithful rendition of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, in which John T. Scopes was charged with teaching evolution in a public school, contrary to state law. However, the fact that the names are changed is an indication that the producers of this movie wanted to take a few liberties. In particular, the Scopes character in the film is Bertram Cates (Dick York); Scopes’ defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow, is Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy); William Jennings Bryan, who participated in the prosecution, is Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March); and H.L. Mencken, the famous reporter who covered the trial, is E.K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly). This can become a little confusing, so here are the identities of the three major characters displayed for quick reference:
Henry Drummond = Clarence Darrow = Spencer Tracy.
Matthew Harrison Brady = William Jennings Bryan = Fredric March.
E.K. Hornbeck = H.L. Mencken = Gene Kelly.
While the town in which the trial takes place is full of minor characters who are fervent fundamentalists, there is another major character with strong religious views in addition to Brady, and that is the Reverend Jeremiah Brown (Claude Akins), whose daughter is Cates’ fiancée. She is torn between her love for Cates and her desire to please her father.
Clarence Darrow considered himself an agnostic. It can be debated whether H.L. Mencken was an agnostic or an atheist, but he seems more the latter. The distinction between the two matters more in the movies than it does in real life, which is complicated by the evolving connotation of the word “agnostic.” In the early part of the twentieth century, it had a harder edge to it than it does today, for merely to doubt the existence of God was scandalous back then. By the late 1960s, it had already begun to lose some of its bite, and this is even more so today. For example, in the novel Brideshead Revisted, published in 1945, Sebastian refers to Ryder as an atheist, but Ryder corrects him, saying he is an agnostic. In the 2008 movie version of this novel, however, Ryder explicitly denies being an agnostic, saying he is an atheist, just the opposite of what was in the novel. Why would the producers of this movie make this change? I suspect the reason lies in the shifting sense of the word “agnostic.” An agnostic Ryder would no longer compel our interest. In order to have dramatic value, he had to become an atheist.
In any event, as far as the movie is concerned, neither Drummond nor Hornbeck refers to himself as either an atheist or an agnostic. Drummond is referred to as both by others, and Hornbeck is referred to as neither. However, one gets the sense that Drummond is an agnostic while Hornbeck is an atheist, which corresponds to what we suspect about Darrow and Mencken.
Ordinarily, there would be nothing remarkable about that. Atheists and agnostics do not typically go around announcing which word more accurately applies to them. But as noted above, such things matter in the movies, especially when this movie was made. Any character that acknowledged being an atheist would typically be required to affirm the existence of God before the movie was over. An agnostic, on the other hand, would not be required to capitulate. He already admits that there might be a God. All he would have to do is admit it just a little bit more in the final reel. And if there is no definite assertion by the character as to the nature of his doubt or disbelief, he might be able to get by without having to do either.
Had this movie been made shortly after the Scopes Monkey Trial, Drummond and Hornbeck would have been made to seem superficial and arrogant, while Brady and Brown would have been treated more sympathetically. By 1960, however, evolution had become mainstream, and fundamentalism had been marginalized. As a result, Brady and Brown are made to look ridiculous. Of course, it is hard to portray anyone who believes in the literal truth of the Book of Genesis as anything but ridiculous.
The Reverend Brown is a man who will not hesitate to assert that someone is going to Hell. Saying it about Drummond would be expected, but we find out that he said the same of a little boy who drowned without having been baptized. And then he condemns his own daughter to Hell while giving a fiery speech before a crowd. Of course, the Bible says the vast majority of people will go to Hell, so you could reasonably give long odds on that about anyone. But saying such about a little boy or one’s own daughter seems especially cruel. In short, Brown exemplifies the idea that someone can be so religious as to be evil.
Brady, on the other hand, who actually comes to Brown’s daughter’s defense during that speech, admonishing Brown for saying such things, is negatively portrayed in a different way. In Brady’s case, we see an intelligent man destroyed by his insistence on the literal truth of the Bible as the word of God. A less intelligent man can hold such views without any difficulty, but the cognitive dissonance Brady experiences during the trial proves to be too much for him, especially when Drummond puts him on the stand as an expert on the Bible. The movie even suggests that the strain kills him, since he collapses on the floor of the courtroom right after the trial has ended.
It almost seems like shooting fish in a barrel to hear Drummond challenge Brady as to how some of the stories in the Bible could be literally true, such as Cain taking a wife, when up to that point, Eve was the only woman that existed. Unfortunately, most of Drummond’s arguments against the Bible go awry. For example, Drummond asks Brady how long the first day was, the implication being that since the sun was not created until the fourth day, there would have been no way to measure the length of the first day. In short, the first day might have been a period of indeterminate length.
That’s cute, but speaking of days before there was a sun is no worse than speaking of years before there was a solar system. If scientists can say that billions of years passed before there was an Earth to orbit the sun, in terms of which the length of a year is defined, then there is no reason a fundamentalist could not say that three days passed before there was a sun, in terms of which the length of a day is defined. Brady, however, fails to point this out, and so Drummond’s fallacious argument goes unchallenged.
To make matters worse, this is preceded by a misunderstanding on Drummond’s part. He asks Brady how all the holy people in the Bible could be holy when they were doing all that begetting. Drummond says, “What is the biblical evaluation of sex? It is considered original sin. And all these holy people got themselves begat through original sin. Well, all that sinning make them any less holy?”
I have never heard that one before. The original sin was eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which God had forbidden. God never forbade sex within the confines of marriage. Brady should have known that. And it would have been his chance to put Drummond in his place by pointing it out. Maybe the actual Darrow and Bryan thought the original sin was sex, or maybe it was just a misconception on the part of the people who made this movie (or wrote the script for the play on which it was based). But whatever the case, this is one of the weaker scenes in the movie.
There is another scene that is weaker still, and once again, Drummond opens himself up to withering criticism that Brady simply fails to take advantage of. Drummond is questioning one of the students in Cates’ class. In an effort to show that science and technology are not intrinsically evil, Drummond says, “You know, Moses never made a phone call. You figure that makes the telephone an instrument of the devil?”
Brady interrupts: “Your honor, the defense makes the same old error of all godless men. He confuses material things with the great spiritual value of the revealed word. Why do you bewilder this child? Does right have no meaning to you, sir?”
Drummond responds: “Realizing that I may prejudice the case of my client, I must tell you that right has no meaning for me whatsoever. But truth has meaning, as a direction. But it is one of the peculiar imbecilities of our time that we place a grid of morality upon human behavior so that the action of every man must be measured against an arbitrary latitude of right and a longitude of wrong in exact minutes, degrees, and seconds….”
So right and wrong have no meaning, only truth and falsehood. In other words, all that matters is whether it is true that one man killed another man, not whether it was wrong for him to do so. Is it “arbitrary” that we say it is wrong for a man to rape a child? It is a common stereotype of the atheist that he is amoral: God is dead, so all is permitted! Why this movie plays right into that stereotype, I do not know. The real Clarence Darrow did not hold such a view. He believed that man had emotions that told him whether something was right or wrong, what most people would call a conscience. In the Loeb and Leopold case, he argued that the defendants lacked those emotions. But in this movie, we almost get the sense that it is Drummond who lacks those emotions when he says that distinguishing between right and wrong is an “imbecility.” In any event, it is even more disappointing that Brady does not seize upon this opportunity. He could have argued that by Drummond’s own words, without God there would be nothing to restrain man, that we would all end up acting like animals. But he fails to take advantage of Drummond’s stance that moral words such as “right” and “wrong” are meaningless.
I already noted above that Brady is demeaned as a man whose intellect collapses under the strain of trying to reconcile reason and common sense with the myths of the Bible. But it is worse than that. Leading up to the final day of the trial, Brady is infantilized. Now, it is not uncommon for a married couple with children to start referring to each other as “Mom” and “Dad.” So, the first time Brady addresses his wife as “Mother,” we think nothing of it. Furthermore, lovers often call each other “baby” as a term of affection, so we normally wouldn’t think much of that either. But after Brady is put on the stand and subjected to a grilling by Drummond, he becomes pathetic, saying to his wife, “Mother, they laughed at me.” She holds him in her arms and says, “Hush, baby.” Then he says, “I can’t stand it when they laugh at me.” She continues holding him and rocking him, saying, “It’s all right, baby. It’s all right.” He whimpers, “They laughed.” And she continues, “Baby, baby.” However much these old movies were at pains to put the atheist in a bad light, an even lower place in movie Hell was reserved for anyone who was too religious, and this scene exemplifies that principle.
But that does not mean that the atheist in this movie is off the hook, for it is in the last scene that amends must finally be made for all the irreligion that has come before: the agnostic must display an affinity for religion, and the atheist must be disparaged. As they debate whether Brady was a great man or a bigot, Hornbeck accuses Drummond of being a hypocrite and a fraud, an “atheist who believes in God,” saying, “You’re just as religious as he was.” Drummond in turn tells Hornbeck that he pities him, telling him his life is meaningless, because he doesn’t need people or love. “You poor slob. You’re all alone.” Well, gosh! That’s telling him. Of course, the real H.L. Mencken was married at the time of this trial, and he loved his wife. But the need for the movie atheist to be put down must take precedence over reality. Actually, one might think of this as progress. By the late 1950s, it was no longer necessary for the atheist to acknowledge the existence of God, although it still did happen in some movies. Rather, the atheist could remain an atheist, but he had to be unhappy.
Anyway, after a few more words along those lines, Hornbeck leaves the room. Drummond puts Darwin’s Descent of Man together with the Bible, smiles, and walks toward the camera as the movie ends. And so, in typical Hollywood fashion, the movie tries to have it both ways.