UK Release Date: 21st May 2018
Runtime: 123 minutes
Director: Stanley Kramer
Writer: Nedrick Young, Harold Jacob Smith
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly, Dick York, Donna Anderson, Florence Eldridge, Claude Akins, Harry Morgan
Synopsis: A science teacher is put on trial in a fundamentalist Christian town when he teaches evolution, drawing a media circus to the small town.
I’m a sucker for a good courtroom-set story. There’s something about the inherent drama of an American criminal trial that proves to be consistently compelling when married with a masterful director and an impressive script on the big screen. Released in the early 1960s, Inherit the Wind has as its centrepiece a titanic battle between big screen titans Spencer Tracy and Fredric March – both double Oscar winners. It’s an elegant and brave movie that, even after almost 60 years, feels like it has a potent and important ideological message to deliver.
The eternal battle between Darwinism and Creationism is at the heart of the story. Mild-mannered science teacher Bert (Dick York) is arrested and indicted for breaking an obscure law when it is discovered that he is teaching the Darwinian theory of evolution to kids in the fundamentalist Christian town where he lives. Former presidential candidate and devout Christian Matthew Harrison Brady (March) is hired to prosecute, which draws the attention of national media, including snarky newspaperman Hornbeck (Gene Kelly), who brings in hotshot attorney Henry Drummond (Tracy) to represent Bert.
Stanley Kramer’s approach to telling the story of the 1925 ‘Monkey Trial’ – or at least the fictionalised play based upon it – of teacher John Scopes is one that leans heavily on creating a clear division between the two sides of the debate. When March’s Bible-thumping politician arrives in town, he’s greeted with a lavish parade of locals waving ‘Down With Darwin’ signs and singing hymns. Tracy’s character, however, is met with revulsion and outright aggression – not least in a late-night rally in which the local preacher whips his congregation into a near-violent frenzy at the prospect of protecting their faith.
It’s in the courtroom, though, that Inherit the Wind shines. The focus is placed squarely on Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith’s smart script, which reinterprets the true events as a clear reference to the notion of McCarthyism as a whole. Much like in the real case, though, this is not about the actual man at the heart of it. It’s about the ideological discussion between the interpretations of the world, which provides plenty of opportunities for Tracy and March to spar with each other like the gargantuan stars they were, while Kelly munches an apple and snipes from the sidelines with flashes of his inimitable charm.
The joy of the movie comes in the way it constructs its elegant and eloquent structure around these courtroom clashes, with overnight interludes used to deepen the characters and provide context for their positions in the theological debate. A scene in which Tracy deconstructs March on the witness stand is almost sad as the audience is invited to watch a man disintegrating, despite being utterly convinced of his own stance, and is even sadder given the bond the two men seemingly formed during a discussion on rocking chairs a few nights earlier.
Inherit the Wind deserves to be an enduring classic of the courtroom genre thanks to its perfect assemblage of top talent on both sides of the camera. It’s a pleasure both to follow the events meticulously and with the utmost concentration, or simply to sit back and allow the rhythm of this fantastic dialogue to wash over you. This is classic cinema at its purest and most impressive – a masterpiece in just about every way.
Cinema professor Neil Sinyard gives an account of the film’s real world context and the true story upon which it is based. There’s also a trailer.
Pop or Poop?
Whether it’s the A-grade cast of the cinematic mastery behind the camera, Inherit the Wind is an all-time classic of the courtroom genre that feels progressive and timely even half a century after it was made.
Spencer Tracy and Fredric March bring the titanic gravitas, while Gene Kelly gives the whole thing a delightful sense of levity and fun. It excels on an emotional level and weaves an enthralling tale of where faith and the law collide, with messy and wide-ranging consequences.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
Inherit the Wind is available on Blu-ray in the UK from next Monday, courtesy of Eureka Entertainment.