Cult Movie: Inherit The Wind still as relevant today as it was in McCarthy era
VIEWED today, Inherit The Wind may appear to be, on the surface at least, little more than a well made, well acted but ultimately fairly straightforward courtroom drama. Look a little closer, though, and director Stanley Kramer's 1960 retelling of the infamous Scopes 'Monkey' trial of 1925 – that pitted the theory of creationism against Darwin's theory of evolution – is clearly a complex and controversial film that became a modern classic against all the odds.
United Artists refused to put any promotional muscle behind its release, fundamentalists picketed cinemas that dared to show it and the American right declared it the work of the devil himself. Back then, and even today, the creationism v evolution debate whips up a storm and induces wild levels of hysteria like few others. Inherit The Wind dared to document that debate and gave us an unforgettable recreation of possibly the greatest courtroom battle of the 20th century in the process.
Adapted from the stage play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee by Kramer himself and using actual court transcriptions from 1925, this is the true life tale of Bertram T Cates (Dick York), a science teacher in small-town Tennessee who is arrested and brought to trial for daring to teach Darwinism in class which is in direct violation of a state law that prohibits the teaching of anything other than the biblical view of creation.
When the case comes to court the fundamentalists have three-time presidential candidate Matthew Harrison Brady (Frederic March) representing their corner and Cates writes to the Baltimore Herald for help, which brings hardbitten newsman EK Hornbeck (Gene Kelly) and famous attorney Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracey) into the picture.
Watching the brand new Blu-ray release of the film from Eureka Classics is a hugely enjoyable experience. Kramer lets the story unfold with a slow-burning intensity that allows the tension to grow naturally and the central performances of Tracey and March are genuinely epic and worthy of all the praise they've been afforded down the years.
Tracey probably steals the acting honours here, and was rewarded with an Academy nomination for his trouble, but he's closely followed by March and Kelly who is a revelation as the sarcastic news hound who lightens the often oppressive mood with his cynicism and humour. Some of the acting may appear a little over enthusiastic but that only adds to the period appeal for me.
Given the film's release date, it's easy to see all kinds of allusions to the McCarthy era and the concepts of freedom of expression and freedom of thought versus the crippling constraints of state dogma are addressed thoughtfully and thoroughly throughout.
Kramer made some truly hard-hitting classics in his time, such as Judgement At Nuremberg and The Defiant Ones, but Inherit The Wind might just be his finest cinematic achievement.
Powerful, provocative and as tightly wound in tension as any drama before or since, this is a classic that still pulls no punches and still has a point to make.