Inherit the Wind was on television the other day. The film, released in 1960, was adapted from a 1955 play loosely based on the 1925 Scopes trial, in which a Tennessee school teacher was convicted of violating state law by teaching evolution. But it is not really about science or religion. It’s about the open discussion of ideas, the tension between orthodoxy and independent thought, the fear of change, and the deceiving security of habit and tradition.
The movie stars Spencer Tracy and Frederic March as two old adversaries, once close friends, at odds over the prosecution of a young teacher, played by Dick York, for teaching evolution. Tracy plays Henry Drummond, a character based on Clarence Darrow, the most prominent attorney of his day, and who defended John Scopes in the 1925 case. March plays Matthew Harrison Brady, who is based on William Jennings Bryan, the famed orator and three-time presidential nominee who volunteered his services to the prosecution team in the Scopes trial.
Gene Kelly also stars, as a cynical newspaperman based on H.L. Mencken.
Bertram Cates, the teacher played by York, is arrested in the opening scene as he and his high school science class discuss evolutionary theory. And seeing it again, I was struck how contemporary the scene was. We want our children to learn, to be educated, but not if it challenges our ideas about our place or our country or our most dearly held beliefs.
I said Inherit the World was not about evolution, but that is not quite correct. During the movie, we learn that Tracy’s Henry Drummond and March’s Matt Brady were quite similar as young men. Brady remained in the past, entrenched, unwilling to listen to new ideas, sure of his own rightness. When Drummond asks how Brady explains the enigma of Cain’s wife, Brady says he leaves such questions to the agnostics.
Drummond, though, has changed. He has remained open to new ideas, to new discoveries. He asks questions. He listens. He has, to borrow from Darwin, adapted. Brady suffers a final heart attack as he attempts to deliver his final oration, standing in the middle of the courtroom ignored and abandoned as the world moves on, and his ideas die with him.
In the final scene, as Kelly’s newsman sarcastically eulogizes Brady, Drummond comes to his old friend’s defense, and bitterly denouncing the newsman who has been his ally throughout the trial. In his own way he is just as small-minded as Brady, and not nearly as noble.
“You are like a ghost pointing with an open sleeve, and smirking at everything people feel or want or struggle for,” says Drummond.
This is the challenge of life. To be be curious without losing faith. To be skeptical with becoming cynical. To respect the past without becoming enslaved to it.