Wednesday, July 21, 2010

 

An idea is a greater monument than any cathedral


"Fanaticism and bigotry is forever busy and needs feeding and soon your honor, with banners flying and with drums beating, we'll be marching backward, backward through the glorious ages of that 16th century when bigots burned the man who dared bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind."

By Edward Copeland
Admittedly, I am sucker for Inherit the Wind. Be it Stanley Kramer's 1960 film version, which premiered 50 years ago today in Dayton, Tenn. (the site of the real Scopes monkey trial), before its wide opening in November, or the 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee from which it was adapted, fictionalizing the infamous 1925 trial where a high school teacher was convicted for violating a law barring the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution. However, it's not because I'm a die-hard Darwin disciple that I love this play and this movie: That's not even why the playwrights wrote it. They were intending it as a parable against the McCarthyism of the time. The truth is Inherit the Wind always seems to be relevant, because we never find ourselves running short of fanatics of all stripes afraid that if anyone thinks differently than they do, their own belief structure will crumble like saltines. You look at the belligerent shouters and name-callers now and their issues might not be evolution, but it's not a huge leap from there to where those of us who prize free speech and free thought fear the petrified wish to take us. As Gene Kelly, in a rare straight role as E.K. Hornbeck, the H.L. Mencken equivalent, says, "Darwin was wrong. Man still is an ape." That's why I celebrate Kramer's film today.


Kramer's film opens somewhat ominously (helped by stark black-and-white cinematography by Ernest Laszlo) as we see the words denoting the Hillsboro Courthouse as "(Gimme That) Old Time Religion" plays. Men in suits march from there as more join, eventually with a minister (played by Claude Akins, one of many television stalwarts in the film), the last of the group, who leads the way through the schoolhouse doors. Inside, we find the classroom of Bertram Cates (Dick York) where Cates has just pulled down a chart to illustrate a lecture he is about to give about Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution. By this time, the men have joined them (a newspaper photographer among their ranks). Cates gets few words on the subject out of his mouth when the sheriff steps up and announces that he is in violation of the state's law against the teaching of the theory and places him under him arrest.


The incident gains national attention — and not the good kind. Some of Hillsboro's leading citizens worry about the town's image and fear they are being turned into a laughingstock. A banker (Wendell Holmes) notes that some students will be ineligible to apply at the country's better universities because of this law and he might like to see his son go to Yale. "We can't close our eyes to all progress," he tells the room. I wonder if that's something the current Texas board of education considered or even cared about. Still, more of the citizens fear for the town's soul and Reverend Brown (Akins) believes God has sent them a sign as they read the news that Matthew Harrison Brady (the William Jennings Bryan equivalent played by Fredric March) has agreed to act as special prosecutor for the case. As much as some leaders would like the case to go away, there's no turning back now. The clip above begins with Cates' arrest and continues through the town meeting. Adding to the ruckus is the renowned troublemaking journalist E.K. Hornbeck (Kelly) who also has arrived with the news that his paper will put up the money for Cates' defense and have hired for the teacher the famed defense attorney Henry Drummond (the Clarence Darrow equivalent played by Oscar nominee Spencer Tracy). The tent has been raised and the train is on the tracks, steaming toward town. The circus is well on its way to Hillsboro.

When Brady arrives, Hillsboro gives the three-time presidential candidate a hero's welcome, complete with signs not only supporting him but denouncing evolution, Darwin and Cates. The mayor (Philip Coolidge) even announces that he's been given the authority to grant Brady the honorary title of colonel in the state's militia. The veteran pol, well known for his stem-winders, loves receiving the warmth of a rally's enthusiasm again and takes to the stage to cheer them on and get ready for the fight ahead. His official role may be to serve as special prosecutor in the case against Bertram Cates, but you can see from the glow spreading across Brady's face and balding pate that this really is just another chance for a campaign. His words may defend the Bible and the law against teaching evolution, but anyone whose eyes are wide open enough can see that it's really all about Brady himself, at least for Brady. There was one other plot detail that I've failed to mention so far. The daughter of Rev. Brown, Rachel (Donna Anderson), happens to be in love with Bert Cates and is understandably torn (though the end of the clip above gives that away along with the fact that the jailer lets Bert out of his cell so they can play cards). As the Brady rally reprises "(Gimme That) Old Time Religion" substituting Brady on the line "If it's good enough for (mother or father or Hebrew children or whomever)." One of the crowd's stern church ladies shakes her finger at Rachel when she notices she's not joining the chorus. The only person in the crowd seeming to arch an eyebrow at the whole display is the cynical Hornbeck and this is where he makes his announcement about Drummond for the defense. A woman, obviously peeved, asks the reporter if he needs a nice, clean place to stay while he's in Hillsboro, obviously waiting to turn him down, but she gets no such chance. "I had a nice clean place to stay," E.K. replies, "but I chose to come here."

Have no fear that a film with a subject as important as Inherit the Wind will waste much time on the story of star-crossed lovers — it’s just a minor complication to the bigger issues at hand. However, before the trial really begins to get rolling it does set the stage for one of the film’s best scenes and one of Tracy’s best speeches. (It seems ridiculous to single out a best Tracy speech in this film when you could practically just list most of his dialogue and let it stand by itself in place of analyzing the film.) Bert has started to have doubts about what he’s become embroiled in and as he is having these thoughts Sarah, after having another run in with her father who has practically condemned her to the fires of Hell for loving Cates, urges Bert to give up so they can have a normal life together in Hillsboro without everyone turning on them, prompting Drummond (as shown in this YouTube clip) to give them the following illustration of why they are all there and why this case is important and why quitting would be taking the easy way out.



Once the jury has been selected and the courtroom drama begins in earnest, you would think Drummond would have the upper hand, with reason and the First Amendment on his side, but the town has stacked the case against him, refusing him to enter any evidence pertaining to Darwin, call experts on science or question witnesses pertaining to evolution. He does get some points with one of Cates' students, asking him if the teaching of evolution affected him in anyway, such as hurting his pitching arm or causing him to murder anyone since breakfast. The teen gives him the answers he's looking for that it didn't really affect his faith in the least and he liked Cates' teaching. Then, at one point, Brady puts Sarah on the stand (after she’d gone to him for help from her overbearing father) and basically uses her to tear Bert apart, explaining how a young boy’s drowning led him to question his own faith when Rev. Brown said the boy would be going to Hell because he’d never been baptized. Sarah is devastated on the stand and Cates refuses to let Drummond cross-examine her in an attempt to repair the damage and when Bert refuses, Drummond asks to withdraw from the case in frustration and lays into the town and the court, telling them you cannot administer a wicked law impartially and that he's “simply trying to prevent the clockstoppers from dumping a lot of medieval nonsense into the U.S. Constitution.” He angers the judge (played by Harry Morgan) to the point that he charges him with contempt. A man in the audience (Noah Beery Jr.) offers to put up his farm for the bond and the banker from the earlier town meeting guarantees that his bank confirms the farm’s worth. Drummond, puzzled by this stranger’s act, asks the farmer who he is and learns that he is the father of the boy who drowned.

Down and defeated, Drummond retreats to his hotel room where he finds little comfort from Hornbeck. It’s quite interesting, not only to see Kelly in a straight role such as this but to see the character of the cynical journalist basically portrayed as someone that no one on either side of the issue particularly likes. His paper is paying for Cates’ defense and he pledges to make him a "modern day Dreyfus" but Cates sometimes seems to physically cringe at his presence. What’s more, Hornbeck seems to relish the distaste people have for him. Upon first meeting Bert and Susan, he takes pride in telling them that he’s “admired for his detestability.” Hornbeck goes on to remind them that he "may be rancid butter, but I'm on your side of the bread." In one of Kramer’s nicest touches in the film, he begins a scene with Reverend Brown going off on one of his appeals to save Susan’s soul in front of his home hearth and the camera creates an image that makes it appear as if there was a flame on the back of the minister’s hand which then fades into the flame coming off a gas burner from which Hornbeck lights his cigarette. As Hornbeck watches the crowds outside Drummond’s hotel window, it truly is a frightening sight as they burn Cates in effigy and sing that they’ll hang Bert Cates and Henry Drummond (in alternating verses) from an apple tree to the tune of “Glory, Glory Hallelujah.” During Hornbeck’s talk to Drummond, because it can barely be called a conversation, he tosses the hotel room’s Bible to him. Suddenly, Drummond lights up. He has an idea.

Denied expert witnesses, forbidden to question witnesses about anything specifically relating to Darwin, Drummond decides to stay on the case. He apologizes to the court and makes an unorthodox move. He’s going to play in the prosecution’s ballpark by calling an expert on the Bible and the self-proclaimed expert he has chosen is none other than Matthew Harrison Brady himself. The town’s prosecutor tries to block the move, but the ego in Brady loves the chance to be viewed as the expert and God’s defender and agrees to take the witness’s chair. Drummond comes to life, approaching Brady as the former friends and political allies the men once were but proceeding to befuddle the former candidate with simple questions such as how did anyone know how long those first few days were, if you took the Bible literally, if God didn’t create the sun until the sixth day? Were they 24 hour days? Could they have been longer? Shorter? Could they have been millions of years and perhaps reconcilable with Darwin’s theory? He also asks why would God give man the ability to think when no other species does. Didn’t God grant Darwin the ability to come up with that theory? Does a sponge think? Brady says that if God wants a sponge to think, it thinks. “Shouldn’t man have the same rights as a sponge?” Drummond asks. “I don't think about things that I don't think about,” Brady responds. As the give-and-take continues between the two men, Drummond says, "It frightens me to think about the state of learning in the world if everyone had your driving curiosity." At another point, Brady says that agnostics and atheists such as Drummond don’t consider anything sacred or holy, a charge Drummond denies. “In a child's ability to master the multiplication tables there is more sanctity than all our shouted amens, holy holies and hosannas.” Finally, Drummond reminds his legal adversary that, “The Bible is a book. It's a good book, but it's not the only book.”

Despite all the points that Drummond does end up scoring a guilty verdict still is returned against Cates, but the town leaders continue to worry about negative impact and make it clear to the judge to consider that when making his sentence. As a result, all Cates receives is a nominal fine, which Drummond announces he won’t pay since they plan to appeal immediately. Brady goes apoplectic, having had a speech ready for his victory, but Drummond objects saying the court’s business is done and Brady should give the speech elsewhere. The judge agrees. Brady tries to read his words over the clamor of the crowd to no avail and he finally collapses (with a nice shot from the point of view of the overhead fan) and eventually dies. With the courtroom emptied, Hornbeck and Drummond are the last remaining. When E.K. shows little sympathy for Brady’s passing, Henry indicates that Brady once was a great man and even quotes a Bible verse, prompting Hornbeck to say they are growing a strange crop of agnostics that year. When Drummond is packing up, he weighs The Bible and Darwin in his hands and places both books in his briefcase as he prepares to leave Hillsboro.

Why I love Inherit the Wind is not because it’s anti-religion (it really isn’t) or pro-evolution, but because it makes a strong case for the greatest reason to be an American, something a lot of today’s fanatics on all sides of the political spectrum don’t seem to respect or realize: The ability to speak and think freely and to disagree, no matter what the issue. What progress would ever be made if everyone always stayed stuck thinking and believing the same things when new evidence presents itself. I remember back in my freshman year of college when I was taking a class called Philosophy of Religion. My roommate's ultrafundamentalist mother noticed that one of my textbooks was titled Atheism: The Case Against God and asked in all seriousness if I were going to protest having to read it. I just can't fathom people who are so afraid that their own beliefs are so vulnerable that exposure to opposing views might decimate them. If someone’s values prevents them from reading or watching certain books or films, that’s fine, but it doesn’t give them the right to stop others who do want to read or watch. Some may be blissful in ignorance, but I choose not to be. As Drummond says in the movie, which I used as the title for this post, “An idea is a greater monument than any cathedral.”



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Comments:
For any fan of "Inherit the Wind," I heartily recommend Edward Larson's "Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion" -- it’s a great complimentary piece and proves that the truth can be just as entertaining as fiction (not that ItW took a lot of license).
 
The problem as it's presented in the film and as we see it loud and clear today is that freedom of thought and expression is incompatible with the absolutism of those who believe there is only one Truth. And that anyone who questions that "Truth" is in league with Satan. Reason, as the film shows, is powerless against this kind of thinking.
 
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