In that oddest of nights--one before the World Series starts, and one night after Monday Night Football--I settled onto the couch around 5 PM my time to watch Stanley Kramer's production of Inherit the Wind.
I have seen Mr. Kramer's film a couple of times, and it is one that I want to watch several more to really listen to the script (for that is where it is at for me and films these days).
I have to admit to not being a huge fan of Kramer, though I do respect the director using his art to crusade for humanity. But, films like The Defiant Ones and Judgement and Nurnberg and Guess Who's Coming for Dinner, though earnest films just are not compelling to me as I think they should or could be. And, I write that acknowledging that Kramer was as much a victim of his times as the rest of us. And, as a result, he did not ostensibly have the freedom to really bare his soul along with our collective American soul.
And, of course, I cannot continue anything about Stanley Kramer without acknowledging his wonderful It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, unquestionably a favorite of mine with almost four hours of lunacy featuring every actor and comedian known to man between 1950 and 1961.
Inherit the Wind, however, is a fine courtroom drama that re-enacts the Scopes Trial of 1925, when teacher BT Cates (played by Dick York, who later was Darren on Bewitched, in the role of Scopes) attempted to teach evolution and Darwin. The script, which borrows largely from debate notes between the two legal giants of the time who argued the case, Clarence Darrow, the defender of Scopes/Cates, and William Jennings Bryan, who embraced his bible and refused to open his mind to the politics.
Within the film, the Bryan role becomes Matthew Brady, played by Fredric March, while the Darrow character becomes attorney Henry Drummond, played by the always wonderful Spencer Tracy.
Finally, among the mass of good character actors (Harry Morgan, Claude Akins, Noah Beery, Jr, and Norman Fell to name a few) is Gene Kelly in arguably his best role as newspaperman EK Hornbeck. Hornbeck, representing the liberal press is all over the place, contemptuous of ignorance, encouraging the questioning of authority, and basically distrubing as much status quo as he can.
In a great scene early on, Kelly is talking with Cates and his fiance Rachel (Donna Anderson) and as he discusses the legal paths and what Cates has done, he happily takes big bites out of an apple in a symbolic set of moves that are not so much subtle as they are wickedly effective.
So, while watching the film, I could not help but again feel bad about how even 85 years later, after the civil rights movement, and two world wars, not to mention so many other skirmishes, we still have really not moved anywhere close to accepting ideas other than the Old Testament six days of work from God five thousand years ago.
Because if you watch the movie, it could just as easily be set today somewhere in the deep south of the bible belt as opposed to all those years ago.
By the end of the movie, Tracy does indeed make such a strong case for being open, and working March's character who says God speaks to him (Tracy questions this, suggesting "God only speaks to you?") that we are left with some hope, but even if the Scopes Trial was 85 years ago, the film Inherit the Wind was released in 1960, 50 years ago.
The thing that bothers me about this is indeed, by the end of the film, we see that Tracy, though called an atheist throughout the film, really is not. Or, he understands faith and what that can mean to an individual, and he also understands the notion of teaching is not to destroy whatever foundation of knowledge or faith people have, but to augment it. Surely, we want to think, and think critically, but we also must have heart, and we also must understand that simply because something does not seem meaningful to one person, does not mean that same issue is not meaningful to another human.
Tracy, in a dark discourse with Hornbeck calmly conveys this notion, while Kelly dismisses Tracy and pretty much designates the great attorney as simply hypocritical with one swipe, and that too rings so true.
The idea of critical thinking suggests by definition that there are no simple ways to get our arms around the philosophical, let alone compartmentalize them. Thinking, however, should always be embraced.
It was true then. It is true now. I hope it always will be.