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February 4, 2016

Inherit the Wind

by Franz Patrick


Inherit the Wind (1960)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Inherit the Wind,” based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, is a most captivating courtroom drama, filled with energetic and magnetic performances, along with a script so well-written, specific, and intelligent, the picture remains highly relevant more than fifty years upon its release. It is so powerful, I believe it should be shown to high school students across the country so it can be discussed and dissected for as long as the battle between Darwinism and Creationism surges.

A schoolteacher in the South, Bertram T. Cates (Dick York), is arrested in front of his students for teaching Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution—that man descended from apes. Matthew Brady (Fredric March) chooses to represent the deeply religious small town, defend the word of God, and make an example of the so-called heretic. The news of the biology teacher’s arrest spread quickly across the country and two men have come to represent the defendant: a journalist from “The Boston Herald,” E. K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly), and a highly experienced lawyer, Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy), Brady’s former partner.

The picture does not waste time. Every scene offers a piece of information about a character, or characters, that allows us to understand him better, what drives him, what he hopes to achieve by winning the case. A surprising element is the script’s impartiality when it comes to showing us the men behind their occupations. Particularly important is the treatment of the Brady character, who does what he does for the Bible tells him so.

Naturally, Brady represents those who embrace a fundamentalist interpretation of the holy book. And yet the screenwriters, Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith, make a point of humanizing him. March plays the lawyer with humor, charm, and at times with such a level of monstrosity behind his intellect. It is refreshing to watch a lawyer on screen portrayed as a complete person rather than as an ideal or a symbol, especially in a film where audiences are forced to take a stance in an important issue.

Equally wonderful is Tracy’s performance as the defendant’s lawyer. The script is razor-sharp, very often requiring specific and defined intonations in order to get many points across at once—and he is more than up to the task. As I stared into his eyes, his wrinkled face, and whitened hair, I felt an entire lifetime of experience and wisdom. Even when the character is sitting down, looking at his notes, posture looking quite poor, Tracy commands attention. It is not surprising that the best scenes involve Brady and Tracy dueling with sharp words and even sharper glares.

Beautifully photographed in black and white, “Inherit the Wind” dons the skin of a classic but it also embodies the heart and intellect of one. In essence, the movie is about a battle of ideas. This is a work that will be remembered—and deserves to be remembered—for another fifty years, hopefully a hundred more and beyond.

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