Review for Inherit The Wind
If you’re stuck for an idea for a TV show or a movie, you could do a lot worse than make a courtroom drama. After all, it’s not going to be too taxing on the budget, yet all of human drama is there to be seen in the adversarial process, and the conflict of opposing viewpoints. But this time it was not the format that drew me to the review disc, rather the subject matter itself. Based on the real life Scopes “Monkey” trial of 1925, Inherit the Wind pits the force of biblical creationism against Darwin’s theory of evolution in the court of law. When in 2018, the same argument is still being had in many quarters, you have to wonder just how evolved the human race is, but that makes this an ever relevant film.
In Hillsboro Tennessee, science teacher Bertram T. Cates has been arrested and charged with violating a recently passed law that prohibits the teaching of anything other than the biblical view of creation in state schools. His crime was opening a copy of Darwin’s The Descent of Man to relate to his class. In fundamentalist Christian Hillsboro, that’s a crime against the word of God, and has to be punished accordingly. Matthew Harrison Brady, three time presidential candidate and skilled orator volunteers to prosecute the case. Cates writes to the Baltimore Herald for help, and cynical newsman E.K. Hornbeck brings famous attorney Henry Drummond with him. The scene is set for the trial of the century!
Inherit the Wind gets a 1.66:1 pillarboxed 1080p monochrome transfer. It’s clear and sharp throughout for the most part, with strong contrast and excellent detail. There is the odd moment of softness, and the rare speck of dirt on the print, but by and large the film is stable and very watchable. The audio is presented in PCM 2.0 English, with optional SDH subtitles, and there are no issues here with distortion or dropouts. The all-important dialogue is clear throughout.
The images in this film were kindly supplied by Eureka Entertainment.
This being a Eureka release, you’ll find a 24-page booklet in the case. I’ve had a look at a pdf file, and as well as stills and promo images from the film, you get an excerpt from director Stanley Kramer’s autobiography that looks at the making of the film.
The disc boots to a static menu without delay.
On the disc you’ll find a piece from Neil Sinyard, who discusses the film and its history, and the differences between history and the fictionalised account. This lasts 24:51, and is presented in 1080p.
You’ll also find the original trailer for the film, running to 4:06.
Inherit the Wind is an allegory. All memorable films such as this one are, and its central conflict between freedom of expression, freedom of thought against the stultifying control of dogma is an eternal and shifting one, or so you would think. In 1960, when Stanley Kramer adapted the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee as well as the original trial transcripts, no doubt McCarthyism was a driving factor. Yet even in 1960, when this film played in cinemas, United Artists chose not to promote it, and religious fundamentalists picketed the cinemas, denouncing the film as the work of the devil. It’s surprising given all that, that Spencer Tracy still got the Oscar nod for his portrayal of Henry Drummond.
Even now, 150 years after Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man, almost a hundred years after the Scopes trial, Creationism still demands its place in school curriculums, disguised as ‘Intelligent Design’. It’s disheartening that Inherit the Wind still works as a literal piece, as well as an allegorical one.
Watching the film, my initial inclination was to accuse Kramer of stacking the deck. When you have the kind of firebrand preacher who falls to his knees, begging in tears for the understanding of his Lord when his daughter transgresses (she’s engaged to Bertram Cates), when you see the fire and fury of his sermons which border on incitement, and when you see the dogmatic attitudes of the townsfolk, the manipulative oratory of Brady against the measured discourse of Drummond, you might begin to think that Kramer is parodying his subjects. Then you’ll turn on the news, and see what religious fundamentalists of all creeds are capable of in the name of their dogma, and you might instead accuse Kramer of underplaying it.
Inherit the Wind is as electric as you might expect such a courtroom drama to be, especially given the performances of Spencer Tracy and Fredric March as Drummond and Brady. It’s the actor performances that can hold audiences rapt, keep them on the edge of the seat, and other than a minor stumble this is a supremely watchable film. It’s not the educated debate that you might expect between two advocates of such opposing viewpoints, but that’s in the ‘Daniel in the lions’ den’ nature of the story, with Drummond having to argue against dogma in a religiously fundamental state. The law, the judge acts against him when he tries to argue rationally, so in the end he has to defeat Brady on his own terms, although the definitions of defeat and victory are left to the audience to decide.
The surprise in the film is Gene Kelly as the cynical newsman, a delightful role that adds some gallows levity to the proceedings, as E.K Hornbeck has a sarcastic aside for every moment. He refuses to take anything seriously, which keeps the pace of the film lively, the tone of the film light and entertaining, when it could have been darker or more rationally inclined. The only downside for me is the film’s conclusion, which devolves into tragicomic histrionics that feel out of kilter with the rest of the film. But that’s a small flaw in an otherwise excellent film. Eureka do their customary fine work in bringing Inherit the Wind to Blu-ray, and it’s well worth picking up.