Remembering “Inherit the Wind” and the Scopes trial

Some time soon, I’m hoping write a post about – well, you know, that ‘holiday’ coming up soon – expressing my – well, dissatisfaction with it.  So I’ve been reviewing moments of grief ‘joy’ I’ve experienced with it over the years, including a review of that awful ‘cherished old bit of poop filled slush ‘family classic,’ “It’s a Wonderful Life,” that I happened to write at the Internet Movie Database under the nom du website winner55.  In looking it up, I bumped into another review I’d written, about Stanley Kramer’s wonderful 1960 version of Inherit the Wind, from the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, starring Spencer Tracy and Frederic March. I’ve decided to re-post that review here.

The original play (and hence the film) is a fictionalization of the 1925 Tennessee trial of John Scopes for the wretched crime of teaching evolution. Actually, the original trial was something of a put-up job. Most law-makers, being lawyers, knew that such a law violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, and so such laws were intended as mere symbolism not to be realized in enforcement (since this would mean discarding hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of text-books, since biology text-books were already teaching evolution before any teacher actually entered the class-room). However, the town of Dayton, Tennessee was experiencing a mild depression at the time, and local businessman thought a high-profile trial would attract attention and tourism. Scopes agreed to be charged; he felt the law did violate his rights (but he later admitted that he couldn’t remember if he had ever taught evolution).

Never mind. The trial not only succeeding in drawing attention to the town of Dayton, but to the conflict between fundamentalist Christians and contemporary science, with all the implications for regress in education should the fundamentalists win. Thus the Scopes trial enacted a prelude to current political debates on the issue; although now, fundamentalists are no longer content with symbolic, unenforceable laws on the books, they want the real thing – regress of education teaching the bible as knowledge – as the story behind the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case reveals. (

The trial also true notable public figures, who had once been friends in populist causes, but now found themselves opposed on principle: former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, assisting the prosecution, and famed lawyer Clarence Darrow for the defense.

The trial was something of a farce – the defense was not allowed to present much evidence or testimony, on the slim grounds that the only question was whether the law had been violated, period – the judge wanted no wider discussion that could upset his own chances for re-election. But it culminated in a direct confrontation between Bryan and Darrow, not in concluding statements, but when Bryan agreed to testify as an expert on the bible. According to some commentary I’ve seen, the turning point finally came when Darrow got Bryan to admit that the “days” of creation, listed in the opening of Genesis, need not have been 24 hour days but simply long periods. Although not conclusive, it at least opened the door to an ‘old-earth creationism,’ that the fundamentalists were even then too ideologically rigid to accept (since if the earth really is millions of years old, processes taking millions of years to unfold – like evolution – can be argued as possible).

In the representation of this confrontation between Darrow and Bryan in the fictionalized version (with Darrow recast as Drummond, and Bryan as Brady), Brady remains a staunch advocate of Ussher’s calculation of the Earth history as a mere 4,000 years. This allows the playwrights to interject a grand speech by Drummond arguing for the right of Darwin, and Scopes (and by implication, anyone learning from them) to think for themselves.

In the review I wrote, it will be noted that I make some concessions to those who believe that evolution is compatible with some form of theism. This is an interesting moment of what I discussed in an earlier post, noting the necessity to address different audiences in different ways. Although I personally am convinced that the theory of evolution is incompatible with any form of theism we have in the West, the IMDb was simply not the place to argue that. After all, primarily I wanted to encourage potential audiences to see the film, and to think for themselves.

(Following the review, I reproduce the actual court transcript of much of the confrontation between Darrow and Bryan.)



Continuing a work of human progress…
24 November 2009

Although Fredric March and Spencer Tracy had been acting in films for some time before Inherit the Wind, each turns in such a masterly performance here, it is as if they were inventing acting from scratch. These men ARE Brady and Drummond, by the end of the film they are as familiar to us as if we met them on the street. Kramer’s direction is understated and let’s the language of the play itself propel the movie forward; and a powerful play it is, part historical retrospect, part philosophical confrontation.

A note on the historical and legal problems with which the play deals. A couple of reviewers complain about some historical inaccuracy, and apparently there’s even a fundamentalist web-site set up to ‘debunk’ the film.

This is a film, based on a play, and hence a work of fiction. It is thus not required to present the Scopes trial with historical accuracy. The play did draw not only on the newspaper accounts of the Scopes trial, but much of the trial dialog is in fact lifted from court records – which are still available in some libraries, and in public records. Yet the purpose of the play, and thus the movie, is dramatic, not journalistic.

It is notable that one such reviewer claimed the ‘evidence’ presented by Drummond was discredited – demonstrating that he had not seen the movie, since Drummond is not allowed to present evidence, but merely ask questions of Brady that Brady can not answer.

The legal issues of the play may also be obscured in our culturally regressive era, when so few Americans understand their own Constitutional government and its justice system. Although at issue is a State law applied in a local court, both Drummond and the judge (masterfully played by Henry Morgan in his finest supporting performance) understand what the prosecutors, including Brady, choose to ignore – since the ultimate issue is a matter of Constitutional law, failure before the jury (which is inevitable) is not the end but the beginning – Drummond is merely playing the first move in a game of repeated appeals ultimately leading to the Supreme Court. He would certainly have preferred placing scientific testimony into the record at the start, but he settles for Brady’s incoherent religious fanaticism, since what is at issue is the separation of church and state. Religion cannot be allowed to determine law – or education – in a pluralistic society because religious faith is incoherent as social policy, and frequently in conflict with opposing interpretations.

Oh, by the way, the best evidence for evolution happens to be genetic mutation, not dinosaur fossils. But fossils now really have this importance: if the carbon dating of fossils is ineffective, then obviously radioactivity is ineffective, and nuclear power never happened.

It is sad that children like Brady – or Palin or Robertson, et al – choose to befuddle their followers (just for the sake of their own aggrandizement) into believing they live in an era before technology and science effectively reinforce each other. It remains a curiosity that supposed ‘Christians’ continue to speak falsehoods while practicing some weird paganism masquerading as “literal word of God.” Can God’s “day” be 12 million human years long? Isn’t it disrespectful to God to assume otherwise? Augustine said God is outside of any time at all, thus such measure is irrelevant to his being; Ambrose thought it possible that God regenerated the universe in its entirety every moment, making such measure irrelevant to our being. If it matters to a scientist for the sake of greater investigation, discovery, invention, then let us travel that road, since, such concerns God only insofar as he loves us and these benefit us – if He fears such discoveries, or would deny us such benefit, “then he is not God, and we have nothing to fear” (as the hero of Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” remarks).

The theory of evolution was among the theories that medical scientists were able to use to develop such benefits as penicillin and the polio vaccine. Those unwilling to live with Darwin are free to abjure these benefits as well. But they are NOT free to deny these benefits to me or my family – including the benefit of a good secular education with scientific (not spuriously ‘religious’)foundations.

The teaching of evolution in publicly funded schools is Constitutional; the teaching of Creationism, or other religious credo, is not. Those unhappy with that may withdraw their children into private church-sponsored schools where they can be kept ignorant as rocks.

Following the State Supreme Court’s attempt to preserve the law while remarking it as ‘poorly written,’ and overturning Scopes’ conviction, the ultimate result of the Scopes trial on which this film is based, was for the law to be repealed by the state legislature as unenforceable.

“The first major court battle over evolution in the federal courts was decided in 1968, when the United States Supreme Court ruled in Epperson v. Arkansas that a state statute prohibiting the teaching of evolution was unconstitutional because it catered to a religious doctrine, thereby violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.” From

— [end review] —


For more information: Please visit the Scopes trial page at University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law:, wherein can be found this excerpt from the trial’s transcript:

Darrow’s examination of Bryan
Hays–The defense desires to call Mr. Bryan as a witness, and, of course, the only question here is whether Mr. Scopes taught what these children said he taught, we recognize what Mr. Bryan says as a witness would not be very valuable. We think there are other questions involved, and we should want to take Mr. Bryan’s testimony for the purpose of our record, even if your honor thinks it is not admissible in general, so we wish to call him now.

The Court–Do you think you have a right to his testimony or evidence like you did these others?
McKenzie–I don’t think it is necessary to call him, calling a lawyer who represents a client.
The Court–If you ask him about any confidential matter, I will protect him, of course.
Darrow–On scientific matters, Col. Bryan can speak for himself.
Bryan–If your honor please, I insist that Mr. Darrow can be put on the stand, and Mr. Malone and Mr. Hays.
The Court–Call anybody you desire. Ask them any questions you wish.
Bryan–Then, we will call all three of them.
Darrow–Not at once?
Bryan–Where do you want me to sit?
The Court–Mr. Bryan, you are not objecting to going on the stand?
Bryan–Not at all.
The Court–Do you want Mr. Bryan sworn?
Bryan–I can make affirmation; I can say “So help me God, I will tell the truth.”
Darrow–No, I take it you will tell the truth, Mr. Bryan.

Examination of W.J. Bryan by Clarence Darrow, of counsel for the defense:
Q–You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven’t you, Mr. Bryan?
A–Yes, sir, I have tried to.
Q–Then you have made a general study of it?
A–Yes, I have; I have studied the Bible for about fifty years, or sometime more than that, but, of course, I have studied it more as I have become older than when I was but a boy.
Q–You claim that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?
A–I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there: some of the Bible is given illustratively. For instance: “Ye are the salt of the earth.” I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God’s people.
Q–But when you read that Jonah swallowed the whale–or that the whale swallowed Jonah– excuse me please–how do you literally interpret that?
A–When I read that a big fish swallowed Jonah–it does not say whale….That is my recollection of it. A big fish, and I believe it, and I believe in a God who can make a whale and can make a man and make both what He pleases.
Q–Now, you say, the big fish swallowed Jonah, and he there remained how long–three days– and then he spewed him upon the land. You believe that the big fish was made to swallow Jonah?
A–I am not prepared to say that; the Bible merely says it was done.
Q–You don’t know whether it was the ordinary run of fish, or made for that purpose?
A–You may guess; you evolutionists guess…..
Q–You are not prepared to say whether that fish was made especially to swallow a man or not?
A–The Bible doesn’t say, so I am not prepared to say.
Q–But do you believe He made them–that He made such a fish and that it was big enough to swallow Jonah?
A–Yes, sir. Let me add: One miracle is just as easy to believe as another
Q–Just as hard?
A–It is hard to believe for you, but easy for me. A miracle is a thing performed beyond what man can perform. When you get within the realm of miracles; and it is just as easy to believe the miracle of Jonah as any other miracle in the Bible.
Q–Perfectly easy to believe that Jonah swallowed the whale?
A–If the Bible said so; the Bible doesn’t make as extreme statements as evolutionists do….
Q–The Bible says Joshua commanded the sun to stand still for the purpose of lengthening the day, doesn’t it, and you believe it?
A–I do.
Q–Do you believe at that time the entire sun went around the earth?
A–No, I believe that the earth goes around the sun.
Q–Do you believe that the men who wrote it thought that the day could be lengthened or that the sun could be stopped?
A–I don’t know what they thought.
Q–You don’t know?
A–I think they wrote the fact without expressing their own thoughts.
Q–Have you an opinion as to whether or not the men who wrote that thought
Gen. Stewart–I want to object, your honor; it has gone beyond the pale of any issue that could possibly be injected into this lawsuit, expect by imagination. I do not think the defendant has a right to conduct the examination any further and I ask your honor to exclude it.
The Witness–It seems to me it would be too exacting to confine the defense to the facts; if they are not allowed to get away from the facts, what have they to deal with?
The Court–Mr. Bryan is willing to be examined. Go ahead.
Mr. Darrow–I read that years ago. Can you answer my question directly? If the day was lengthened by stopping either the earth or the sun, it must have been the earth?
A–Well, I should say so.
Q– Now, Mr. Bryan, have you ever pondered what would have happened to the earth if it had stood still?
Q–You have not?
A– No; the God I believe in could have taken care of that, Mr. Darrow.
Q– I see. Have you ever pondered what would naturally happen to the earth if it stood still suddenly?
A– No.
Q–Don’t you know it would have been converted into molten mass of matter?
A–You testify to that when you get on the stand, I will give you a chance.
Q–Don’t you believe it?
A–I would want to hear expert testimony on that.
Q–You have never investigated that subject?
A–I don’t think I have ever had the question asked.
Q–Or ever thought of it?
A–I have been too busy on thinks that I thought were of more importance than that.
Q–You believe the story of the flood to be a literal interpretation?
A–Yes, sir.
Q–When was that Flood?
A–I would not attempt to fix the date. The date is fixed, as suggested this morning.
Q–About 4004 B.C.?
A–That has been the estimate of a man that is accepted today. I would not say it is accurate.
Q–That estimate is printed in the Bible?
A–Everybody knows, at least, I think most of the people know, that was the estimate given.
Q–But what do you think that the Bible, itself says? Don’t you know how it was arrived at?
A–I never made a calculation.
Q–A calculation from what?
A–I could not say.
Q–From the generations of man?
A–I would not want to say that.
Q–What do you think?
A–I do not think about things I don’t think about.
Q–Do you think about things you do think about?
A–Well, sometimes.
(Laughter in the courtyard.)
Policeman–Let us have order….
Stewart–Your honor, he is perfectly able to take care of this, but we are attaining no evidence. This is not competent evidence.
Witness–These gentlemen have not had much chance–they did not come here to try this case. They came here to try revealed religion. I am here to defend it and they can ask me any question they please.
The Court–All right.
(Applause from the court yard.)
Darrow–Great applause from the bleachers.
Witness–From those whom you call “Yokels.”
Darrow–I have never called them yokels.
Witness–That is the ignorance of Tennessee, the bigotry.
Darrow–You mean who are applauding you? (Applause.)
Witness–Those are the people whom you insult.
Darrow–You insult every man of science and learning in the world because he does believe in your fool religion.
The Court–I will not stand for that.
Darrow–For what he is doing?
The Court–I am talking to both of you….
Q–Wait until you get to me. Do you know anything about how many people there were in Egypt 3,500 years ago, or how many people there were in China 5,000 years ago?
Q–Have you ever tried to find out?
A–No, sir. You are the first man I ever heard of who has been in interested in it. (Laughter.)
Q–Mr. Bryan, am I the first man you ever heard of who has been interested in the age of human societies and primitive man?
A–You are the first man I ever heard speak of the number of people at those different periods.
Q–Where have you lived all your life?
A–Not near you. (Laughter and applause.)
Q–Nor near anybody of learning?
A–Oh, don’t assume you know it all.
Q–Do you know there are thousands of books in our libraries on all those subjects I have been asking you about?
A–I couldn’t say, but I will take your word for it….
Q–Have you any idea how old the earth is?
Q–The Book you have introduced in evidence tells you, doesn’t it?
A–I don’t think it does, Mr. Darrow.
Q–Let’s see whether it does; is this the one?
A–That is the one, I think.
Q–It says B.C. 4004?
A–That is Bishop Usher’s calculation.
Q–That is printed in the Bible you introduced?
A–Yes, sir….
Q–Would you say that the earth was only 4,000 years old?
A–Oh, no; I think it is much older than that.
Q–How much?
A–I couldn’t say.
Q–Do you say whether the Bible itself says it is older than that?
A–I don’t think it is older or not.
Q–Do you think the earth was made in six days?
A–Not six days of twenty-four hours.
Q–Doesn’t it say so?
A–No, sir….
The Court–Are you about through, Mr. Darrow?
Darrow–I want to ask a few more questions about the creation.
The Court–I know. We are going to adjourn when Mr. Bryan comes off the stand for the day. Be very brief, Mr. Darrow. Of course, I believe I will make myself clearer. Of course, it is incompetent testimony before the
jury. The only reason I am allowing this to go in at all is that they may have it in the appellate court as showing what the affidavit would be.
Bryan–The reason I am answering is not for the benefit of the superior court. It is to keep these gentlemen from saying I was afraid to meet them and let them question me, and I want the Christian world to know that any atheist, agnostic, unbeliever, can question me anytime as to my belief in God, and I will answer him.
Darrow–I want to take an exception to this conduct of this witness. He may be very popular down here in the hills….
Bryan–Your honor, they have not asked a question legally and the only reason they have asked any question is for the purpose, as the question about Jonah was asked, for a chance to give this agnostic an opportunity to criticize a believer in the world of God; and I answered the question in order to shut his mouth so that he cannot go out and tell his atheistic friends that I would not answer his questions. That is the only reason, no more reason in the world.
Malone–Your honor on this very subject, I would like to say that I would have asked Mr. Bryan–and I consider myself as good a Christian as he is–every question that Mr. Darrow has asked him for the purpose of bring out whether or not there is to be taken in this court a literal interpretation of the Bible, or whether, obviously, as these questions indicate, if a general and literal construction cannot be put upon the parts of the Bible which have been covered by Mr. Darrow’s questions. I hope for the last time no further attempt will be made by counsel on the other side of the case, or Mr. Bryan, to say the defense is concerned at all with Mr. Darrow’s particular religious views or lack of religious views. We are here as lawyers with the same right to our views. I have the same right to mine as a Christian as Mr. Bryan has to his, and we do not intend to have this case charged by Mr. Darrow’s agnosticism or Mr. Bryan’s brand of Christianity. (A great applause.)
Mr. Darrow:
Q–Mr. Bryan, do you believe that the first woman was Eve?
Q–Do you believe she was literally made out of Adams’s rib?
A–I do.
Q–Did you ever discover where Cain got his wife?
A–No, sir; I leave the agnostics to hunt for her.
Q–You have never found out?
A–I have never tried to find
Q–You have never tried to find?
Q–The Bible says he got one, doesn’t it? Were there other people on the earth at that time?
A–I cannot say.
Q–You cannot say. Did that ever enter your consideration?
A–Never bothered me.
Q–There were no others recorded, but Cain got a wife.
A–That is what the Bible says.
Q–Where she came from you do not know. All right. Does the statement, “The morning and the evening were the first day,” and “The morning and the evening were the second day,” mean anything to you?
A– I do not think it necessarily means a twenty-four-hour day.
Q–You do not?
Q–What do you consider it to be?
A–I have not attempted to explain it. If you will take the second chapter–let me have the book. (Examining Bible.) The fourth verse of the second chapter says: “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth, when they were created in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,” the word “day” there in the very next chapter is used to describe a period. I do not see that there is any necessity for construing the words, “the evening and the morning,” as meaning necessarily a twenty-four-hour day, “in the day when the Lord made the heaven and the earth.”
Q–Then, when the Bible said, for instance, “and God called the firmament heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day,” that does not necessarily mean twenty-four hours?
A–I do not think it necessarily does.
Q–Do you think it does or does not?
A–I know a great many think so.
Q–What do you think?
A–I do not think it does.
Q–You think those were not literal days?
A–I do not think they were twenty-four-hour days.
Q–What do you think about it?
A–That is my opinion–I do not know that my opinion is better on that subject than those who think it does.
Q–You do not think that ?
A–No. But I think it would be just as easy for the kind of God we believe in to make the earth in six days as in six years or in 6,000,000 years or in 600,000,000 years. I do not think it important whether we believe one or the other.
Q–Do you think those were literal days?
A–My impression is they were periods, but I would not attempt to argue as against anybody who wanted to believe in literal days.
Q–I will read it to you from the Bible: “And the Lord God said unto the serpent, because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.” Do you think that is why the serpent is compelled to crawl upon its belly?
A–I believe that.
Q–Have you any idea how the snake went before that time?
A–No, sir.
Q–Do you know whether he walked on his tail or not?
A–No, sir. I have no way to know. (Laughter in audience).
Q–Now, you refer to the cloud that was put in heaven after the flood, the rainbow. Do you believe in that?
A–Read it.
Q–All right, Mr. Bryan, I will read it for you.
Bryan–Your Honor, I think I can shorten this testimony. The only purpose Mr. Darrow has is to slur at the Bible, but I will answer his question. I will answer it all at once, and I have no objection in the world, I want the world to know that this man, who does not believe in a God, is trying to use a court in Tennessee–
Darrow–I object to that.
Bryan–(Continuing) to slur at it, and while it will require time, I am willing to take it.
Darrow–I object to your statement. I am exempting you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes.
The Court–Court is adjourned until 9 o’clock tomorrow morning.


Full version of the 1999 version of Inherit the Wind, with Spanish subtitles:

Fuller version of Brady examination, lower quality:


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