Rarely, it seems, does a year go by that the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee play Inherit the Wind about the famous “monkey trial” is not produced by local high schools and colleges. In addition, the 1960 film of the same name featuring Frederic March and Spencer Tracy appears frequently on local television. Lest there be even a few who have some how failed to see these productions, NBC produced its own color remake of Inherit the Wind. In 1988 which it has aired twice on nationwide television. All of these versions of Inherit the Wind are quite similar, with both film versions expanding on certain themes of the original play.
The great interest in Inherit the Wind rests largely on its perceived relevance to the growing creation-evolution controversy. While Inherit the Wind is obviously not a documentary, it is understood to be a documentary-drama of the famous Scopes trial of 1925, which pitted William Jennings Bryan against Clarence Darrow in a classic confrontation over the teaching of evolution and creation in the public schools. Considerable theatrical liberties were exercised in developing the plot but occasional courtroom exchanges were taken verbatim from the transcript of the Scopes trial. The composite that resulted has unfortunately become widely perceived as essentially an historical account of the trial. This widely held misconception has been reinforced by the extensive promotions, advertisements and reviews that preceded the showing of the NBC television version of Inherit the Wind. Many grade schools and high schools throughout the nation asked their students to watch NBC’s Inherit the Wind so that they might better understand the events and issues surrounding the nation’s most famous courtroom battle.
The original film version of Inherit the Wind has long been used as an educational film in science, history and social studies classes. In the Mehlville school district in St. Louis County, for example, this film is shown to junior high students in their earth science class. Their teacher claims that the film shows “the triumph of science over religious dogma.” But does Inherit the Wind, or even the Scopes trial itself, show the triumph of science (evolutionism) over religious dogma (special creation)? More importantly, is the play/film a fair and accurate representation of the great battle of ideas and beliefs that was waged at the Rhea County Court House in Dayton, Tennessee? The answers to these questions are important in view of the impact that the frequent showing of the various versions of Inherit the Wind are likely to have on the attitudes and beliefs of its viewers.
The purpose of this study was to carefully compare the film Inherit the Wind (CBS Fox Video, copyright 1960) with the actual transcript of the Scopes trial as well as with various biographical and historical accounts of the trial and its participants. The transcript of the Scopes trial is available on microfilm in most University law libraries, but for convenience in study, I chose to use a reprint of the original transcript published in its entirety at the time of the trial in the book, The World’s Most Famous Court Trial. All page references to the “transcript” in this study refer to this book.
Curiously, the film Inherit the Wind, unlike other documentary-dramas such as Gandhi and Patton, does not use the actual names of either the participants or places it portrays. Although some characters like the Rev. Jeremiah Brown and his much persecuted daughter Rachel are purely fictitious, the rest of the principal characters in the play and film versions of Inherit the Wind clearly represent well known participants in the Scopes trial. Lest there be any doubt, even the pattern of the names and the number of syllables in each name carefully match the real names of the people they purport to portray. In both the play and film versions, the character Matthew Harrison Brady represents William Jennings Bryan, Henry Drummond represents Clarence Darrow, Bert Cates represents John Scopes and E. K. Hornbeck represents H. L. Mencken. I have chosen to use the proper names of the principals in the Scopes trial to avoid confusion since there has never been any doubt who the chief characters in the film are intended to represent.
I believe that the following observations will show that there are profound discrepancies between the film and the relevant historical evidence. With the exception, perhaps, of the degree to which this is true, these differences were not unexpected. What is more significant, however, is that there is considerable evidence to suggest that the film is not simply inaccurate, in the way of “Hollywood history,” but rather is highly biased in its intent. The historical inaccuracies are systematic and of a kind that presents a consistent bias of slanderous proportions against a particular class of people and their beliefs. Specifically, people who believe in the miracles recorded in the Bible, and especially the Biblical account of creation, are portrayed in an outrageously uncomplimentary way. On the other hand, those who are critical or virtually unbelieving, with regard to the miracles of the Bible, are portrayed as eminently reasonable people who must suffer the abuse, threats and ignorance of the fundamentalist Christians around them.
In the observations that follow, segments of the general story line of the film are presented in roughly chronological order under the heading MOVIE: ; immediately following, under the heading FACT: , is a discussion of each film segment in the light of the Scopes trial transcript as well as other historical sources. Although the following story lines and criticisms refer specifically to the 1960 film version of Inherit the Wind, in most instances they apply with equal validity to the original play as well as the NBC television remake.
MOVIE: Begins with an off key vocal dirge on the song Old Time Religion repeated for numerous choruses. Drums pound ominously in the background as sinister men (clergymen and businessmen) gather to do foul deeds in the name of God. They intrude into the biology classroom where John Scopes is caught teaching evolution with enthusiasm and conviction, and there indict Scopes for breaking the law against teaching evolution. Scopes is immediately jailed and remains in jail throughout the trial. Out of fear, Scopes sends a letter to a newspaper requesting help assuming, it would appear, that the news media can always be counted on to defend evolutionism. The notorious reporter and editorialist H. L. Mencken comes to the rescue and enlists the aid of the famous trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow. And none to soon, for the Fundamentalist Christians of Dayton hate John Scopes and gather outside his jail cell window to throw things at him and chant that they are going to lynch him.
FACT: No one intruded in John Scopes’ classroom. Scopes was not a biology teacher. Scopes only filled in for two weeks near the end of the school year for the biology teacher, Mr. Ferguson, who was ill. Scopes didn’t even have a college degree in science (he had an undergraduate major in law at the University of Kentucky). Scopes was hired to teach math and coach the football team. The team improved during the year under Scopes and he was generally well liked by the people of Rhea County. Prior to the trial, no one outside his school knew or cared what Scopes taught in school. Scopes maintained to his death in 1970 that he never taught evolution during the two weeks he substituted for the biology teacher but rather simply reviewed the students for their final exam. In Sprague de Camp’s book, The Great Monkey Trial there is recorded a remarkable conversation between Scopes and reporter William K. Hutchinson of the International News Service which occurred during the last days of the trial. Scopes said:
“There’s something I must tell you. It’s worried me. I didn’t violate the law ...I never taught that evolution lesson. I skipped it. I was doing something else the day I should have taught it, and I missed the whole lesson about Darwin and never did teach it. Those kids they put on the stand couldn’t remember what I taught them three months ago. They were coached by the lawyers.” “Honest, I’ve been scared all through the trial that the kids might remember I missed the lesson. I was afraid they’d get on the stand and say I hadn’t taught it and then the whole trial would go blooey. If that happened they would run me out of town on a rail.”
When Hutchinson replied that would make a great story, Scopes said:
“My god no! Not a word of it until the Supreme Court passes my appeal. My lawyers would kill me.” (de Camp, page 432)
Hutchinson did claim he overheard Clarence Darrow coaching the students on what to say, but even with coaching, only one of the students clearly implied that Scopes taught evolution. There is clearly a more interesting story here than the public has been told: Clarence Darrow, who was presumably supposed to defend his client from a law that forbid the teaching of evolution, apparently coached his client’s students to perjure themselves by claiming that John Scopes taught evolution when in fact he hadn’t!
Given that John Scopes was a popular football coach in Dayton who never taught evolution and didn’t feel strongly about the subject—how then did he get indicted for violating a Tennessee law which forbid teaching the evolution of man? The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in New York City and George Rappleyea, a local mine operator in Dayton Tennessee, were responsible for indicting John Scopes for teaching evolution. The ACLU was anxious to get a test case in Tennessee which they might be able to use to repeal or nullify the Butler act. This act forbid public school teachers in the state of Tennessee to deny the literal Biblical account of man’s origin and to teach in its place the evolution of man from lower animals. The law, incidentally, didn’t forbid teaching the evolution of any other species of plant or animal. George Rappleyea read a press release from the ACLU in a Chattanooga paper, The Daily Times, which said in part:
“We are looking for a Tennessee teacher who is willing to accept our services in testing this law in the courts.”
The release promised legal services without cost and implied that the Ku-Klux Klan and “professional patriotic societies” were the “inspiration” for the law. Rappleyea apparently had reasons of his own for trying to embarrass the Fundamentalist Christians of Tennessee by challenging and perhaps overthrowing a law which favored teaching the Biblical account of man’s creation. During the Scopes trial George Rappleyea told the press about his reason for setting the Scopes trial in motion. Rappleyea was apparently upset with a Fundamentalist preacher who he claimed declared that a dead boy would be cast into the “flames of hell” because he had neither “confessed Christ” nor was baptized. This apparently did not agree with Rappleyea’s religious views and he vowed that he would “get even” with the “Fundamentalists” who he believed were responsible for the antievolution law (de Camp, pages 6-7). Rappleyea said “I made up my mind I’d show the world.”
Rappleyea, who de Camp describes as an “intense, argumentative, garrulous man,” lost no time in seeking out John Scopes and in pressuring him to accept the ACLU offer. Scopes was apparently reluctant to get involved and told Rappleyea that he had not actually taught evolution. Rappleyea insisted that since the biology text book taught evolution, that was close enough and with Scopes’ permission he wrote out a telegram on the spot to the ACLU which read:
“Professor J.T. Scopes, teacher of science Rhea County high School, Dayton, Tenn, will be arrested and charged with teaching evolution. Consent of superintendent of education for test case to be defended by you. Wire me collect if you wish to cooperate and arrest will follow.”
Apparently Rappleyea didn’t even wait for the ACLU response as he went right out to a justice of the peace to get a warrant for Scopes’ arrest. Sue Hicks, a local lawyer who went along with the plan, filled out a makeshift arrest warrant while Rappleyea swore to the truth of the statement and signed the warrant. He then found a sheriff and demanded the arrest of John Scopes. Scopes was arrested and immediately released on a bond of $1,000. It should be emphasized that, contrary to the film, Scopes was never jailed for teaching evolution. In portraying Scopes as a “prisoner”, the film obviously tried to invoke sympathy for Scopes as a man who was persecuted for his beliefs by prying Fundamentalists. In his book, Sprague de Camp dispelled what he called “the widespread myth” of the dedicated school teacher who was persecuted for his courageous stand on behalf of evolution by “witch-burning” Fundamentalists:
“The trial wasn’t a ‘witch hunt’ as it has been called, because the accused and his defenders—the ‘witches’—were actually the hunters, stalking the law with the intent of overturning it or at least making it unenforceable.” (de Camp, page 490)
MOVIE: Throughout the film William Jennings Bryan is portrayed as closed-minded, pompous, stupid, intolerant, hypocritical, insincere and a glutton. As the trial progresses, Bryan becomes virtually obsessed with his mission of prosecuting John Scopes and keeping evolution out of the schools. Even Bryan’s wife gradually comes to realize that her husband is a religious zealot and seems to regret that she didn’t get to know the agnostic Clarence Darrow a little better in their younger years. Even Bryan’s reputation as an orator is called into question in the film which portrays him as a strutting and arrogant sounding “flim-flam man” whose style and tedious sense of humor appeals only to ignorant folks (ie. Christian Fundamentalists). It is hardly possible to watch the film without developing a sense of contempt for William Jennings Bryan and the Christian Fundamentalists who somehow find something to admire in the man.
FACT: In his book The Great Monkey Trial, Sprague de Camp repudiatesBryan’s conservative Christianity and misses no opportunity to be critical of his scientific views and yet, honesty compelled him to give Bryan credit for at least some of his undeniable virtues:
“As a speaker, Bryan radiated good humored sincerity. Few who heard him could help liking him. In personality he was forceful, energetic, and opinionated but genial, kindly, generous, likable and charming. He showed a praise worthy tolerance towards those who disagreed with him. Bryan was the greatest American orator of his time and perhaps any time.” (de Camp, page 37)
This is obviously not the man portrayed in the film, but de Camp’s description of Bryan’s character is entirely consistent with the major biographies of Bryan’s life (see Levine, 1965 and Coletta, 1969). None the less, many of Bryan’s enemies insisted that, regardless of his many virtues, he was ignorant and even dangerous when it came to scientific or factual matters. The historical record does not support this accusation.
Bryan was not just a “commoner,” as even he liked to portray himself, but was also an immensely productive and progressive politician who was the recognized leader of the Democratic party for 30 years and was three times nominated by his Party as their candidate for President of the United States. Although Bryan was never elected president, he did serve as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson during which time he devoted most of his attention to negotiating treaties with foreign nations in an effort to prevent the outbreak of World War I. During his political career, Bryan strenuously fought for some of the most progressive legislation of his time, including the popular election of senators, an income tax, the free and unlimited coinage of silver, requirements for the publication of the circulation and ownership of newspapers, the creation of the department of labor, and women suffrage. Bryan appealed to a broad cross section of people including those whose political views were decidedly liberal. Clarence Darrow himself twice campaigned for Bryan when he ran for President of the United States. Many of the “progressives” who supported Bryan, however, came to despise him for his outspoken Christian convictions, particularly when he dared to speak out against Darwinism.
MOVIE: The conservative Christian people of Dayton, Tennessee are portrayed as greedy, ignorant, closed-minded, discourteous and even threatening towards the lawyers for the defense, the news media and outsiders in general.
FACT: The transcript of the Scopes trial shows this to be precisely the opposite of the truth:
Darrow: “I don’t know as I was ever in a community in my life where my religious ideas differed as widely from the great mass as I have found them since I have been in Tennessee. Yet I came here a perfect stranger and I can say what I have said before that I have not found upon anybody’s part—any citizen here in this town or outside the slightest discourtesy. I have been treated better, kindlier and more hospitably than I fancied would have been the case in the north.” (transcript, pages 225-226).
Newspaper man from Toronto:
I would like to “express my great appreciation of the extreme courtesy which has been accorded me and my brethren of the press by the court and the citizens of Dayton. I shall take back with me a deeper appreciation of the great republic for which we have felt so kindly, and whose institutions we so magnify and admire.” (transcript, page 315)
MOVIE: Bryan, but not Darrow, is referred to as “Colonel” in the court room because only Bryan had been made an “honorary Colonel” in the state militia of Tennessee. Darrow understandably resents this gross display of bias and the State reluctantly makes Darrow a “temporary honorary Colonel” in a bungling effort to hide their obvious partiality to Bryan.
FACT: “Colonel” was a customary honorary title used in the courtroom and was extended to all of the legal counsel in the Scopes case. It had nothing whatever to do with the military or favoritism. Both Darrow and Bryan, indeed all of the lawyers in the case, were frequently referred to as “Colonel” during the trial. Incidentally, unlike Darrow, Bryan really was a Colonel in the U.S. Army.
MOVIE: Darrow objects to the announcement of an evening prayer meeting at the end of the first day of the trial.
FACT: No such announcement was ever made during the trial but Darrow and the other defense lawyers repeatedly objected to the opening of each session of the court with prayer as was customary in Tennessee and still is in our own U.S. Supreme Court.
MOVIE: Darrow gets Bryan to admit that he is totally opposed to the use of Darwin’s book The Descent of Man in the Rhea County High School Biology classroom despite the fact that he, Bryan, has never read Darwin’s book nor does he ever intend to read it.
FACT: It was Hunter’s Civic Biology that was used in the classroom, not Darwin’s book. It was Bryan, not Darrow, who introduced Darwin’s The Descent of Man as evidence in the trial and who quoted from it (transcript, page 176). Bryan proved, for example, that Darwin did in fact claim that man descended from a monkey, a point the defense had tried to deny. Bryan is reported by one of his biographers, Lawrence W. Levine, to have read Darwin’s On The Origin of Species already in 1905—20 years before the Scopes trial! Although Bryan’s reservations about the theory of evolution were certainly influenced by his religious beliefs, he had written many well argued articles which were critical of the scientific evidence used in his day to defend the theory of evolution. Bryan had also carried on a long correspondence on the subject of evolution with the famous evolutionist, Henry Fairfield Osborn. Certainly for a layman, Bryan’s knowledge of the scientific evidence both for and against evolution was unusually great. By comparison, the trial transcript shows that Darrow gave the impression of having a very poor grasp of both the meaning and putative mechanism of evolution. Darrow appeared to rest his belief in evolution on scientific “authority,” which he accepted without question, and on his total rejection of all the miracles of the Bible including, of course, the Genesis account of Creation.
MOVIE: Scopes’ fiance “Rachel Brown” is called as a witness and is badly mistreated by Bryan who forces her to testify against her own fiance by insisting that she repeat deeply personal conversations between her and Scopes which Bryan had pried out of her in “confidence” only the night before. Bryan, always the fanatic, loses his self control and becomes cruel and merciless in his questioning of the frightened young lady. Darrow, on the other hand, magnanimously agrees not to cross examine Rachel lest she be further discomfited after Bryan’s unconscionable abuse.
FACT: No women participated in the trial. Scopes did not have a special girl friend or fiance at this time though he dated several Dayton girls. Bryan was courteous at all times in his handling of witnesses as an examination of the trial transcript will reveal. Darrow, on the other hand, was at times condescending and contemptuous in his treatment of witnesses, jurists, opposing lawyers and even the judge. Darrow was, in fact, cited for contempt of court for repeatedly interrupting and insulting judge Raulston. Darrow persecuted Bryan so relentlessly for his religious beliefs, when he called him on the stand, that some have suggested that Darrow actually hastened Bryan’s death. This possibility was undoubtedly on H.L. Menckens’ mind who on learning of Bryan’s death shortly after the trial said, “Well, we killed the son of a bitch.” Darrow’s treatment of Bryan was perceived as so deplorable that even many supporters of the ACLU successfully exerted pressure to prevent him from representing Scopes when the case was later appealed to the State Supreme Court. Liberal clergymen who supported the ACLU maintained that Darrow had succeeded in turning many “moderate” theologians against evolution and the ACLU by his apparently hostile attitude toward Christianity and Bryan.
MOVIE :The defense is unable to get permission to use their several expert witnesses because Bryan is afraid of their testimony and considers it irrelevant. One by one, Darrow calls his distinguished scientists to the stand but each time, thanks to an ignorant and biased judge, Bryan needs only to say, “objection—irrelevant,” and that is the end of it.
FACT: Technically, the only point at issue in the trial was whether or not John Scopes actually taught the evolution of man from lower orders of animals, so naturally the lawyers for the prosecution did question the relevance of the testimony of expert witnesses. The verbal testimony of the evolutionists assembled by the defense was prevented, however, because Darrow adamantly refused to let his scientific witnesses be cross-examined by the prosecution (transcript, pages 206-208). Bryan had asked for, and received, the right to cross-examine the expert witnesses, but Darrow was so opposed to allowing his experts to be questioned that he never called them to the witness stand! Bryan pointed out that under the conditions demanded by Darrow, the evolutionists could take the witness stand and merely express their speculations and opinions on evolution without fear of being contradicted. The wisdom of this position was amply demonstrated by the confused and convoluted opinions of the one scientist who had been permitted to testify earlier for the defense. Throughout the trial the definition of the term evolution was so hopelessly muddled by the defense and its’ witnesses that it seems unlikely that any of the jurors could have known exactly what evolution is and is not. Evolution, for example, was repeatedly confused with embryology and even aging! The defense lawyer, Dudley Field Malone, is a case in point:
“The embryo becomes a human being when it is born. Evolution never stops from the beginning of the one cell until the human being returns in death to lifeless dust. We wish to set before you evidence of this character in order to stress the importance of the theory of evolution.” (transcript, page 116)
Another lawyer for the defense, Arthur Garfield Hays, added chaos to prisonerconfusion when he said:
“I know that in the womb of the mother the very first thing is a cell and that cell grows and it subdivides and it grows into a human being and a human being is born. Does that statement, as the boy stated on the stand, that he was taught that man comes from a cell—is that a theory that man descended from a lower order of animals? I don’t know and I dare say your honor has some doubt about it. Are we entitled to find out whether it is or not in presenting this case to the jury?” (transcript, page 156)
Darrow himself gave the impression that he had almost no understanding of the meaning of the term evolution. When judge Raulston, who became understandably confused by all of the double talk on the subject of evolution, asked Darrow if he believed that all life came from one cell, Darrow replied:
“Well I am not quite so clear, but I think it did.” “— All human life comes from one cell. You came from one and I came from one—nothing else a single cell.” (transcript, page 189)
Even Dr. Maynard M. Metcalf, a zoologist from Johns Hopkins University, made this same mistake in his expert testimony and then went on to obfuscate the definition of evolution beyond recognition. First Dr. Metcalf assured the Court of his qualifications as an evolutionist by stating:
“I have always been particularly interested in the evolution of the individual organism from the egg, and also the evolution of the organism as a whole from the beginning of life, that has been a sort of peculiar interest of mine, always.” (transcript, page 136)
When asked by Darrow to tell what is meant by “the fact of evolution,” Dr. Metcalf responded with this:
“Evolution I think means the change; in the final analysis I think it means the change of an organism from one character into a different character, and by character I mean its structure, or its behavior, or its functions or its method of development from the egg or anything else—the change of an organism from one set characteristic which characterizes it into a different condition, characterized by a different set of characteristics either structural or functional could be properly called, I think, evolution—to be the evolution of that organism; but the term in general means the whole series of such changes which have taken place during hundreds of millions of years which have produced from lowly beginnings the nature of which is not by any means fully understood to organism of much more complex character, whose structure and function we are still studying, because we haven’t begun to learn what we need to know about them.” (transcript, pages 139-140)
So much for the fact of evolution. One can only imagine what questions Bryan might have asked Dr. Metcalf if Darrow would have allowed his expert witness to be questioned. Bryan was clearly aware of the confusion that was being introduced by the defense on the definition of evolution and pointed out that even one of the school children who had testified seemed to have a better grasp of evolution than the lawyers for the defense:
“The little boy understood what he was talking about and to my surprise the attorneys didn’t seem to catch the significance of the theory of evolution—he thought that little boy was talking about individuals coming up from one cell.” “Bryan emphasized that evolution was” “Not the growth of an individual from one cell, but the growth of all life from one cell.” (transcript, page 173)
Bryan pointed out that even the National Education Association was confused on the subject and as a result, their attempt to make an official statement condemning Tennessee for “ignorance and bigotry” was frustrated by their inability to agree on a definition for evolution (transcript, page 173). Perhaps the most significant fact is that the movie Inherit the Wind chose to ignore virtually all of the scientific commentary and testimony that was presented during the trial including that of Dr. Maynard Metcalf. While this may have been just as well for reasons I have described, the movie certainly does not depict a “triumph of science over religious dogma.” As for dogma, the trial transcript reveals that there was plenty of that on both sides of this dispute.
MOVIE: Bryan admits that he takes every word of the Bible literally.
FACT: From the transcript (page 285) we read:
Darrow: “Do you claim that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?”
Bryan: “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.”
MOVIE: Darrow asks about sex in the Bible and Bryan replies that all sex is sinful.
FACT: Nothing was discussed about sex in the trial. Apparently Hollywood just couldn’t resist introducing a little sex in the film and implying that Bryan was a prude.
MOVIE: Bryan claims that he knows that the age of the earth is the exact date calculated by Archbishop Ussher which placed the date of creation at 9 o’clock in the morning on the 23rd of October in 4004 BC.
FACT: Bryan didn’t claim to know how old the earth was. From the trial transcript (page 296) we read:
Darrow: “Mr. Bryan could you tell me how old the earth is?”
Bryan: “No sir, I couldn’t.”
Darrow: “Could you come anywhere near it?”
Bryan: “I wouldn’t attempt to. I could possibly come as near as the scientists do, but I had rather be more accurate before I give a guess.”
MOVIE: As the trial grinds to an end, Darrow fights valiantly to establish the innocence of his client John Scopes. On one occasion when it appeared that Scopes wanted to give up the fight to prove his innocence, Darrow asks “Are you going to find yourself guilty before the jury does?”
FACT: After spending much of the seventh day of the trial systematically grilling and ridiculing Bryan for his belief in numerous miracles of the Bible, Darrow abruptly ended the trial by asking the Court to instruct the jury to find his client guilty (abstract page 306)! This incredible concession, together with the judge’s decision to strike Bryan’s testimony from the record, was very much to Darrow’s personal benefit because it prevented him from being subjected to the same kind of inquisition he had just put Bryan through. Bryan had agreed to take the witness stand to answer questions on his Christian beliefs with the understanding that Darrow would then also be required to take the stand to answer questions about his own agnostic and evolutionary beliefs (transcript page 284). Both Judge Raulston and Darrow had agreed to this condition. When Bryan asked if Darrow, himself, knew the answer to some of his more ludicrous questions (ie. “Do you know how many people there were on this earth 3000 years ago?” ), Darrow responded with “wait until you get to me.” Despite the increasing hostility of Darrow’s questioning, Bryan thwarted repeated attempts by his colleagues to stop it.
Bryan: “I want him to have all the latitude he wants. For I am going to have some latitude when he gets through.”
Darrow: “You can have latitude and longitude.” (transcript page 288)
It is most unlikely that Darrow had any intention of giving Bryan “latitude and longitude”. He had, after all, been unwilling to let Bryan question even his expert witnesses on their religious andevolutionary assumptions, how much less likely would he be willing to subject himself to such questioning after what he had put Bryan through? As it turned out, of course, Bryan was given no opportunity to ask Darrow his questions during the trial. In the movie, Darrow is portrayed using these very words, “latitude and longitude”, but in a totally different context (philosophical lecture to the jury) that did not begin to suggest the clever maneuver in which they were actually employed!
MOVIE: The “prisoner,” John Scopes, is found guilty and Darrow is visibly shaken by this great injustice against his client. Bryan, on the other hand, is vindictive and complains bitterly about the paltry $100 fine leveled against John Scopes for a crime of such great magnitude.
FACT: Violation of the Butler Act was punishable by a fine of no less than $100 and no greater than $500; imprisonment was not a provision of the law. Bryan was not the least bit concerned about the fine nor was anyone else, indeed, Bryan himself had offered to pay Scopes’ fine. All of Scopes’ expenses relating to the trial were covered by various vested interests as was the tuition for his graduate education after the trial. John Scopes’ guilt or innocence was not even a primary concern of any of the participants in the trial. The whole purpose for bringing this case to trial was to: 1) declare the Butler act unconstitutional, 2) expose “fundamentalist” Christian views on the subject of origins to public ridicule in the press, and 3) focus the attention of the world on evolution (de Camp, page 492). In his autobiography, The Story of My Life, Clarence Darrow explained his strategy this way:
“My object, and my only object, was to focus the attention of the country on the program of Mr. Bryan and the other Fundamentalists in America.”
MOVIE: The movie builds to a noisy and chaotic climax as Bryan loses all sense of dignity and reason and goes into an incoherent tirade in an attempt to read his very lengthy concluding statement. The crowd is bored and walks out while Bryan’s wife looks on in horror at what had become of her once sane and caring husband. Finally, overcome by religious zeal, Bryan mindlessly recites the names of the books of the Bible and collapses in the throes of death on the courtroom floor.
FACT: Neither Bryan nor Darrow ever attempted to give the customary closing argument to the jury. Once Darrow accomplished his purpose of ridiculing Bryan’s beliefs in Biblical miracles he conceded Scopes’ guilt and in so doing, obviated any closing arguments. Bryan had put a great deal of effort into his closing statement and this maneuver by Darrow eliminated his opportunity to give what was a rather well supported scientific and religious argument against the theory of evolution. Bryan was quite anxious that the text of his speech be made available to the public and he made provision for its publication only one hour before his death. This speech is appended to the transcript used in this study and provides an excellent insight to Bryan’s views on education, evolution and the implications of the Scopes trial. The speech is cogently argued and hardly the raving of a mad man unless, of course, all Bible believing Christians are to be dismissed as “mad men.”
Finally, Bryan did not die in the court house in a raving frenzy. Bryan died in his sleep of unknown causes five days after the trial. It is believed that his death might have been at least indirectly related to his untreated diabetic condition which, incidentally, was also probably responsible for his frequent eating. On being informed of his death by a reporter who suggested that Bryan might have died of a broken heart, Darrow responded “Broken heart nothing; he died of a busted belly.” A little later Darrow commented to friends: “Now wasn’t that man a God-damned fool?” Even Bryan’s untimely death could not assuage the contempt of many of his detractors who had come to despise him for his stand on creation. In what must be one of the most heartless obituaries ever written, H. L. Mencken insisted that Bryan “was deluded by a childish theology full of almost a pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.”
One simply cannot escape the conclusion that the writers of the screen play, Inherit the Wind, never intended to write a historically accurate account of the Scopes trial, nor did they seriously attempt to portray the principle characters and their beliefs in an unbiased and accurate way. But some may argue that criticisms of the type presented in this study are inappropriate for a documentary-drama because historical accuracy is only the inadvertent victim of attempts to “liven up” the plot. It is typical, for example, to introduce a fictional love story in “Hollywood history”. The evidence suggests, however, that the inaccuracies encountered in the film Inherit the Wind are substantive, intentional and systematic. It is actually quite easy to see a pattern in the inaccuracies and from this one can make reasonable guesses as to the motive. The Christian Fundamentalists and particularly William Jennings Bryan are consistently lampooned throughout the film, while skeptics, and agnostics are consistently portrayed as intelligent, kindly and even heroic.
Who, we might ask, are these maligned fundamentalists, and why should we be so concerned about offending them? Today we hear the news media apply the term “fundamentalist” not only to Christians but to certain Muslim sects as well. The term, “fundamentalist,” now appears to used by the media only in a pejorative sense to label those who are considered to be highly zealous, inflexible and intolerant in their religious or philosophical beliefs. But such an unrestricted definition of “fundamentalism” might even apply to some evolutionists. Historically the term Fundamentalism applied to a loose association of Christians who were influenced by a series of 12 booklets called The Fundamentals which were published beginning in 1909. Fundamentalism was an attempt to get back to the fundamental teachings of the Christian faith which had begun to be eroded in some churches by the growing “modernist” trend around the turn of the century.
The “fundamentals” included five basic doctrines; the inerrancy of scripture, the deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ and Christ’s return in Glory. It should be noted that these beliefs are not simply the creed of a fanatic and insignificant minority in Christendom, as some suggest, but are shared by most Bible believing Christians in the world. Although a miraculous divine creation was not one of The Fundamentals, it too is believed by most Christians. A Gallup Poll in 1982 showed that 44% of all Americans believe that “God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” Another 38% believe God actively guided the process of evolution and only 9% believe that God had no active part in the process. In short, the beliefs of the much maligned fundamentalists of Dayton, Tennessee in 1925 are not greatly different from that of nearly half of the students in the average public school classroom today, and it is these who are offended and demeaned by the film Inherit the Wind!
What then is the purpose of showing the film Inherit the Wind in the history, social studies or science classroom? As history it is not only inaccurate but highly misleading. As a social study it is highly biased against a particular class of people and their religious beliefs. As science it has nothing to offer at all. If teachers feel compelled to get involved in the evolution-creation controversy in their classroom, they have much more current material at their disposal. There have recently been many exciting debates on this issue between qualified scientists who are quite sophisticated in their knowledge of the scientific evidence. Most people who have witnessed these debates find that Creationist scientists have held their own quite well, indeed, some evolutionists have conceded that creationists often win these debates! Both audio and video cassettes of debates and lectures, as well as numerous books and pamphlets on the scientific evidence relative to the creation-evolution controversy, are available from several sources.
Finally I should add that my own highly critical observations on the film, Inherit the Wind are consistent with those of others who have compared the film with the historical evidence. In his definitive three volume biography of the life and work of William Jennings Bryan, Paolo Coletta said:
“Bryan’s image was badly hurt not so much by the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee play Inherit the Wind as by the moving picture of the same title. In the film, Frederick March portrayed Bryan as a low-comedy stooge, Gene Kelly represented an unrecognizable Mencken, and Spencer Tracy, as Darrow, emerged as the hero. The film also assails the Fundamentalist position without satisfactorily substituting science for religious faith and experience.”
The World’s Most Famous Court Trial. Cincinnati, Ohio: National Book Company, 1925.
Darrow, Clarence. The Story of My Life. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965.
de Camp, Sprague L. The Great Monkey Trial. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1968.
Coletta, Paolo E. William Jennings Bryan III: Political Puritan,1915-1925. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1969.
Levine, Lawrence W. Defender of the Faith—William Jennings Bryan: The Last Decade, 1915-1925. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.