Friday, March 8, 2019

Inherit the Wind - a film review

Inherit the Wind (1960) Spencer Tracy and Fredric March


As a belated Darwin Day treat to myself I finally got around to watching the lionized film Inherit the Wind, the theatrical adaptation of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. As I watched, it seemed incredible the movie was ever made, let alone in the heart of a conservative era 60 years ago. The atheist versus theist overtones create quite the backdrop for a court case that would argue if evolution should be taught in the public classroom.

And that's where my primary surprise kicked in. The film has very little to do with evolution, instead it accurately represents the basis of The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, in that it represents a state's lawful ability to prevent a teacher's right to teach science. Further, I was expecting significantly more discussion of the merits of evolution by natural selection as opposed to creation stories. Alas, the primary thrust of the film was to make a stand for human agency, and how a state can legislate against a man's right to think for himself and to teach ideas to his students. The subtle implication is a teacher should be able to teach what they wish in their classroom, either science or pseudoscience.

Side note, I researched the actual trial and ironically it turns out the high school teacher probably didn't even teach evolution is his class, as he was primarily a math teacher. So much for representing the true story. I'll concede, the acting in the film is steadfast, even if the courtroom arguments become quite jumbled. The courtroom drama of To Kill a Mockingbird, in comparison, I found to be more compelling overall. 

As an non-theist, you might think I'd celebrate the breakdown of the blowhard evangelist prosecutor in the film, alas it was more of a sad representation of how indoctrination can overwhelm our senses, rather than find a position of integrity that integrates compassion and reason.

In the end, this film is worth watching as it does offer several thoughtful nuggets to contemplate along the way. Sadly, the verdict of the trial results in a victory for the state and a fine of Scopes, who is portrayed as a modest religious believer simply trying to teach his kids the latest science. For me, this verdict serves as vindication for religious overreach and celebration of cognitive dissonance; specifically, that one can heartily believe in a creationist origin of man simultaneous with the evidence-based origin of man. In 60's parlance, that's a bunch of poppycock in my book, to encourage students to dismiss consistency and reason in favor of feel-good mythical indoctrination.

The story ending presents perhaps the most harrowing of the film's symbolism. First of all, the journalist who had championed the court case is shamed in the final scene by the defense lawyer for having stirred up the fervor of religion versus science. To be sure, he had profit and showmanship in mind, but underlying those motives lies the journalistic virtue of seeking out the truth with integrity. To suggest that the reporter would die alone indicated to me that mindful discussion of important topics is anathema if it contradicts tradition.

The second act of symbolism dramatizes the defense lawyer contemplating the bible and Darwin's evolutionary treatise before thoughtfully walking out with both in hand. One could stretch the meaning of the gesture to represent that compassion and reason can make for good partners in the pursuit of truth. Alas, the less subtle point being sold is the idea that religion and science need not conflict, and in fact, might be stronger together. And that is how Hollywood sells tickets by creating a fantastical moment that moves the phantom spirit, more than mind and heart.