johnlink ranks INHERIT THE WIND (1960)

Someone with a lot of time on their hands could go through the history of this blog and track the periods when I had little free time. They would be marked by one of two things. First: A series of mindless entertainment movies (which may or may not be good) but which require little thinking and often result in lackluster writing pieces (See: my two-days-late review on FROM PARIS WITH LOVE). Second: Extended absence. Like, a month of not watching a single movie. That happens too. But I always tend to come out of either of these periods swinging. I may not be out of the current mindless entertainment period yet. In fact, my March looks stupid busy. But as I wrap up a February vacation filled with rehearsals, I wanted to bite something which took some chewing. I found my way to INHERIT THE WIND.


I watched INHERIT THE WIND (1960) on 2.20.15. It was my first viewing of the film.

INHERIT THE WIND is based on the story surrounding the Scopes Evolution trial of the 1920s. Scopes was a school teacher who dared to teach evolution in his high school class. Due to the public nature of the trial, a former Presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, volunteered to prosecute. In retaliation, a defender of the free thinkers, Clarence Darrow, came to Scopes defense. Literally.

And so, INHERIT THE WIND takes this true story and fictionalizes pieces of it. Scopes is given a fiancé who is the daughter of the local priest. More noticeably, the names are changed. Scopes becomes Cates (Dick York). Bryan becomes Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) and Darrow is renamed Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy). Additionally, a newsman named HL Mencken becomes EK Hornbeck (Gene Kelly).

The story begins with the arrest of Cates. We see the police, the priest, and a local reporter marching in step on the way to observe Cates class. At the mention of evolution, Cates is arrested. We soon learn that his fiancé, Rachel (Donna Anderson), is torn between honoring her man and doing right by her Reverend father (Claude Akins). All of this is interesting, but it is really when Brady and Darrow are introduced that things get interesting.

This is a movie which is unabashedly on the side of the free thinking evolutionists. While this may seem common and obvious today, this was released in a 1960 when religious bigotry was being used as a shield in the civil rights debate. Flash forward 55 years to modern day, and one could easily equate the same biblical arguments to those trying to withhold gay rights. Further, Oklahoma just cancelled AP History class because lawmakers felt AP History didn’t paint American History in a good light. And so it is that INHERIT THE WIND is a 55 year old movie which is very much about things we are still dealing with today.

That connection wouldn’t matter  if this wasn’t a good movie. But it is an exceptional movie. Director Spencer Tracy shoots this black and white film with a wonderful eye for foreground-background relationships. In fact, any Film 101 class considering the use of grounds should ditch the obvious choice of CITIZEN KANE (plenty of room for that movie elsewhere in the curriculum) and go instead with this 1960 courtroom drama.


There is more humor in this movie than might be gleaned by reading the story summary. Kelly’s Hornbeck is a master at turning a phrase. Even if his character feels a bit of a stereotype until his final scene, Kelly gets a ton of milage out of it. Even more funny is Spencer Tracy in the Drummond role. But to relegate that description to humor would be to underrate a tour-de-force performance by Tracy. The scene where Drummond puts Brady on the stand (a seemingly cheap Hollywood trick that actually happened in the real Scopes trial) is an all time great courtroom scene in a genre which specializes in such moments. March sometimes hams it up slightly too much in the Brady role, but that scene is pure acting gold. It is two all-time great actors laying into one another with one (March) allowing the other (Tracy) to have the upper hand.

The wonderful acting doesn’t end there. Brady’s wife is played by Florence Eldridge (his real life wife), and she has the type of scene for which the Best Supporting Actress category was made. Though, it should be noted, this film received only four nominations and no wins at the Academy Awards. The material, it would seem, was probably ten years ahead of the where it could be allowably loved by the general public. While the 1960 crowd was more forward thinking than the 1920s small town depicted in the film, the religious majority wasn’t opposed to marching and shouting threats, as is depicted in INHERIT THE WIND, even in 1960.

INHERIT THE WIND is essential courtroom drama viewing. It is also essential human rights viewing. This is a movie which I didn’t expect to love, but which grabbed me beginning to end. This is wonderful filmmaking.




FINAL SCORE: 9 out of 10

~ by johnlink00 on February 20, 2015.

One Response to “johnlink ranks INHERIT THE WIND (1960)”

  1. such a great movie. definitely one of my favorites. We read the play in high school and then the teacher showed us the movie. the remake wasn’t as good despite being from the same source.

    great review John!

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