A few days ago I re-watched a favourite old film, Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind, about the trial of a schoolteacher arrested for teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. The movie is based on the real-life Scopes Trial of 1925 and it stars one of Hollywood’s most beloved actors, the 60-year-old Spencer Tracy, as a rationalist lawyer who defends the schoolteacher, fiercely challenges literalist interpretations of the Bible and refers to the Book in a decidedly offhand manner. In light of recent developments, this film seems more topical and bolder than ever.
Stanley Kramer (whose work I wrote about in this post) wasn’t renowned for cinematic inventiveness – his films were mainly issue-based, with lots of dialogue – but Inherit the Wind opens with a sinister, visually striking scene, as the camera draws back from the Hillsboro Courthouse. A group of men silently walk across deserted streets, the opening credits appear and the soundtrack plays the gospel song “Give Me That Old-Time Religion”, its lyrics a paean to unquestioning belief:
That old-time religion...The men are joined by a reverend and there’s something menacing about the group – they’re like a sheriff's posse in a Western, heading in single formation for a shootout, or to haul in a notorious criminal. It turns out that this isn’t far from the truth, except that the “criminal” in question is the mild-mannered teacher Bertram Cates, and his crime is explaining Darwin’s theory to his students and encouraging them to think for themselves.
If it’s good enough for Joshua,
It’s good enough for me
If it’s good enough for dad and mother,
It’s good enough for me...
For townsfolk living in America’s “Bible Belt”, such an act is intolerable. It’s also against the law that states that nothing that contradicts the Bible’s version of Creation can be taught in a school. The incident draws countrywide attention and gets politicized; the veteran conservative politician Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) is called in to prosecute Cates, while the liberal-rights champion Henry Drummond (Tracy) leads the defence. For the duration of the trial, the town turns into a carnival, with barkers sitting about displaying chained monkeys to people and handing out placards that say “I’m not descended from no ape!” and “Don’t monkey with us”. Meanwhile, inside the courthouse, the two men go hammer and tongs at each other. “Is nothing holy to you?” asks the exasperated Brady at one point. “Yes. The individual human mind,” replies Drummond. “In a child's power to master the multiplication table, there is more sanctity than in all your shouted ‘amens’ and ‘holy holies’ and ‘hosannas’.”
“An idea,” he continues, “is a greater monument than a cathedral.” This is the nub of the film – Drummond’s impassioned defence of the schoolteacher’s right to think and question, and to encourage others to do the same. "The Bible is a good book," he says, "but it is not the only book."
More than one critic has said that Inherit the Wind scores an easy victory against Creationists by turning Brady – the exemplar of the religious fundamentalist – into a soft target, a caricature. My two responses to this: 1) Anyone who sincerely believes that the earth was created at 9 AM on October 23rd, 4004 BC, and who tries to throw someone else into jail for teaching an alternate theory, is already a "caricature" beyond anything that the drunkest scriptwriter can create (also see Poe’s Law, which states that a parody of a religious fundamentalist can be indistinguishable from the real thing), and 2) Though Brady is deservedly portrayed as a pompous, closed-minded old fool in the courtroom scenes where he gives speeches and stirs up the general public sentiment, the film spares time to show shades to his character. One of the most moving scenes in the film is the one where he quietly admonishes a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher for being too harsh on his daughter (though again, his objection is voiced in Biblical terms): "I know you speak from the great zeal of your faith,” he says, “but it is possible to be over-zealous, to destroy that which you ought to save, so that nothing is left but emptiness...He that troubleth his own house will inherit the wind.”
The other great sequence in this vein – and I insist that it's great, even though it plays like a scene that was carefully designed to give two giants of American acting a non-antagonistic moment together – is the one where Drummond and Brady sit together on two rocking chairs late one evening, more old friends reliving the past than courtroom adversaries. "Why is it that you’ve moved so far away from me?" asks Brady. "Maybe it’s you who moved away by standing still," Drummond says laconically. Understanding the implication of this remark, Brady replies that he has no time for “progress” if it means abandoning God. Then he gets reflective, and you see a shadow moving beneath the surface of the Bible-thumper. "These are simple people," he says, “they are poor, they work hard and they need to believe in something ...something beautiful...something more perfect than what they have, like a golden chalice of hope.” (It's an argument often employed by those who believe that religion is essential for the world; even if you don’t agree with the argument, you believe that Brady does.)
“In other words, they’re window-shopping,” snaps Drummond, and he gets the final word with a story about a beautiful rocking horse he had coveted as a child, which turned out to be made of rotting wood. “All shine and no substance, and that’s how I feel about your religion. As long as a prerequisite for that shining paradise is ignorance, bigotry and hate, I say the hell with it.”
March and Tracy are both superb in this scene (arguably even better than in their more flamboyant courtroom confrontations), which is all about two actors listening carefully to each other and reacting, with smiles, grimaces and nods of the head, rather than thinking about their own lines.
In praise of Fredric March
When two different acting styles – one subdued, the other loud – occupy the same frame, there's a kneejerk tendency in some circles to rate the former more highly, even when both performances are completely true to the characters being portrayed. Note: I'm not talking here about personal preference or sympathy for a character. It's one thing to prefer Amitabh's Jai over Dharmendra's Veeru because the former is quiet, intense and ultimately tragic while the latter is boisterous and gets his girl. But it's quite another thing to devalue Dharmendra's superb performance because you're confusing the unsubtlety of the character with that of the actor, or because Veeru's cartoonish romantic exploits don't pull at your heartstrings the way Jai's wooing of the widow does. (Longer post about Dharmendra in Sholay here.)
Fredric March's Brady in Inherit the Wind is a classic example of the sort of performance I'm talking about. It's unsubtle, it plays to the gallery, it's marked by very visible and repetitive character tics ... and it's utterly authentic. Brady is, above all, a showman: as a rabble-rousing politician who has run thrice for president and made numerous self-aggrandizing speeches over the decades, certain traits have become intrinsic to his personality, and March displays this masterfully. One of Brady’s defining mannerisms is when he thinks up a "witticism" (usually something quite banal) in response to something that has been addressed to him, and March's performance allows us to see the whole process: the light-bulb appearing over the man’s head, his “Aha!” moment, and how he ostentatiously says the words for maximum effect.
In his first scene, where he is addressing the adoring masses after arriving in Hillsboro, a man shouts out "We all voted for you, three times!" Brady initially just smiles and looks set to continue his speech, but then he does a sudden double-take, wags a finger at the man and says "I trust it was in three separate elections!" This is followed by a short laugh; it's hard to say whether this is because he's genuinely impressed by his own wit or because he's giving the audience their cue to laugh with him. You see the same thing on a number of other occasions, including when he tosses off the line “I am more interested in the Rock of Ages than in the age of rocks!”, in response to Drummond holding up a fossilized rock and asking him how old he thinks it is.
P.S. March is one of my favourite actors. He was hugely respected by critics and by his peers for his stage and screen work, but he never became part of the star system to the same extent as his contemporaries such as Tracy, Bogart and others did. For anyone interested in seeking out his work, these are some of my recommendations: Nothing Sacred (one of the best screwball comedies I’ve seen, co-starring the great Carole Lombard), A Star is Born (the first of many film versions of the story about an acting couple whose careers follow different trajectories), Death Takes a Holiday, The Best Years of Our Lives, An Act of Murder, The Iceman Cometh.