Last week, our Irish neighbours voted on one of the most contentious issues in the country’s modern history as millions of people – religious or not – turned out in droves to overwhelmingly overturn the abortion ban with more than two-thirds of the referendum voters pro-choice.
Traditionally a majority Roman Catholic country, the pro-life campaign had more than a tinge of religious guilt to burden voters with. But the result should not be that much of a surprise. We are of course talking about a country that has shifted from its Conservative roots to becoming a glimmering light of Liberalism in the West over the past few years following a landslide victory in the same-sex marriage referendum and electing an openly gay mixed-race prime minister.
Nevertheless, while everyone is entitled to believe and have faith in whatever they choose, organised religion does have more than its fair share of examples of being the villain situations such as these. Blasphemy! Blasphe-you! Blasphe-every body in the room, as the old Eddie Izzard routine goes.
For another example of religion being ‘the bad guy’, take the oft cited Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial of 1925 upon which Stanley Kramer’s black-and-white courtroom drama Inherit the Wind is based. In the big screen version of the story, a small Tennessee town becomes the focus of a trial as school teacher Bertram T Cates (Dick York), who ‘illegally’ educated his pupils about Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and On the Origin of Species, is vilified for indoctrinating the young and susceptible with his anti-scripture beliefs. After journalist Hornbeck’s (Gene Kelly) story of the ‘monkey trial’ goes bananas and attracts national attention, attorney Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) chooses to defend Cates’ right to teach evolution in the Bible-belt town opposite the charismatic fundamentalist Matthew Harrison Brady (Frederic March).
An enticing premise is bolstered by writers Harold Jacob Smith and Nedrick Young’s lean screenplay full of drama and weighty ambition to tackle a controversial topic. This is an America where racial segregation was not only legal, but also enforced across large swathes of the country. Hell, Inherit the Wind‘s release was still four years away from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that legally abolished segregation. Community, Christianity and conservatism bonded these people together to keep outsiders out and insiders in. The turmoil that Rachel Brown (Donna Anderson) faces over the devout and prejudiced beliefs of her father, Reverend Jeremiah Brown (Claude Akins), and her colleague’s determination to fight for academic freedom, were spectacularly played out on screen and mimic the despair felt by many in her position. The anguish and pain she feels at the coldness of her father’s reaction also juxtaposes the philosophical quandary playing out in the sweltering hot courtroom; much like the rational debate that needs to be had amongst the rash and illogical townsfolk.
The very notion that God in His infinite wisdom would have seen fit to make a man from a monkey – yes, I know that’s not what Darwinism teaches, but that is how it is presented in the film – is seen as preposterous. Worse, even; it is seen as blasphemy, against God, and punishable in the Court of Law should anybody dare espouse such heresy. As much of a publicity stunt as the real-life trial may have actually been, it is hard to imagine how delicate a debate the Scopes trial must have been, and even more so when it was adapted into a play and later a film during the era of McCarthyism lifting actual dialogue from the transcripts.
Gripes with the movie are mostly restricted to the pace of the piece, which feels a lot like what it is: a stage play chopped to fit a tolerable 128 minute run time. The best moments are when Brady and Drummond are face-to-face under the watchful gaze of Judge Coffey (Harry Morgan). You can taste the beads of sweat dripping down their faces and stinging their eyes, the waft of the fan’s cooling breeze, and the intense stare burning into your skin. The pair are incredible actors putting in performances of such emotional magnitude deserving of a film as important as this. However, I can’t help but feel that presenting Brady as a lunatic and madman, rather than toppling his ploy through reason and irrefutable fact, undermines the verdict.
The direction is reminiscent of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men in its economy, with social commentary stronger and more direct than even Mr Smith Goes to Washington. The picture quality on the 1080p Blu-ray is as clear as you are ever likely to see this classic presented, and the sound quality as sharp as if it were recorded in a modern studio. The dual format release also features an interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard to explain some of the finer points in more detail, whilst the First Pressings will also come with a limited edition Collector’s Booklet.
Overall, this is a release well worth picking up. It might not pack quite the same wallop as the feature did upon its original release almost 60 years ago, but the punch can still be felt; particularly considering the context around its release. If you are searching for a complex, absorbing and provocative movie, then look no further than Eureka Entertainment’s re-release of this bold and entertaining drama.
(Alternatively, if you’re looking for a film featuring a clip of a chimpanzee smoking a fag, then also look no further. Either way, it works.)
Inherit the Wind was released for the first time on Blu-ray in the UK, in a Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) edition on Monday 21 May 2018 and is still available in stores. Check out the remastered trailer below.