In 1925, the Scopes trial—“the trial of the century,” reporters said at the time—pitted Fundamentalist Christianity against Darwinian evolution in a sweltering courtroom in Dayton, Tennessee. The event was the basis of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s mid-1950s play, Inherit the Wind. Edward J. Larson observes in Summer for the Gods that the immensely successful play “all but replaced the actual trial in the nation’s memory.” Stanley Kramer’s film version, which appeared in 1960, had strong performances by Fredric March as the character representing William Jennings Bryan, the enemy of teaching evolution in the public schools, and Spencer Tracy as the one representing Clarence Darrow, Scopes’s rumpled, shrewd, free-thinking lawyer. The cynical and caustic journalist based on H.L. Mencken was played by Gene Kelly. In the opening scene, with Leslie Uggams singing “Give Me That Old Time Religion” in slow, drum-beat cadences, three stern-faced officials and a preacher in a small Southern town march to a schoolroom to arrest the John Scopes character while he is teaching his high school biology class about the descent of man. The high points of the film are still dramatically effective, particularly Darrow’s humiliating cross-examination of Bryan on the believability of the literal text of Genesis and the climactic moment after the trial ends with a guilty verdict, when Bryan, seeking to justify his views, is ignored, collapses in mid-speech, and dies.
Unlike the historical films of Oliver Stone, Inherit the Wind does not pretend to be history. In their introduction to the published version of the play, the authors say that it refers to events that took place “not too long ago,” noting that it could have been yesterday or might be tomorrow. Nevertheless, the movie leaves a strong impression that, while the real Scopes lost his case, the real Bryan, subjected to ridicule, lost the argument over evolution. Fundamentalist Christianity, exposed as close-minded, was discredited. The country’s classrooms were made safe for the teaching of the Darwinian theory of evolution, including the evolution of human beings. Larson notes that most secular observers at the time would have agreed with the novelist Irving Stone’s judgment in 1941 that the Darrow-Bryan confrontation “dealt a deathblow to Fundamentalism.”
In fact, however, whether as play or film, Inherit the Wind is misleading about the events of the Scopes trial and its wider implications.1 Bryan died not at the trial but five days later while taking a nap. He spent his last days issuing statements to the press and preparing a 15,000-word stump speech that would continue his battle against Darwinism and Darrow. Nor was Bryanite religiosity shattered by the trial, Larson points out, drawing on Trial and Error, his earlier, groundbreaking book on the teaching of evolution.2 Fundamentalists blamed Darrow for Bryan’s death and made Bryan a martyr to their cause. “Scopes songs” celebrated Bryan’s victory. The consensus of the press, which gave the trial enormous publicity, was not that the confrontation was decisive but that it marked the opening skirmish in…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.