Darwin and Human Nature: Inherit the Wind

The Darwin Correspondence Project at Cambridge are presenting a season of films that, in their words, explore the political, social and cultural aspects of Darwinian ideas about human nature, and opened with a showing of Stanley Kramer’s film Inherit the Wind. The film was  ably introduced by Joe Cain, from University College, London, and David Kirby, from the University of Manchester.  This film, made in 1960, explores the 1925 ‘Scopes Monkey’ trial in a small town in the American Bible belt, at which a school teacher was charged with teaching Darwinian Evolution by Natural Selection. The State Legislature had passed a law making it illegal to teach evolution by natural selection, and the film shows the many layers of significance, the conflict between the demands of science that a man thinks and questions, and the demands of faith, which is shown as a powerful force to bind people together in a community.  Some of the characters are portrayed as almost caricatures, such as the local preacher, and the counsel for the prosecution, who, as a  nationally famous lawyer, cannot have been quite as stupid as he was portrayed, and indeed we were assured by the speakers that the counsel at the actual trial was much more subtle.

The film often anticipates the modern formulation of creationism, although it’s never explicit, of course.

Counsel for the defendant is played by Spenser Tracy, a clever portrayal of a not too scrupulous lawyer, and Gene Kelly, best known for his dancing and singing roles, is very good as a cynical newspaper correspondent.

The film was made in 1960, in black and white, and the print we saw was occasionally scratched and grainy, but for all that it’s a surprisingly acceptable film for 2012.  It doesn’t seem ‘old-fashioned’ at all, and that’s because the issues it is concerned with are as relevant today as they were then.  A constant refrain, sung by the local people, is ‘Give me that old-time religion’, and there are threats to run the teacher, and his defending counsel out of town.  Another theme is the conflict between the progressive, liberal north, and the conservative south, and the film ends with the teacher’s counsel, leaving the courtroom alone, to the singing of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ (Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord), reminding us of another layer of meaning for this film, the resentment of the American south for their defeat by the north in the American Civil War.

A film well worth seeing.

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