The supposed conflict between science and religion that proliferates culture today possibly originated with the depiction of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial in the movie Inherit the Wind (1960). Thinking back to your high school American history class, one event that is usually taught is the infamous Scopes Trial in which John Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution in a Dayton, Tennessee classroom. While this event is worthy of study for political reasons as well as educational policy, my focus in this post is the propaganda that the movie heaved upon the cultural understanding of the relationship between science and religion.
A young teacher by the name of John T. Scopes was accused of teaching evolution in a state-funded school that allegedly violated the Butler Act of 1925 in Tennessee which prohibited the teaching of evolution. Defended by the well-known trial lawyer Clarence Darrow, Scopes was prosecuted by the three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. The atmosphere in Dayton, TN that hot summer of 1925 was electric like a sideshow carnival. Hundreds of reporters descended upon the town, including H. L. Mencken of the Baltimore Evening Sun. Articles for newspapers and magazines produced countless articles and cartoons on the trial. Stories were wired by telegraph as far as Europe and Australia. This was the first American trial that was broadcast by radio, while thousands of people crowded the festival-like town of Dayton. Scopes was found guilty and was fined a $100.
While the Scopes Trial in its own right was newsworthy, playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee created it for Broadway in 1955 as Inherit the Wind. It was later produced as a theatrical film in 1960 (directed by Stanley Kramer with Oscar-winning performers Spencer Tracy and Fredric Marchand along with Gene Kelly) and subsequently in 1965, 1988, and 1999 for television. Kevin Spacy and David Troughton starred in a 2009 revival at The Old Vic in London.
The 1960 film has by far been the most influential iteration of the Scopes Trial and unfortunately so. A much more faithful depiction of the trial is Edward J. Larson’s Pulitzer Prize winning history book Summer for the Gods.
Randall Balmer of Dartmouth writing a review of Summer for the Gods states that:
Although Bryan has generally been regarded as the loser in Dayton, a hopeless throwback to the fundamentalist, antediluvian past, not all contemporaries saw it that way. “At the time,” Larson says, “in sharp contrast with later legends about the Scopes trial, no one saw the episode as a decisive triumph for the defense” (206). Only later, beginning with the 1931 publication of Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties, did the Scopes trial begin to succumb to caricature, a caricature that was shamelessly perpetuated by Richard Hofstader in The American Political Tradition (1948) and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963). The main culprit, however, was the play Inherit the Wind, which appeared in 1960 and which, as Larson demonstrates, was intended not so much as a representation of the trial
Balmer correctly pinpoints that Inherit the Wind was the “main culprit” for depicting the trial as an exaggeration to create a comic or grotesque effect. Why should we be concerned with a film instead of history? Well, because of the influence movies have on culture. For example, there are numerous lesson plans (here, here, here, and here) for high school students on the movie. Just do a simple Google search to see the plethora of lesson plans available for teachers of history, English, science, and humanities that utilize Inherit the Wind. Thousands if not tens of thousands of students are exposed to the Scopes Trial via the movie every year.
The problem is that the movie promotes the propaganda of the conflict thesis between science and religion that I have written on before (see here and here). Carol Iannone describes it aptly: “While Inherit the Wind remains faithful to the broad outlines of the historical events it portrays, it flagrantly distorts the details, and neither the fictionalized names nor the cover of artistic license can excuse what amounts to an ideologically motivated hoax.”
History of the Film:
Inherit the Wind film was a originally a theatrical play in 1955 by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee. It was later produced into the well known film staring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March. The movie was remade in 1999 starring Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott (it has several other television remakes as mentioned before). The play, and later the movies, change the names of the actual people. Here is a breakdown to help with watching the movie.