Inherit the Wind

Notes on Inherit the Wind

Film is art, not science. So the rhetoric is not determined by scientific protocol.

“Inherit the Wind” is a phrase from Proverb 11:29 He who troubles his own house shall inherit the wind.

The play on which the film is based uses different names for the real people in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee. Other facts of the case are changed in the play and movie. Hence, the authors are not presenting this as history or documentary. The title (troubles his own house) refers to the personal lives portrayed, and hence a major thrust of the film are the personal stories of the characters caught in the debate. Wikipedia has good background on the Scopes Trial, and some of the variations of the play and movie from the actual events.

The opening music- Old Time Religion- is an African-American spiritual converted by Charles Tillman in 1889. It was used in the 1941 patriotic film Sargeant York- in which a conscientious-objector (Gary Cooper) is convinced to serve his country with a rifle. Hollywood has never been afraid to tangle with social issue. Film uses many means of story-telling to inform and convince us. Rhetoric. One common method is to show how someone who is uncertain is led by events or arguments to change their mind or confirm their beliefs.

For modern people of faith in a scientific world, Old Time Religion is often not good enough for us, and we have found other basis for faith. Many people in the sciences are as amazed and awestruck by their understanding of scientific knowledge in the same why people claim to feel God’s presence looking to the Grand Canyon or in a quiet forest glade. I have personally written about the beauty of natural selection as an elegant means of creating species. So the opening hymn may be a depiction of anti-science fundamentalism, but is not necessarily a parody of faith.

Stanley Kramer directed a lot of big name stars in good and great movies. He is always on the list of great directors. The year before this film, he directed On the Beach with Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire, Ava Gardner, and Anthony Perkins (Psycho), about the world dying off from radiation after a nuclear war. In 1955 he gave us Not as a Stranger with Robert Mitchum, Olivia DeHavilland, Frank Sinatra, and Harry Morgan, about a man and woman struggling to make a difference in the medical field. In 1961 he made Judgment at Nuremburg with Spencer Tracy, Richard Widmark, Judy Garland, Monty Cliff, Maximillian Schell, and Marlene Dietrich about the trials of the Nazis after World War II. In 1979 he made Runner Stumbles about a priest (Dick Van Dyke) who falls in love with a nun. Almost all Stanley Kramer’s films are social commentary (rhetoric- saying what’s wrong and suggesting solutions), with the notable exception of the star-studded frenetic It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), which simply shows people at their greediest in hysterical comedy. These stars may not be names you know, but they were the preeminent film actors of their era. Kramer is not heavy handed with his message, though he often beats up his characters, letting their flaws kill them even. But his methods of making his points are not subtle, so his actors must work to be human in the face of outlandish situations.

Spencer Tracy was one of the greatest actors ever. He had a wry sense of humor, and a great conscience. Perfect for rhetoric.

Frederic March- playing the William Jennings Bryan character- politician and orator supreme- was from the same era- playing with Humphrey Bogart and all the big stars.

Gene Kelly plays the part of the obnoxious reporter, parallel but not a portrayal of H L Mencken in the real trial. In case you do not know, aside from his acting talent, most people rate him right up there with Fred Astaire as one of the two best male dancers in film. He did Singing in the Rain, American in Paris and more, and also TV.

In the opening scene, note blind justice. In the credits note that they had a Reverend as a “technical advisor”

Action is set in fictional Hillsboro, and often the small-town country ways are contrasted with big city values. From ancient time, the people in the hills are often portrayed as morally superior to the decadence and temptation of life in the valley, where cities often grow due to water, traffic etc. “ I lift up mine eyes to the hills….” No sign of hills in the movie lot. By the way, the heat WAS so oppressive, and the crowd so large, the trial was “staged” outside. In fact, evidence suggests the trial was more of a publicity stunt for the town of Dayton than an actual science versus religion contest.

Note the men portrayed setting up the trial: Mayor, preacher, prosecutor, restauranteur, etc, all squawking until the banker speaks and everyone listens.

Note the sense of fair play through-out, and the portrayal of respect even friendship for adversaries.

“Let me out of jail and lock up my mind”

“I may be rancid butter, but I’m on your side of the bread” Obnoxious writer to “Scopes” fiancé.

The job of a preacher is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.

Women are not portrayed strongly in this film, expect the politician’s wife is as decent and wonderful as they come. This may be because women are viewed as champions of religion. In Kramer’s other films, he has some great women, as we shall see in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

Rhetoric: How does each character try to convince people of their point of view? How is Kramer trying to convince us? Is this film going to change anyone’s mind about religion and evolution? Probably not. But is this film going to change anyone’s mind about the humanity of the people who hold strong opinions and those who are not so sure. For all the heavy-handed anti-religion and pro-evolution rhetoric in the film, the real rhetoric is about how people respond when caught in such as battle. One man eats himself to death. Another looks like he is starving himself to death. One seems to have preserved himself in vinegar to be immune. How do Kramer and his cast show you THAT message, that an unfair fight in not only unjust but damaging?

Often rhetoric comes in layers which have different purposes. In John Irving’s famous and hilarious book The World According to Garp, we see Garp telling a story to his youngest. The action stops and we hear this unrelated story about a cat teasing a dog. Garp’s wife is upset, because it is the older child who should be hearing this story about the evils of teasing. But the surprise ending of the story makes it a tale directly suited to the youngest- never run into the street. Irving slaps us with one of the oldest rhetorical tricks in the book- we are off on a tangent, we think we know the punch line, the message, and so we are caught unaware and undefensive to a different message.

A major theme of many films, novels, and plays is nonconformity. It is a natural theme in our melting pot country and world. We see it here, held up as a value to treasure. Today we call it diversity, and if there is a small group with a tradition of nonconformity, then it’s OK. Sarcasm- being sarcastic, bringing you into our shared opinion about overbearing authority, I drag you into agreeing with me. A short version of gaining your confidence first. Whenever I see nonconformity raised up as a value, I ask myself- what is the value of nonconformity? Is it just our right to be different? Or is nonconformity often the front edge of social change? Or is it just as often the minority who have not changed with the progress of humanity. Believing that the world is flat is nonconformist, now. Believing in slavery. How about spanking kids- are you a believer, and opponent, or an agnostic?

Another theme is certainty versus doubt. This is a perennial theme in religion and many fields. The importance of knowing what you know, believing what you belief, but having doubts and an open mind that maybe we are wrong on some pretty important stuff. 

Like a good book deserves several readings, a good film deserves several viewings. Try to enjoy the first viewing, especially if you cannot watch it more than once. But please take a few notes as you go, especially on how arguments are made. If you do not understand courtroom procedure, never mind or ask and I will explain. Again, the evolution versus religion is presented rhetorically as one-sided. But people’s reaction to that debate, and how they cope with their reaction, that is being manipulated for your viewing. See if you can see that process as well as the courtroom rhetoric. Facial expressions. Sympathy between people. Anger. Fear. Standing up to help a person not just a cause (the scene of Bryan stopping the preacher from word that are hurting his own daughter is almost unbelievable, like stopping a train too fast). Apparent disloyalty of cause because of loyalty of friendship or principle. After all, the title is about what you will inherit if you do not keep peace in your family. If that’s the message, how have we been convinced of that?

By the way, you could also say that Proverbs 11:29 simply means if you make trouble with your family, you will be cut out of the will and inherit thin air.

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