Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Hollywood Hoax: The Truth Behind Inherit the Wind

Many people are familiar with the 1960 film Inherit the Wind, based off of the popular play of the same name. Many people are not familiar with the stark difference between the movie (or play) and the actual Scopes Trial of 1925 that it supposedly portrays. Students are still shown this film all across America, in high school science classes, history classes, and other classes, and told that the sights they see are historical reenactments of real events. In reality they are watching a fictional account as far from the facts as it could possibly be!

The Scopes Trial really happened in 1925, in a town called Dayton, Tennessee; in order to test the constitutionality of the Butler Act. The Butler Act made it a misdemeanor in Tennessee to teach the evolution of man; although it did not discourage teaching the evolution of animals, of plants, or of the universe. Anyone who violated the Butler Act was in no danger of going to jail, (only of paying a small fine similar to bootlegging), nor did it have any effect outside of public schools.

However, in the movie Inherit the Wind, we see a young and likable science teacher named Bertram Cates, teaching evolution to his class in Hillsboro, Tennessee. In march the religious “witch hunters” who arrest him and throw him in jail!

Click below to watch the scene from the movie

A trial then unfolds, between the narrow-minded, cold-hearted Christians who want Cates punished for his “sin”, and the just, open-minded evolutionists who believe Cates should have the right to speak what he believes. In the real trial, John Scopes, a substitute biology teacher who never even taught evolution, was only a volunteer in a plan to test the Butler Act, although he was never in any danger of going to jail, and there was never any hate coming from the Christians. Both the prosecutors and defenders got along well, and the Christians of the town certainly did not want Scopes “damned”. The fiery, hate-filled preacher of the movie, Reverend Jeremiah Brown, and his daughter, Cates' fiancĂ©, were both fictional characters. They never existed.

This scene is 100% fictional! There was no Reverend Brown in the Scopes Trial. This character was created to make a bad stereotype of Christians; a stereotype that students are taught all around the country, without being told that it isn't true. Christians, click the video below to see what students in public schools are taught YOU act like!

Inherit the Wind portrays the two classes of characters (those oppo
sed to evolution and those who supported it) with very strong stereotypes. We can see this through the dialog and visual portrayals of the characters. For an example, through dialog we perceive the evolutionists as good-hearted, honest people who believe in truth and science, not in fairy tales. They seem open to new ideas, instead of clinging to one belief and refusing to accept any other. They were all visually portrayed as likable characters, (since they were, in fact, the protagonists of the movie), and Bertram Cates was they typical young, handsome, Hollywood star in love with a beautiful woman. Of course, the romance in Inherit the Wind was entirely fictional.

The real John Scopes

The actor of Bertram Cates, from the movie

As for the Creationists, they were exactly the opposite. Through dialog, we perceive them as pompous, hateful, even hypocritical, bigots. Any good argument the evolutionists might have delivered was hopeless against these stubborn Christians. They seemed willing to ignore any belief, even if backed up by solid science, if it went against their religion. They tended to force their views on other people without listening to alternate ideas. Visually, they were usually ugly and unlikable (for they were, after all, the antagonists of the movie). Sometimes the views of a filmmaker is brought out in his film. In this case, it's so obvious it's barely worth mentioning.

One character in particular from Inherit the Wind is worth a closer study. Matthew Harrison Brady, supposedly based on the prosecuting attorney of the trial, William Jennings Bryan, gives one of the worst portrayals of Christians out of all the characters in the movie. Arrogant, gluttonous, and not very good-looking, he was looked up to like a hero – no, like a god – by the townsfolk of Hillsboro. In comparison, the real William Jennings Bryan was a respectable man, whom John Scopes himself considered “the greatest man produced in the United States since Thomas Jefferson”. Far from being the “god of Dayton”, his welcome to the town was no more extravagant than that of his opponent, Clarence Darrow. Whereas Inherit the Wind presented him as a corny, blustering conservative, he was actually considered one of the (if not the) best orators in the history of America. He ran for president three times under the Democratic ticket, but was too liberal to be elected! In almost every way, the real William Jennings Bryan was entirely opposite from the fictional character, Matthew Harrison Brady, that represents him.

Here's how Inherit the Wind portrays the prosecuting attorney, Matthew Harrison Brady. Keep reading to find out how inaccurate this picture is!

One historian, who was particular not a fan of Bryan, described him in his book The Great Monkey Trial (1968): “In personality he was forceful, energetic, and opinionated but genial, kindly, generous, likable and charming. . . . Although an intellectual absolutist—a black and white thinker—he showed a praiseworthy tolerance towards those who disagreed with him.” (p. 36, L. Sprague de Camp) Contrary to the intolerant bigot in Inherit the Wind who refused to study any view accept his own, Bryan took time to learn both sides of the argument. He understood evolution well enough to publicly debate it in the pages of the New York Times.

Clearly, the makers of this film were being unfair by presenting Christians as something they're not. Yet this is a highly-influential movie, for it is shown to high school students across the country. Students are not told the truth behind Inherit the Wind, and are actually told that every scene is factual! It's no wonder so many young Christians loose their faith during high school. Anyone who sees this movie without knowing the real story behind it would come away with a number of impressions. First, they would think the Monkey Trial (or Scopes Trial) was about an innocent teacher, who was attacked by venomous Christians for teaching the “truth” of evolution. Second, the characters in the movie were real: Matthew Brady was an arrogant hypocrite who knew nothing about evolution, Jeremiah Brown (who, as you remember, was entirely fictional) was a typical Christian pastor who damned evolutionists to Hell, Bertram Cates was a hero who stood for speaking the truth, and Clarence Darrow was a calm and respectable evolutionist who defended Cates' right to speak.

Third, they might see evolution as something that smart people, thinkers, and scientists believe in. Fourth, Christians are enemies of evolution, who hate anyone that believes in it, and are unwilling to accept knowledge or science where it conflicts with their religion. And finally, Christianity is a flawed, outdated, man-made bunch of fairy tales, and only ignorant or foolish people follow it.

Yes, this is what students are fed in public school. And no one is telling them that none of it is true.

Learn more about the facts of the Scopes Trial versus the fiction of Inherit the Wind at