A Creationist Review of ‘Inherit the Wind’

This is about William Jennings Bryan, whom we’ve always regarded as one of the biggest jackasses in American history. You’re familiar with Bryan’s role in the Scopes Trial, but his idiocy went far beyond that — see, e.g.: Let’s Have William Jennings Bryan Day!

What motivated this post is — of all things — a movie review in the Palm Beach Daily News. Their headline is TUNE IN TONIGHT: Can a classic movie speak to 2019? It tells the newspaper’s readers about a movie on TV tonight. The reviewer (Kevin McDonough) says, with bold font added by us for emphasis, and occasional Curmudgeonly interjections that look [like this]:

A crusading lawyer (Spencer Tracy) [playing the part of Clarence Darrow] and a fundamentalist politician (Fredric March) [playing the part of Bryan] tangle over evolution in the exciting 1960 courtroom drama “Inherit the Wind” …

You’ve all seen the movie. What could the reviewer do that would cause us to blog about his column? You’ll soon find out. He says:

March’s Bible-quoting character is reduced to a creationist cartoon, spouting old-time bromides in the face of settled science.

Bryan was a creationist cartoon, but to our surprise, the reviewer comes to his defense and tells us:

In fact, Bryan’s resistance to evolution was based at least in part on his revulsion toward the pseudo-scientific use of Darwin’s theory to justify cruelties against workers and farmers in the name of “survival of the fittest.”

What? What? He continues:

A prairie populist of the 19th century, Bryan argued for a Christianity that saw all men equal in the eyes of God, against “scientific” theories used in the early decades of the 20th century to justify eugenics and other master race notions.

Aaaargh!! The reviewer is taking the typical creationist position that Darwin’s theory is racist — and creationism isn’t. It rarely gets worse than that. Here’s the only other part of his review that’s worth an excerpt:

The film’s themes, and some of the ideas it ignored, still resonate. People are still arguing over evolution. At the same time, there is a growing anxiety that science and technology are contributing to a social order savagely indifferent to the welfare of many.

Wow! Bryan was the good guy, and Darrow was defending Darwin, whose theory is evil. We expect that kind of nonsense at the wildest creationist websites we visit — but in a newspaper’s movie review? Amazing.

If you want to see what others have said about Brian and the Klan you could take a look at this from National Center for Science Education (NCSE): Racism and the Public’s Perception of Evolution. They’re pretty clear about it.

And so, dear reader, if you live in Palm Beach you’ve got a creationist reviewer to tell you what’s on TV. How convenient!

Copyright © 2019. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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19 responses to “A Creationist Review of ‘Inherit the Wind’

  1. Paul Collier

    I’m a devout evolutionist/atheist, but I have studied the Scopes trial & I have some distressing news about WJB–the reviewer is right. Bryan was a big-hearted progressive who fought tirelessly for the working man. He was horrified by what he saw as the sociopathic implications of “Darwinism” but he was no rube, & was perfectly at home with science. BTW, the play/movie was a scabrous slander against the people of Dayton TN, who were not the hysterical mobs portrayed. Relations between the townspeople & the Darrow defense team were warm & cordial, some of the citizens offering team members room & board in their homes. If it helps, the creationist citizens of Dayton today are more hostile and militant than their forebears.

  2. Trust a creationist to miss the bleedin’ point. And Dog help anyone who looks to bad Hollywood movies like ‘Inherit the Wind’ as an accurate guide to history and science (or anything else, for that matter).

    In this respect, Hollywood movie-makers like Stanley Kramer were just as ham-fisted and obtuse as any creationist.

  3. “his idiocy went far beyond that ”
    Once again I agree with our dear SC for vastly different reasons. From the link:

    “Wilson was arguably one of the worst Presidents ever. That is, of course, from our limited government, free enterprise viewpoint.”
    But first I have to give our dear SC quite some credit. Here he openly admits his Free Market Superstition.
    Wilson was an indecisive president: concerning entering WW-1, concerning the negotiations at Versailles, concerning his own pseudo-nationalistic principles, concerning the League of Nations. Like Bryan he was a pacifist and advocated gentle peace conditions, but also like Bryan hardly did anything to pursue those goals. That’s especially sour as the German delegation at Versailles consisted of social-democrats, who from 1916 on opposed the German war efforts. Had Wilson (and Bryan) been principled they would have sided with them.
    I’m tempted to call them traitors. But hey – I don hold the Clintons and Obama in high regard either, so who am I?

    “You’ve all seen the movie.”
    Actually no – not that I’m interested.

    “What? What?”
    And our dear SC displays his ignorance again. “the pseudo-scientific use of Darwin’s theory to justify cruelties against workers and farmers in the name of “survival of the fittest” obviously refers to Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism, which in that time was used to “justify” such cruelties indeed. And no, that was not Darwin’s fault. Like it or not, but parts of our dear SC’s defense of his Free Market Superstition is taken from that Social Darwinism.

    “The reviewer is taking the typical creationist position that Darwin’s theory is racist.”
    As always superstition (so Free Market Superstition as well) badly affects comprehensive reading skills. No, the reviewer is not taking that position. He merely describes Bryan’s views. They are still idiotic, but that doesn’t mean the reviewer is.

    “there is a growing anxiety that science and technology are contributing to a social order savagely indifferent to the welfare of many.”
    There is such a growing anxiety. It’s well documented, but of course we cannot expect any superstitious ignorant to be aware of such inconvenient information. So I’ll only remark that you don’t need to be a creationist, don’t need to reject science at all to be worried about these developments. Smart people accept them and wonder what’s the best way to deal with them. Pretending that they don’t happen (like creationists) or ignoring the problems that come with them (like pretty often our dear SC) definitely are the worst ways.

    “you’ve got a creationist reviewer”
    Beware: in our dear SC’s dictionary everyone who deviates from his Free Market Superstition is a creationist. What keeps on amazing me is that someone who so cleverly mocks evolution-rejectors can write such blatant nonsense otherwise.

  4. In limited defense of Inherit The Wind, it did not intend to be an attack against creationism. It warned the viewer that it was not true history by using fictitious names. It was an attack against McCarthyism, and used an idea that was assumed to be without any contemporary backers, rather as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and the Salem witch trials.
    Alas, there are too many other issues that ITW raises whenever the movie is brought up here. Apparently the best coverage of the real historical event is Larsen’s “Summer Of The Gods”.

  5. The reviewer says: “People are still arguing over evolution.”

    If he means that some people — still — refuse to accept the science, then
    yes. On the other hand, if he means there is still an argument to be made over whether evolution is established science, then he’s out of his depth, and is incompetent.

    And if he proposes there is merit to revisiting classic bad movies — because the issues they present are still “relevant” or “resonant” — that, too, is beside the point. Ideas are not made any more redeemable for being dramatized badly.

  6. Whatever the artistic merits of movies, there are plenty of presentations of bad history.
    Of course, there is a long tradition of even great art presenting bad history. The standard example being Shakespeare’s histories.

  7. You’re comparing Shakespeare to Hollywood s**t?

  8. And Larsen won a Pulitzer for his book.

  9. @TomS is spot on.Inherit the Wind was set in 1927, but was about McCarthyism, just like M*A*S*H was set in Korea but was really about Vietnam. In the film, the Bryan character is a vengeful bully, furious that “Scopes” gets off so lightly. In reality, Brian offered to pay Scopes’s fine (not a trivial amount for a part-time school teacher) out of his own pocket.

    And the usual self-promotion: creationist racism (I have no evidence that Bryan shared any of this), https://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2019/03/creationism-noahs-flood-and-race.html

    The Scopes trial: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2018/07/22/the-scopes-monkey-trial-part-1-issues-fact-and-fiction-2/ and https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2018/07/22/the-scopes-monkey-trial-part-2-evidence-confrontation-resolution-consequences-2/

  10. @ChrisS: Shakespeare’s bad history is shaping attitudes to this day. Look at bloody Brexit!

  11. Michael Fugate

    The silly part is the belief that if we are animals, then this will determine how we act. The Democrats held the south then and Jim Crow was in place. Bryan may not have been racist, but he wasn’t fighting against it either. The eugenics movement was unethical – forced sterilization was common – and was based on a simplistic understanding of genetics and progress.

  12. Bad “history” in plays and movies is extraneous to the aesthetic or artistic merits. For those qualities, we look elsewhere. Shakespeare — to state the bleedin’ obvious — was a man of the theatre, not a historian: his success lay in dramatizing the complexities of character and human experience, something which film maker Stanley Kramer failed to do, over-concerned as he was with liberal “ideas” and allegories or parables in which to express them.

    Kramer was applauded by “liberals” despite — or maybe because of — his message-making and sanctimony, maybe because those conventions conform to what many people expect art to be: socially conscious; instructional; perhaps even redemptive. In this respect, there is only minimal difference between these kinds of liberals, and what theists think art should do, too. That is: be virtuous, morally improving. Just like religion.

    The Curmudgeon drew our attention to a bad piece of movie reviewing — implicitly creationist in tone — of a bad piece of Hollywood cinema. I understand that any post by SC will open up all sorts of interesting avenues and digressions for discussion. That’s as should be, and makes for often lively discussion.

  13. I thought it was a good movie at the time and in its time. Whether I still would, with different issues pressing, I doubt. The caricature of Bryan, essential to its message then, would now seem like a major dramatic weakness

  14. To get even further off track (and upbraid Kramer once more): in the late fifties, he came to the a**- end of the earth — which some people quaintly refer to as ‘Melbourne’ — to make another stinker, ‘On the Beach”, about the last survivors of nuclear Armageddon.

    In that one, he had Fred Astaire playing a scientist. Kramer must have enjoyed a perverse penchant for casting great dancers like Astaire and Gene Kelly in non-dancing roles, Dog only knows why.

  15. Michael Fugate

    What Richard III wasn’t an evil hunchback? He didn’t kill the babies in the Tower? Next you will be telling me the Gulf of Tonkin and Saddam’s WMDs were fabricated.

  16. in Shakespeare’s case, there is another layer of drama, as we see him struggling with the two incompatible objectives of condemning in principle any questioning of the authority of Elizabeth Tudor and James Stuart, while also approving Henry VII’s usurpation from which their authority ultimately derived

  17. Apparently, Judas wasn’t such the traitorous worm he’s made out to be in the gospels, either. Talk about getting a bad rap through the ages!

    Myth and drama love their stock villains. Real life is infinitely more complex and fascinating.

  18. Michael Fugate

    One wonders if the reviewer were watching “The Shot Felt ‘Round the World” on Salk and the polio vaccine, would he comment “People are still arguing over vaccines. At the same time, there is a growing anxiety that science and technology are contributing to a social order savagely indifferent to the welfare of many.”?

  19. March’s Bible-quoting character is reduced to a creationist cartoon, spouting old-time bromides in the face of settled science.

    Bryan was no “cartoon” and in fact was not really depicted as one in the 1960 movie; Spencer Tracy’s Clarence Darrow character “Henry Darrow” even says: “A giant once lived in that body, but he got lost because he looked for God too high up and too far away.” This suggests he was being portrayed not as a buffoon but as a tragic figure.

    As for the people of Dayton, not all of their fictional counterparts were depicted as bigoted yahoos, either. Watch the film and see what I mean.