“Inherit the Wind”: A Hollywood History of the Scopes Trial-Part 1

By: Dr. David Menton; ©1999
Dr. Menton uses trial transcripts as well as other books written about the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial” to show what actually happened, and compare it with Hollywood’s version of the story.



Written and revised by David N. Menton, Ph.D.St. Louis, MO; 1991(This article is reprinted with permission from MOVIEGUIDE.)

[MOVIEGUIDE] EDITOR’S NOTE: Because of the Showtime-MGM-NBC revival of the fraudulent play INHERIT THE WIND on May 29, 1999, we have decided to reprint this article which ran several years ago in MOVIEGUIDE. The Showtime promotion of the big lie states:

The trial of a teacher arrested for teaching Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution puts two lawyers in a fight to defend their morals and values on Darwinism. From the acclaimed play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, this 1999 fictionalized version is based on the infamous Scopes “Monkey Trial” and tells the true stories of John Scopes, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow.

Starring Jack Lemmon in the role modeled on Clarence Darrow and George C. Scott as the William Jennings Bryan character, “Inherit the Wind,” based on the real-life Scopes Monkey Trial, the teleplay was directed by Daniel Petrie Sr. from a script by Nathan E. Douglas and Harold Jacob Smith. Douglas and Smith wrote the most infamous adaptation of the original play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee, the 1960 movie starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March. Showtime and NBC will share the exhibition window of the movie.

The author hopes that you will copy and pass his article on to as many people as possible. However, if you want to reprint it please contact the Bible-Science Association. Copyright (c) 1985 by the Bible-Science Association, P.O. Box 32475, Minneapolis, Minne­sota 55432. Used by permission.

Rarely, it seems, does a year go by that the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee play “Inherit The Wind” about the famous “monkey trial” is not produced by local high schools and colleges. In addition, the 1960 film of the same name featuring Frederic March and Spencer Tracy appears frequently on local television. Lest there be even a few who have some how failed to see these productions, NBC produced its own color remake of “Inherit The Wind” in 1988 which it has aired twice on nationwide television. All of these versions of “Inherit The Wind” are quite similar, with both film versions expanding on certain themes of the original play.

The great interest in “Inherit The Wind” rests largely on its perceived relevance to the growing creation-evolution controversy. While “Inherit The Wind” is obviously not a docu­mentary, it is understood to be a “documentary-drama” of the famous Scopes trial of 1925, which pitted William Jennings Bryan against Clarence Darrow in a classic confrontation over the teaching of evolution and creation in the public schools. Considerable theatrical liberties were exercised in developing the plot but occasional court room exchanges were taken verbatim from the transcript of the Scopes trial. The composite that resulted has unfortunately become widely perceived as essentially an historical account of the trial. This widely held misconception has been reinforced by the extensive promotions, advertise­ments and reviews that preceded the showing of the NBC television version of “Inherit The Wind.” Many grade schools and high schools through out the Nation asked their students to watch NBC’s “Inherit The Wind” so that they might better understand the events and issues surrounding the nations most famous courtroom battle.

The original film version of “Inherit The Wind” has long been used as an “educational” film in science, history and social studies classes. In the Mehlville school district in St. Louis County, for example, this film is shown to junior high students in their earth science class. Their teacher claims that the film shows “the triumph of science over religious dogma.” But does “Inherit The Wind,” or even the Scopes trial itself, show the triumph of science (evolu­tionism) over religious dogma (special creation)? More importantly, is the play/film a fair and accurate representation of the great battle of ideas and beliefs that was waged at the Rhea County Court House in Dayton Tennessee? The answers to these questions are important in view of the impact that the frequent showing of the various versions of “Inherit The Wind” are likely to have on the attitudes and beliefs of its viewers.

The purpose of this study was to carefully compare the film “Inherit The Wind” (CBS Fox Video, copyright 1960) with the actual transcript of the Scopes trial as well as with various biographical and historical accounts of the trial and its participants. The transcript of the Scopes trial is available on microfilm in most University law libraries, but for conve­nience in study, I chose to use a reprint of the original transcript published in its entirety at the time of the trial in the book, The World’s Most Famous Court Trial. All page references to the “transcript” in this study refer to this book.

Curiously, the film “Inherit The Wind”, unlike other documentary-dramas such as “Gandhi” and “Patton”, does not use the actual names of either the participants or places it portrays. Although some characters like the Rev. Jeremiah Brown and his much perse­cuted daughter Rachel are purely fictitious, the rest of the principal characters in the play and film versions of “Inherit The Wind” clearly represent well known participants in the Scopes trial. Lest there be any doubt, even the pattern of the names and the number of syllables in each name carefully match the real names of the people they purport to por­tray. In both the play and film versions, the character Matthew Harrison Brady represents William Jennings Bryan, Henry Drummond represents Clarence Darrow, Bert Cates repre­sents John Scopes and E.K. Hornbeck represents H.L. Menken. I have chosen to use the proper names of the principals in the Scopes trial to avoid confusion since there has never been any doubt who the chief characters in the film are intended to represent.

I believe that the following observations will show that there are profound discrepan­cies between the film and the relevant historical evidence. With the exception, perhaps, of the degree to which this is true, these differences were not unexpected. What is more significant, however, is that there is considerable evidence to suggest that the film is not simply inaccurate, in the way of “Hollywood history,” but rather is highly biased in its intent. The historical inaccuracies are systematic and of a kind that presents a consistent bias of slanderous proportions against a particular class of people and their beliefs. Specifically, people who believe in the miracles recorded in the Bible, and especially the Biblical ac­count of creation, are portrayed in an outrageously uncomplimentary way. On the other hand, those who are critical or virtually unbelieving, with regard to the miracles of the Bible, are portrayed as eminently reasonable people who must suffer the abuse, threats and ignorance of the fundamentalist Christians around them.

In the observations that follow, segments of the general story line of the film are pre­sented in roughly chronological order under the heading “MOVIE”; immediately following, under the heading “FACT”, is a discussion of each film segment in the light of the Scopes trial transcript as well as other historical sources. Although the following story lines and criticisms refer specifically to the 1960 film version of “Inherit The Wind,” in most instances they apply with equal validity to the original play as well as the CBS television remake.

MOVIE: Begins with an off key vocal dirge on the song “Old Time Religion” repeated for numerous choruses. Drums pound ominously in the background as sinister men (clergy­men and businessmen) gather to do foul deeds in the name of God. They intrude into the biology classroom where John Scopes is caught teaching evolution with enthusiasm and conviction, and there indict Scopes for breaking the law against teaching evolution. Scopes is immediately jailed and remains in jail throughout the trial. Out of fear, Scopes sends a letter to a newspaper requesting help assuming, it would appear, that the news media can always be counted on to defend evolutionism. The notorious reporter and editorialist H.L. Menken comes to the rescue and enlists the aid of the famous trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow. And none too soon, for the Fundamentalist Christians of Dayton hate John Scopes and gather outside his jail cell window to throw things at him and chant that they are going to lynch him.

FACT: No one intruded in John Scopes’ classroom. Scopes was not a biology teacher. Scopes only filled in for two weeks near the end of the school year for the biology teacher, Mr. Ferguson, who was ill. Scopes didn’t even have a college degree in science (he had an undergraduate major in law at the University of Kentucky). Scopes was hired to teach math and coach the football team. The team improved during the year under Scopes and he was generally well liked by the people of Rhea County. Prior to the trial, no one outside his school knew or cared what Scopes taught in school. Scopes maintained to his death in 1970 that he never taught evolution during the two weeks he substituted for the biology teacher but rather simply reviewed the students for their final exam. In Sprague de Camp’s book, The Great Monkey Trial, there is recorded a remarkable conversation be­tween Scopes and reporter William K. Hutchinson of the International News Service which occurred during the last days of the trial; Scopes said:

There’s something I must tell you. It’s worried me. I didn’t violate the law…I never taught that evolution lesson. I skipped it. I was doing something else the day I should have taught it, and I missed the whole lesson about Darwin and never did teach it. Those kids they put on the stand couldn’t remember what I taught them three months ago. They were coached by the lawyers. *** Honest, I’ve been scared all through the trial that the kids might remember I missed the lesson. I was afraid they’d get on the stand and say I hadn’t taught it and then the whole trial would go blooey. If that happened they would run me out of town on a rail.

When Hutchinson replied that would make a great story, Scopes said:

My god no! Not a word of it until the Supreme Court passes my appeal. My lawyers would kill me. (de Camp, page 432)

Hutchinson did claim he overheard Clarence Darrow coaching the students on what to say, but even with coaching, only one of the students clearly implied that Scopes taught evolution. There is clearly a more interesting story here than the public has been told: Clarence Darrow, who was presumably supposed to defend his client from a law that forbid the teaching of evolution, apparently coached his client’s students to perjure themselves by claiming that John Scopes taught evolution when in fact he hadn’t!

Given that John Scopes was a popular football coach in Dayton who never taught evolution and didn’t feel strongly about the subject, how then did he get indicted for violat­ing a Tennessee law which forbid teaching the evolution of man? The American Civil Liber­ties Union (ACLU) in New York City and George Rappleyea, a local mine operator in Day­ton Tennessee, were responsible for indicting John Scopes for teaching evolution. The ACLU was anxious to get a test case in Tennessee which they might be able to use to repeal or nullify the Butler act. This act forbid public school teachers in the state of Tennes­see to deny the literal Biblical account of man’s origin and to teach in its place the evolution of man from lower animals. The law, incidentally, didn’t forbid teaching the evolution of any other species of plant or animal. George Rappleyea read a press release from the ACLU in a Chattanooga paper, “The Daily Times,” which said in part:

We are looking for a Tennessee teacher who is willing to accept our services in testing this law in the courts.

The release promised legal services without cost and implied that the Ku-Klux Klan and “professional patriotic societies” were the “inspiration” for the law. Rappleyea appar­ently had reasons of his own for trying to embarrass the Fundamentalist Christians of Tennessee by challenging and perhaps overthrowing a law which favored teaching the Biblical account of man’s creation. During the Scopes trial George Rappleyea told the press about his reason for setting the Scopes trial in motion. Rappleyea was apparently upset with a Fundamentalist preacher who he claimed declared that a dead boy would be cast into the “flames of hell” because he had neither “confessed Christ” nor was baptized. This apparently did not agree with Rappleyea’s religious views and he vowed that he would “get even” with the “Fundamentalists” who he believed were responsible for the antievolu­tion law (de Camp, pages 6-7). Rappleyea said “I made up my mind I’d show the world.”

Rappleyea, who de Camp describes as an “intense, argumentative, garrulous man,” lost no time in seeking out John Scopes and in pressuring him to accept the ACLU offer. Scopes was apparently reluctant to get involved and told Rappleyea that he had not actu­ally taught evolution. Rappleyea insisted that since the biology text book taught evolution, that was close enough and with Scopes’ permission he wrote out a telegram on the spot to the ACLU which read:

Professor J.T. Scopes, teacher of science Rhea County high School, Dayton, Tenn, will be arrested and charged with teaching evolution. Consent of superintendent of education for test case to be defended by you. Wire me collect if you wish to cooperate and arrest will follow.

Apparently Rappleyea didn’t even wait for the ACLU response as he went right out to a justice of the peace to get a warrant for Scopes’ arrest. Sue Hicks, a local lawyer who went along with the plan, filled out a makeshift arrest warrant while Rappleyea swore to the truth of the statement and signed the warrant. He then found a sheriff and demanded the arrest of John Scopes. Scopes was arrested and immediately released on a bond of $1,000. It should be emphasized that, contrary to the film, Scopes was never jailed for teaching evolution. In portraying Scopes as a “prisoner”, the film obviously tried to invoke sympathy for Scopes as a man who was persecuted for his beliefs by prying Fundamental­ists. In his book, Sprague de Camp dispelled what he called “the widespread myth” of the dedicated school teacher who was persecuted for his courageous stand on behalf of evolu­tion by “witch-burning” Fundamentalists:

The trial wasn’t a “witch hunt” as it has been called, because the accused and his defenders, the “witches,” were actually the hunters, stalking the law with the intent of overturning it or at least making it unenforceable. (de Camp, page 490)

MOVIE: Throughout the film William Jennings Bryan is portrayed as closed-minded, pompous, stupid, intolerant, hypocritical, insincere and a glutton. As the trial progresses, Bryan becomes virtually obsessed with his mission of prosecuting John Scopes and keep­ing evolution out of the schools. Even Bryan’s wife gradually comes to realize that her husband is a religious zealot and seems to regret that she didn’t get to know the agnostic Clarence Darrow a little better in their younger years. Even Bryan’s reputation as an orator is called into question in the film which portrays him as a strutting and arrogant sounding “flim-flam man” whose style and tedious sense of humor appeals only to ignorant folks (ie. Christian Fundamentalists). It is hardly possible to watch the film without developing a sense of contempt for William Jennings Bryan and the Christian Fundamentalists who somehow find something to admire in the man.

FACT: In his book The Great Monkey Trial, Sprague de Camp repudiates Bryan’s conservative Christianity and misses no opportunity to be critical of his scientific views and yet, honesty compelled him to give Bryan credit for at least some of his undeniable virtues:

As a speaker, Bryan radiated good humored sincerity. Few who heard him could help liking him. In personality he was forceful, energetic, and opinionated but genial, kindly, generous, likable, and charming. He showed a praise worthy tolerance towards those who disagreed with him. Bryan was the greatest American orator of his time and perhaps any time. (de Camp, page 37)

This is obviously not the man portrayed in the film, but de Camp’s description of Bryan’s character is entirely consistent with the major biographies of Bryan’s life (see Levine, 1965 and Coletta, 1969). None the less, many of Bryan’s enemies insisted that, regardless of his many virtues, he was ignorant and even dangerous when it came to scientific or factual matters. The historical record does not support this accusation.

Bryan was not just a “commoner”, as even he liked to portray himself, but was also an immensely productive and progressive politician who was the recognized leader of the Democratic party for 30 years and was three times nominated by his Party as their candi­date for President of the United States. Although Bryan was never elected president, he did serve as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson during which time he devoted most of his attention to negotiating treaties with foreign nations in an effort to prevent the outbreak of World War I. During his political career, Bryan strenuously fought for some of the most progressive legislation of his time, including the popular election of senators, an income tax, the free and unlimited coinage of silver, requirements for the publication of the circula­tion and ownership of newspapers, the creation of the department of labor, and women suffrage. Bryan appealed to a broad cross section of people including those whose political views were decidedly liberal. Clarence Darrow himself twice campaigned for Bryan when he ran for President of the United States. Many of the “progressives” who supported Bryan, however, came to despise him for his outspoken Christian convictions, particularly when he dared to speak out against Darwinism.

MOVIE: The conservative Christian people of Dayton, Tennessee are portrayed as greedy, ignorant, closed-minded, discourteous and even threatening towards the lawyers for the defense, the news media and outsiders in general.

FACT: The transcript of the Scopes trial shows this to be precisely the opposite of the truth:

Darrow: “I don’t know as I was ever in a community in my life where my religious ideas differed as widely from the great mass as I have found them since I have been in Tennessee. Yet I came here a perfect stranger and I can say what I have said before that I have not found upon anybody’s part—any citizen here in this town or outside the slightest discourtesy. I have been treated better, kindlier and more hospitably than I fancied would have been the case in the north.” (transcript, pages 225-226).
Newspaper man from Toronto: I would like to “express my great appreciation of the extreme courtesy which has been accorded me and my brethren of the press by the court and the citizens of Dayton. I shall take back with me a deeper appreciation of the great republic for which we have felt so kindly, and whose institutions we so magnify and admire.” (transcript, page 315)

MOVIE: Bryan, but not Darrow, is referred to as “Colonel” in the court room because only Bryan had been made an “honorary Colonel” in the state militia of Tennessee. Darrow understandably resents this gross display of bias and the State reluctantly makes Darrow a “temporary honorary Colonel” in a bungling effort to hide their obvious partiality to Bryan.

FACT: “Colonel” was a customary honorary title used in the courtroom and was ex­tended to all of the legal counsel in the Scopes case. It had nothing whatever to do with the military or favoritism. Both Darrow and Bryan, indeed all of the lawyers in the case, were frequently referred to as “Colonel” during the trial. Incidentally, unlike Darrow, Bryan really was a Colonel in the U.S. Army.

MOVIE: Darrow objects to the announcement of an evening prayer meeting at the end of the first day of the trial.

FACT: No such announcement was ever made during the trial but Darrow and the other defense lawyers repeatedly objected to the opening of each session of the court with prayer as was customary in Tennessee and still is in our own U.S. Supreme Court.

MOVIE: Darrow gets Bryan to admit that he is totally opposed to the use of Darwin’s book The Descent of Man in the Rhea County High School Biology classroom despite the fact that he, Bryan, has never read Darwin’s book nor does he ever intend to read it.

FACT: It was Hunter’s Civic Biology that was used in the classroom, not Darwin’s book. It was Bryan, not Darrow, who introduced Darwin’s The Descent of Man as evidence in the trial and who quoted from it (transcript, page 176). Bryan proved, for example, that Darwin did in fact claim that man descended from a monkey, a point the defense had tried to deny. Bryan is reported by one of his biographers, Lawrence W. Levine, to have read Darwin’s The Origin of Species already in 1905—20 years before the Scopes trial! Al­though Bryan’s reservations about the theory of evolution were certainly influenced by his religious beliefs, he had written many well argued articles which were critical of the scien­tific evidence used in his day to defend the theory of evolution. Bryan had also carried on a long correspondence on the subject of evolution with the famous evolutionist, Henry Fairfield Osborn. Certainly for a layman, Bryan’s knowledge of the scientific evidence both for and against evolution was unusually great. By comparison, the trial transcript shows that Darrow gave the impression of having a very poor grasp of both the meaning and putative mechanism of evolution. Darrow appeared to rest his belief in evolution on scien­tific “authority,” which he accepted without question, and on his total rejection of all the miracles of the Bible including, of course, the Genesis account of Creation.

MOVIE: Scopes’ fiance “Rachel Brown” is called as a witness and is badly mistreated by Bryan who forces her to testify against her own fiance by insisting that she repeat deeply personal conversations between her and Scopes which Bryan had pried out of her in “confidence” only the night before. Bryan, always the fanatic, loses his self control and becomes cruel and merciless in his questioning of the frightened young lady. Darrow, on the other hand, magnanimously agrees not to cross examine Rachel lest she be further discomfited after Bryan’s unconscionable abuse.

FACT: No women participated in the trial. Scopes did not have a special girl friend or fiance at this time though he dated several Dayton girls. Bryan was courteous at all times in his handling of witnesses as an examination of the trial transcript will reveal. Darrow, on the other hand, was at times condescending and contemptuous in his treatment of witnesses, jurists, opposing lawyers and even the judge. Darrow was, in fact, cited for contempt of court for repeatedly interrupting and insulting judge Raulston. Darrow persecuted Bryan so relentlessly for his religious beliefs, when he called him on the stand, that some have suggested that Darrow actually hastened Bryan’s death. This possibility was undoubtedly on H.L. Menkens’ mind who, on learning of Bryan’s death shortly after the trial said, “Well, we killed the son of a bitch.” Darrow’s treatment of Bryan was perceived as so deplorable that even many supporters of the ACLU successfully exerted pressure to prevent him from representing Scopes when the case was later appealed to the State Supreme Court. Lib­eral clergymen who supported the ACLU maintained that Darrow had succeeded in turning many “moderate” theologians against evolution and the ACLU by his apparently hostile attitude toward Christianity and Bryan.

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