It stars Spencer Tracy as lawyer Henry Drummond and Fredric March as his friend and rival Matthew Harrison Brady, also featuring Gene Kelly, Dick York, Harry Morgan, Donna Anderson, Claude Akins, Noah Beery, Jr., Florence Eldridge, and Jimmy Boyd.
The script was adapted by Nedrick Young (originally as Nathan E. Douglas) and Harold Jacob Smith. Stanley Kramer was commended for bringing in writer Nedrick Young, as the latter was blacklisted. Inherit the Wind is a parable that fictionalizes the 1925 Scopes "Monkey" Trial as a means to discuss McCarthyism. Written in response to the chilling effect of the McCarthy era investigations on intellectual discourse, the play (and film) are critical of creationism.
The film had its World Premiere at the Astoria Theatre in London's West End on July 7, 1960.
A television remake of the film was broadcast in 1965. Another television remake starring Jason Robards and Kirk Douglas aired in 1988. It was once again remade for TV in 1999, co-starring Jack Lemmon as Drummond and George C. Scott as Brady.
Inherit the Wind is a fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes "Monkey" Trial, which resulted in John T. Scopes's conviction for teaching Charles Darwin's theory of evolution to a high school science class, contrary to a Tennessee state law. The characters of Matthew Harrison Brady, Henry Drummond, Bertram Cates and E. K. Hornbeck correspond to the historical figures of William Jennings Bryan, Clarence Darrow, Scopes, and H. L. Mencken, respectively. However, Lee and Lawrence state in a note at the opening of the play on which the film is based that it is not meant to be a historical account, and many events were substantially altered or invented. For instance, the characters of the preacher and his daughter were fictional, the townspeople weren't hostile towards those who had come to Dayton for the trial, and Bryan offered to pay Scopes' fine if he was convicted. Bryan did die shortly after the trial's conclusion, but his death occurred five days later in his sleep. Political commentator Steve Benen said of the drama's inaccuracies: "Scopes issued no plea for empathy, there was no fiancee and the real Scopes was never arrested. Lawrence explained in a 1996 interview that the play's purpose was to criticize McCarthyism and defend intellectual freedom. According to Lawrence, "we used the teaching of evolution as a parable, a metaphor for any kind of mind control [...] It's not about science versus religion. It's about the right to think."
In a small Southern town, a school teacher, Bertram Cates, is about to stand trial. His offense: violating a state law by introducing to his students the concept that man descended from the lower life forms, a theory of the naturalist Charles Darwin. Cates is denounced by town leaders including the Rev. Jeremiah Brown.
The town is excited because appearing on behalf of the prosecution will be Matthew Brady, a noted statesman and three-time presidential candidate. A staunch foe of Darwinism and a Biblical scholar, Brady will sit beside prosecuting attorney Tom Davenport, in the courtroom of Judge Coffey.
The teacher's defense is to be handled by the equally well-known Henry Drummond, one of America's most controversial legal minds and a long-standing acquaintance and adversary of Brady. An influential newspaperman, E.K. Hornbeck of the Baltimore Herald, has persuaded Drummond to represent Cates, and ensured that his newspaper and a radio network will provide nationwide coverage of the case.
Rev. Brown publicly rallies the townspeople against Cates and Drummond. The preacher's daughter Rachel is conflicted because she and Cates are engaged to be married.
The judge admires Brady, addressing him as "Colonel". Drummond objects to this; as a compromise the mayor makes him a "temporary" colonel for the proceedings. Each time Drummond calls a scientist or authority figure to discuss Darwin's theories, the judge sustains the prosecution's objections and forbids such opinions from being heard. Drummond grows frustrated, feeling the case has already been decided. When he asks to withdraw from the case, the judge tells Drummond to show cause the next morning why he should not be held in contempt of court. John Stebbins offers his farm as collateral toward the bail. His son was a friend and protege of Cates who drowned after developing a cramp while swimming. The Reverend had said the child was damned to hell because he was not baptized. This, led to Cates' abandonment of the church, as he felt it was not fair that a child could not enter Heaven due to an action that was beyond his control.
That night, mocking crowds go by the jail and then to the hotel where Drummond is staying. Drummond is trying to decide how to accomplish his defense without his witnesses and states that he needs a miracle. Hornbeck throws him a Bible from Brady stating there are plenty in that. As Hornbeck pours some drinks and turns to Drummond, he is surprised by Drummond holding the Bible and smiling.
Drummond calls Brady himself to the witness stand. Brady's confidence in his Biblical knowledge is so great that he welcomes this challenge, but becomes flustered under Drummond's cross-examination, unable to explain certain apparent contradictions, until he is forced to confess that at least some Biblical passages cannot be interpreted literally. Drummond hammers home his point – that Cates, like any other man, demands the right to think for himself, and those citing divine support as a rationale to silence him are wrong.
Cates is found guilty, but because Drummond has made his case so convincingly, with the trial becoming a political embarrassment, the judge only fines him $100. Brady is furious and tries to enter a speech into the record, but Drummond persuades the judge to disallow it as the trial has concluded. As court adjourns, Brady tries to give his speech but most ignore him outside of his wife and his opponents. As he becomes increasingly hysterical, he suffers from a "busted belly", dying in the courtroom.
After the crowd has cleared out, Hornbeck talks with Drummond, wanting to use the Bible quotation from Reverend Brown's rally and in which Brady had quoted the "inherit the wind" verse because Brown was about to damn his own daughter. Drummond quotes the verse verbatim, shocking Hornbeck, who states, "Well, we're growing an odd crop of agnostics this year!" They argue over Brady's legacy, Drummond accuses Hornbeck of being a heartless cynic, and Hornbeck walks out, leaving Drummond alone in the courtroom. Drummond picks up the Bible and Darwin's book (On the Origin of Species), balancing them in his hands before walking out with them.Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond (patterned after Clarence Darrow)
Fredric March as Matthew Harrison Brady (patterned after William Jennings Bryan)
Gene Kelly as E. K. Hornbeck of the Baltimore Herald (patterned after Henry L. Mencken)
Florence Eldridge as Sara Brady
Dick York as Bertram T. Cates (patterned after John Scopes)
Donna Anderson as Rachel Brown
Harry Morgan as Judge Merle Coffey
Claude Akins as Rev. Jeremiah Brown
Elliott Reid as Prosecutor Tom Davenport
Paul Hartman as Deputy Horace Meeker - Bailiff
Philip Coolidge as Mayor Jason Carter
Jimmy Boyd as Howard
Noah Beery Jr. as John Stebbins
Norman Fell as WGN Radio Technician
Hope Summers as Mrs. Krebs - Townswoman
Ray Teal as Jessie H. Dunlap
Renee Godfrey as Mrs. Stebbins
Uncredited roles include Richard Deacon, George Dunn, Snub Pollard, Addison Richards, Harry Tenbrook, Will Wright
Actress and singer Leslie Uggams sings both the opening and closing songs by herself a cappella.
Kramer offered the role of Henry Drummond to Spencer Tracy, who turned it down. Kramer then enlisted March, Eldridge, and Kelly as co-stars, and Tracy eventually signed. However, none of the co-stars had been signed at the time; Tracy was the first. Once Tracy signed to do the part, the others signed, also.
The film includes events from the actual Scopes trial, such as when Darrow was cited for contempt of court when he denounced his perception of prejudice by the court and his subsequent act of contrition the next day to have the charge dropped. The film also expands on the relationship of Drummond and Brady, particularly when the two opponents have a respectful private conversation in rocking chairs, in which they explain their positions in the trial. Furthermore, the film has a sequence occurring on the night after the court recessed and Cates and Drummond are harassed by a mob even as the lawyer is inspired how to argue his case the next day.
Being mostly faithful to the play, the film engages in literary license with the facts and should not be relied upon as a historical document. For example, Scopes (Bertram Cates) is shown being arrested in class, thrown in jail, burned in effigy, and taunted by a fire-snorting preacher. William Jennings Bryan (Matthew Harrison Brady) is portrayed as an almost comical fanatic who dramatically dies of a "busted belly" while attempting to deliver his summation in a chaotic courtroom. The townspeople are shown as frenzied, mean-spirited, and ignorant. None of that happened in Dayton, Tennessee during the actual trial.
The film grossed $2 million worldwide and recorded a loss of $1.7 million.
The film opened to a storm of praise with Kramer and company applauded for capturing the essence of the Scopes trial. Upon the film's release, Variety described it as "a rousing and fascinating motion picture [...] roles of Tracy and March equal Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan who collided on evolution [...] a good measure of the film's surface bite is contributed by Gene Kelly as a cynical Baltimore reporter (patterned after Henry L. Mencken) whose paper comes to the aid of the younger teacher played by Dick York. Kelly demonstrates again that even without dancing shoes he knows his way on the screen." The movie was also lauded by film critc Bosley Crowther of The New York Times.
In 2006, film critic Roger Ebert referred to it as "a film that rebukes the past when it might also have feared the future."
As of 2009, the website Rotten Tomatoes had given the film a 90% rating with 19 fresh and 2 rotten reviews.
Academy Awards Inherit the Wind was nominated for four Academy Awards.
BAFTANominated: Best Film
Nominated: Best Foreign Actor (March and Tracy)
Berlin International Film FestivalWon: Silver Bear for Best Actor (March)
Won: Best Feature Film Suitable for Young People (Kramer)
Nominated: Golden Bear award (Kramer)
Golden GlobesNominated: Best Film
Nominated: Best Actor (Tracy)