Lawyers in film: Inherit the Wind

We can learn a lot about the profession from lawyers in film and it can engender in students a love of the law: a new series of cinema critiques by David Langwallner


Inherit the Wind (1960) is based on a real-life incident, the Scopes Trial that caused a sensation in the United States and received saturation coverage. In Dayton, Tennessee in July 1925, Scopes, a high school biology teacher, was put on trial for teaching Darwinism and in so doing, attracted the wrath of the creationist legislature. In the film Scopes is, to some extent, an incidental figure. The real struggle for hearts and minds takes place between the opposing counsel, two heavyweights of American intellectual life for many years. Scopes was represented by Clarence Darrow and the state by William Jennings Bryan. Although the names are altered in the film to Henry Drummond for Darrow and Matthew Harris Brady for Bryan, it is a clear transcription and I will use for convenience the names Darrow and Bryan.

Darrow was the most famous American liberal lawyer of the age and an icon of liberal urban and progressive values. He had been involved in many causes célèbres including the Leopold and Loeb case (which subsequently gave rise to a film with Orson Welles as Darrow called ‘Compulsion’ (1959) and indirectly to Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’ (1948)).

Moreover, Darrow was an avowed and zealous atheist who had written treatises on the subject. When given the chance to become involved in the case (he was not first choice) he jumped at it.

Darrow was opposed by William Jennings Bryan, a figure of much complexity in American public life. Bryan had stood and narrowly lost the Presidency of the United States (he stood in 1896, 1900 and 1908) and had also been closely involved in progressive causes, particularly in the achievement of social justice and the improvement of the plight of poor workers and farmers. His sobriquet was, in fact, ‘The Great Commoner’.

However, he was also a religious fundamentalist and had been instrumental in ensuring that 15 states were about to ban the teaching of evolution. The actual Tennessee Statute read that it was unlawful: ‘to teach any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught by the Bible and to teach instead that man was descended from a lower order of animals’.

Inherit The Wind was written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee and was intended as a covert attack on the anti-communist hysteria that was gripping America in the 1950s by using the Scopes Trial as an example. The message was to protect freedom of speech and conscience against the tide of anti-intellectualism which the McCarthy era brought about, although it differs in many material ways from what actually happened in the Scopes Trial – not least in the fact that the real Scopes was more than willing to be a test case and the real trial was to a large extent orchestrated to engender publicity for the town. Vast chunks of the actual trial are repeated near verbatim in the film.

From the opening speeches the stage is set. Darrow states that to convict would be the ‘opening of the door for a reign of bigotry equal to anything in the middle ages’ and Bryan argues that ‘if evolution wins, Christianity goes.’ The trial commences and various witnesses are called including Darrow’s experts on evolution. The real drama is left towards the end when Darrow calls Bryan to the stand! Darrow forces Bryan into a series of damaging admissions, noting that the Bible was not to be read ‘literally’ on the subject of creation, and that the six days of creation were ‘periods’.

One particularly damaging exchange, which left the court in peals of laughter, went as follows: Bryant: I do not think about things I don’t think about. Darrow: Do you think about things that you do think about? Bryan: Well, sometimes.

Scopes was convicted, as was inevitable, but the Tennessee Supreme Court historically overturned his conviction, and of the 15 states that were going to adopt creationist statues, only two did.

Although the film pulls no punches in its siding with Darrow as he caustically criticises the values and beliefs of creationism, it nonetheless has a lovely feel for the ambivalence of Bryan, a champion of the poor and underprivileged throughout his life yet a virulent fundamentalist and representative of what H L Mencken, the noted American satirist who was present and documented the trial, described as inter alia ‘the booboisie’ and ‘gaping primates’.

Mencken wrote of Bryan: ‘It is a great tragedy to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon’. Bryan died a few days after the trial and not, as the film represents inaccurately, at its conclusion, and his obituary was famously and shockingly written by Mencken.

The film is more relevant than ever as the culture wars juxtaposing creationism and Darwinism are right back in fashion.

It is also a real life dramatisation of the fundamental importance of freedom of expression, speech and conscience of ideas that are often contrary to the prevailing values of a community. In particular, the right to say, in the terms of the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights on Article 10 of the Convention, that which ‘offends, shocks or disturbs’ and of the need in a community to respect and endorse the values of ‘pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness’ necessary in a democratic society.

Finally, the film is also a very useful illustration of the jurisprudential theme as to whether and to what extent law should reflect the moral values of the majority of the community and should criminalise behaviour that the majority feels to be immoral, as Lord Devlin contended or conversely as H L A Hart contended should law accept and indeed protect in a pluralist culture different moralities.

Calling opposing counsel as a putative expert to the witness stand – in this case to question how precisely God made man in six days – is not a desirable trial practice, however much there may be some prosecutors one might like to call to the stand. 

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David Langwallner

David Langwallner is a graduate of the Harvard Law School and the London School of Economics and is a barrister at 1MCB. He is a published author and writes monthly columns in the Village magazine in Ireland and the website Cassandra Voices. David was 2015 Irish Lawyer of the Year for his work as director of the Irish Innocence Project.