Thoughts on Inherit the Wind

Inherit the Wind is a dramatization of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial. This is the best scene, one of the top courtroom cross-examinations ever made. This movie really spoke to me because I grew up Catholic all my life and eventually turned away from it for personal reasons. Someone in my family is a Biblical literalist who doesn’t approve of my lifestyle. The part in this film where the fiery preacher and Brady both alienate Scopes’ fiancée really hit home with me. Personally I don’t care if someone’s religious but I do think fundamentalism as well as “fire and brimstone” sermons focusing on defaming apostates is terrifying. It’s dangerous in that it can incite violence from its proponents and hurtful to those in the crowd whom the speaker is unknowingly targeting with their hateful rhetoric (be they LGBT, the skeptics, the educated, etc.)

Beyond that personal connection, the aspect which most intrigued me was the character “Brady” who serves as the prosecuting attorney as well as a depiction of William Jennings Bryan. I’m a huge political science buff (I’m getting to those topics soon, I promise!) and William Jennings Bryan is one of the more fascinating candidates we’ve ever had. The 1896 election is actually my favorite in US history due to the fact that both candidates were decent, qualified men and their campaigns focused on modern issues (labor v business as opposed to slavery and expansionism) as well as modern tactics. Bryan was a firebrand speaker who, as I understand it, became the first man to really go all out and campaign on his own behalf. (The etiquette of the early 1800s was to pretend you didn’t want the job.) So to see a clear Bryan analog also portray the man’s less savory religious fundamentalism intrigues me. I laughed at the end where he wants to read a “brief” speech, then pulls it out and we see it spans dozens of pages. The way everyone ignores Brady’s speech was a great metaphor for the real life Bryan’s loss of political influence later in life. Not to mention the blow to his reputation after the actual trial.

Brady/Bryan is a really fascinating, multi-dimensional character even outside the context of the man’s actual career. There’s a lot of ways to interpret his actions in the story

Personally, I think his reaction to the preacher’s fire and brimstone sermon was genuine. (Brady gently rebukes his approach.) I think in that moment he realized the preacher had gone too far. Rachel, (Scopes’ fiancée) who idolized Brady and had nobody else to talk to at that time, confided in him. I believe that in those hours they were talking, he listened and comforted her sincerely. However, the next day, he decided to seize on that opportunity to exploit her testimony for the purpose of winning. He just couldn’t help himself, in his mind the trial–and by extension, being seen as pious–was more important than Rachel’s trust or feelings. In my personal experience, that’s organized religion in a nutshell: shaming, controlling or otherwise mistreating the individual in the name of virtue signaling to God. But I digress.

The film goes to great lengths to show that Brady is a different person in private and before a crowd. Redressing the preacher is one example of how soft and empathetic he is to people when he’s not on a platform. His gentle, warm conversation with Drummond on the porch is another–he practically admits religion is just a means of placating the masses. However, whenever Brady gets in front of a crowd: interrogating Rachel, testifying himself on the stand and giving his closing speech, he gets carried away. Each of these scenes conclude with Brady’s mouth trembling and a sudden look of self-awareness on his face as if he just realized he’d gone too far as well. I interpret this contradiction to mean Brady in his political career, fed off the energy and adoration of crowds until he began to believe his own bullshit.

These conflicting moments are a good representation of the real man, William Jennings Bryan’s legacy. He’s kind of a controversial figures in all circles and was so even in his own time. On the one hand he was the original liberal champion who helped redefine the Democratic Party as the champion of the working man, but on the other he was an unrepentant Christian fundamentalist and social conservative. Bryan wouldn’t fit neatly into either of our modern camps. But even beyond that, I’ve read mixed accounts of Bryan’s sincerity. A few authorities on the subject considered him to be a phony and/or populist demagogue who merely played to the masses as a way of obtaining power and prestige for himself. So, take that for what it’s worth. The film seems to embrace both sides and the crucial scene comes when his wife tells Rachel there is no black and white, that just because he did something you don’t like that doesn’t make him purely bad and vice versa.

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