“This community is an insult to the world!”
When a teacher (Dick York) in 1925 small-town Tennessee is put on trial for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution rather than Creationism, he’s defended by agnostic Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy), prosecuted by Bible-thumper Matthew Brady (Fredric March), covered in a media spectacle by cynical journalist E.K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly), and supported by his loving but concerned fiancee (Donna Anderson), whose preacher-father (Claude Akins) is the town’s most vocal opponent of Darwinian theory.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Courtroom Drama
- Deep South
- Fredric March Films
- Gene Kelly Films
- Media Spectacle
- Play Adaptation
- Small Town America
- Spencer Tracy Films
- Stanley Kramer Films
Director-producer Stanley Kramer helmed this adaptation of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s 1955 Broadway play, based on the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. Details and names have been changed — see Tim Dirk’s FilmSite review for an extensive analysis — but the essence of the storyline has been retained, while focusing primarily on the drama of two powerful men butting heads on stage (literally so, as shown in this poster). The theme of highly religious citizens defying the incorporation of science and reason into their lives is (sadly) as relevant as ever (it’s odd how pertinent this tale remains nearly 100 years later), as is the notion of the media seizing on a high-emotion battle between two opposing personalities (presidential elections, anyone?). Unfortunately, the fictional inclusion of a conflicted fiancee for York adds unnecessary drama to what was already a powerful enough courtroom tale, and Kelly seems miscast (one expects him to break into song and dance at any moment) — but the film remains worth a one-time look for the noteworthy lead performances and the intrinsic drama of science “versus” faith.
Note: Kramer made a number of “message pictures” right around this time — including The Defiant Ones (1958), On the Beach (1959), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1968) — and this fits right into that category.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond
- Fredric March as Matthew Brady
- Fine cinematography and direction
No, but it’s recommended for one-time viewing. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.