Trial by Hollywood

[This is a reprint of Chapter 17 of Tornado in a Junkyard. A condensed paraphrase may be found on Dr. Henry Makow’s website.]

It has been said that fiction persuades people more effectively than nonfiction, because it does a better job of touching emotions. Perhaps nothing has advanced evolution’s cause so effectively as a play and movie–Inherit the Wind.

Inherit depicts what was perhaps the most famous court case of the twentieth century–the “monkey trial” of 1925. The defendant was John Scopes, a schoolteacher from Dayton, Tennessee. He was charged with violating the Butler Act, a state law that forbade teaching that man descended from lower life forms (it did not prohibit teaching other aspects of evolution). The Butler Act had been uncontroversial in the Tennessee legislature, passing 71-5 in the house, and 24-6 in the senate.

Leading Scopes’s defense was Clarence Darrow, the most famous criminal lawyer of his day; assisting the prosecution was William Jennings Bryan, former Secretary of State and three times the Democratic Party’s Presidential candidate. The most common impression about this trial is probably that Darrow humiliated Bryan in cross-examination, scoring a powerful blow for evolution against religious fundamentalism.

Scopes, Darrow and Bryan
Scopes, Darrow and Bryan

Public beliefs regarding the trial are based mostly on Inherit the Wind. The play enjoyed a record three-year run on Broadway. It then became a film starring Spencer Tracy and Frederic March and was nominated for several Academy Awards. The movie, as well as a 1988 televised remake, have been shown countless times to students as “educational” material. The play has been frequently revived. Few people, however, have ever read the actual trial transcript. For most, Inherit the Wind IS the trial, and for many, even defines their perception of the creation-evolution debate.

It might be said, “Ah, come on, lighten up, nobody expects literal interpretations from Hollywood. Everyone knows that screenwriters sometimes change facts to make a story more interesting.” That’s right. I have signed away options on an unproduced screenplay of my own, and I know that when a writer fictionalizes a true event, he may have to create conflict where none existed, to put zip into the story, or invent new characters to generate dialogue.

That’s not what I’m talking about. Inherit the Wind did not alter facts merely to stimulate the audience. It grossly perverted the Scopes trial to advance a specific agenda. It is true that the original playwrights, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, acknowledged that their work “is not history,”1 and changed the principals’ names. John Scopes became Bert Cates; Clarence Darrow became Henry Drummond; William Jennings Bryan became Matthew Harrison Brady; Dayton, Tennessee became Hillsboro, Tennessee. Of course, everyone knew who they were talking about, but by making this disclaimer and changing the names, Lawrence and Lee padded their license to slander.

This chapter will contrast Inherit the Wind with the actual Scopes trial, by comparing the Spencer Tracy movie (the most familiar and accessible version) to the original courtroom transcript and other records.

IN THE MOVIE, the film opens as the grim town minister and other prudish-looking residents of Hillsboro gather. Ominous music plays against the hymn “Give me that old time religion, it’s good enough for me.” The citizens march to the local high school, where young Bert Cates (John Scopes) is forthrightly teaching biology, using Darwin’s Descent of Man. Cates is portrayed as a man who grew up in Hillsboro; neighborhood children, we learn, would come to his house to peer through his microscope.

The town prudes arrest Cates on the spot. The arresting officer reads in a droning fashion from a warrant. Cates says to him: “Come off it, Sam, you’ve known me all my life.”

IN REAL LIFE, John Scopes was not a biology teacher, nor did he grow up in Dayton, Tennessee. Scopes taught math and coached football, but had briefly substituted for the regular biology teacher during an illness. He was recruited by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to challenge Tennessee’s Butler Act. Evidently, he never even taught evolution or Darwin.L. Sprague de Camp’s The Great Monkey Trial relates the following conversation between Scopes and reporter William K. Hutchinson of the International News Service:

“There is something I must tell you. It’s worried me. I didn’t violate the law.”

“A jury has said you had,” replied Hutchinson.

“Yes, but 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. And that April twenty-fourth date was just a guess.

“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’d run me out of town on a rail.”

“Well, you are safe now,” said Hutchinson.2

Don’t buy it? Here’s what Scopes himself said in his autobiography, Center of the Storm:

To tell the truth, I wasn’t sure I had taught evolution.3

Darrow had been afraid for me to go on the stand. Darrow realized that I was not a science teacher and he was afraid that if I were put on the stand I would be asked if I actually taught biology.4

And Scopes wrote of his students who were called as witnesses:

If the boys had got their review of evolution from me, I was unaware of it. I didn’t remember teaching it.5

IN THE MOVIE, we next see Cates in jail, where he learns that the famous William Harrison Brady is coming to prosecute him. The jailer asks, “Who’s gonna be your lawyer, son?” Cates replies: “I don’t know yet. I wrote to that newspaper in Baltimore. They’re sending somebody.”

Cates’s girlfriend, Rachel, pleads with him: “Tell them you’re sorry. Tell them it was a mistake.” But Bert says: “Tell them if they let my body out of jail, I’d lock up my mind? Could you stand that, Rachel?”

At night, having recently heard a fiery sermon by the town preacher, a mob gathers outside Cates’s jail, burning him in effigy and threatening to lynch him. To the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” they sing: “We’ll hang Bert Cates to a sour apple tree, our God is marching on, Glory, glory, hallelujah. . . .” A rock is hurled through the jail window, injuring him.

In the courtroom, Cates is told: “We’ll fix you, Cates–we’ll run you out of town!”

John Scopes is thus portrayed as a heroic martyr, persecuted by witch-hunting bigots for daring to speak the truth.

IN REAL LIFE, Scopes never spent one second in jail. Violating Tennessee’s Butler Act was not an imprisonable offense; it was punishable only by a fine (which Scopes was never required to pay).

Furthermore, there was no bad blood between Scopes and Dayton’s people. The entire affair was amicably arranged. The ACLU had been running ads in Tennessee newspapers, offering to pay expenses for any teacher who would volunteer to participate in a court challenge to the new law. (The ACLU, of course, is well known for opposing organized religion; it has frequently sued public schools that allow religious teachings and towns that display nativity scenes at Christmas.)

George Rappleyea, manager of a mining company, noticed the ad. He convinced local businessmen that such a trial would put Dayton on the map (which it did) and hopefully lift its sagging economy. The men approached Scopes in the local drugstore run by “Doc” Robinson. They asked John if he would agree to say he had violated the law and be served with a warrant. Scopes later recalled the conversation:

“You filled in as a biology teacher, didn’t you?” Robinson said.

“Yes.” I nodded. “When Mr. Ferguson was sick.”

“Well, you taught biology then. Didn’t you cover evolution?”

“We reviewed for final exams, as best I remember.” To tell the truth, I wasn’t sure I had taught evolution.

Robinson and the others apparently weren’t concerned about this technicality. I had expressed willingness to stand trial. That was enough.6

Scopes and Dayton citizens reenact the drugstore encounter
Scopes and Dayton citizens reenact the drugstore encounter

The Dayton businessmen were so eager to have the trial, that when they learned Chattanooga was trying to get its own court case going, Daytonians threatened to boycott Chattanooga merchants, and Scope’s indictment was accelerated.7

To be sure, John Scopes believed in evolution. However, his trial was not instigated by witch-hunting fundamentalists, but by the ACLU, which not only paid the defense’s costs, but offered to pay the prosecution’s as well (an offer that was turned down). Everything happened with Scopes’s consent. Far from lynching him, the townspeople gave Scopes a seat of honor next to William Jennings Bryan at a banquet held for the latter.

IN THE MOVIE, when the locals learn Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow) is coming to be Bert Cates’s defense attorney, they yell: “We’ll send him back to hell!” “Ride him out on a rail!” “Don’t let him into town! Keep him out!”

When he arrives, he is greeted by only one person–newspaperman E. K. Hornbeck (based on the cynical journalist H. L. Mencken). (Drummond was played by Spencer Tracy and Hornbeck by Gene Kelly.) Drummond gets a rough reception. A big, gruff farmer rebukes him. A senile-looking Bible salesman asks Hornbeck: “Are you an evolutionist? An infidel? A sinner?” The only hospitable folks are Bert Cates’s enlightened students. When Drummond approaches the courthouse the next morning, he is loudly booed. At night, a mob of fundamentalists outside his hotel threaten to lynch him.

Lynch mob in Inherit the Wind
Lynch mob in Inherit the Wind

IN REAL LIFE, a friendly crowd greeted Clarence Darrow at the train station. The town held a banquet in his honor. Here is what Darrow himself said of his experience there:

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 better treated, kindlier and more hospitably than I fancied would have been the case in the north, and that is due largely to the ideas that southern people have and they are, perhaps, more hospitable than we are up north.8

IN THE MOVIE, Henry Drummond is Bert Cates’s lone attorney–an underdog fighting the system, represented by Matthew Harrison Brady, the state attorney, and a bigoted judge.

IN REAL LIFE, Clarence Darrow brought to Dayton a team of lawyers, including ACLU heavyweight Arthur Garfield Hays, New York divorce attorney Dudley Field Malone, and, for insight into local law, Tennessean John Neal.

IN THE MOVIE, in sharp contrast to Drummond’s cold reception, Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan) is given a huge parade. Marching before him, singing “Gimme that old time religion, it’s good enough for me,” are the town’s housewives, who, to a woman, are matronly, dour, prudish and frumpy (does that about sum it up?). They change the lyrics to: “If it’s good enough for Brady, then it’s good enough for me.” On the spot, the mayor makes Brady an honorary colonel in the state militia.

The movie's parade for "Brady"
The movie’s parade for “Brady”

In court, the judge prejudicially keeps referring to Brady as “Colonel.” Drummond says: “And I object to all this ‘Colonel Brady’ talk. I am not familiar with Mr. Brady’s military record.” Smitten, the mayor reluctantly makes Drummond a colonel, too.

IN REAL LIFE, no parade was given for Bryan, who was a colonel in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War, though he saw no action. And the judge, John T. Raulston, courteously referred to Darrow as “Colonel” from their first courtroom exchange, with no wrangling over titles.

IN THE MOVIE, Brady is an ignorant bigot opposed to all science. He says, “The people of this state have made it very clear that they do not want this zoological hogwash slobbered around the schoolrooms!” He declares: “The way of scientism is the way of darkness.”

IN REAL LIFE, Bryan was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Here is what he really said about science during the trial:

The Christian men and women of Tennessee know how deeply mankind is indebted to science for benefits conferred by the discovery of the laws of nature and by the designing of machinery for the utilization of these laws. Give science a fact and it is not only invincible, but of incalculable service to man.9

IN THE MOVIE, Brady opposes evolution solely on Biblical grounds.

IN REAL LIFE, he also opposed it on rational, scientific grounds. In an article published in Reader’s Digest he said:

It is not unusual for evolutionists to declare that their hypothesis is as clearly established as the law of gravitation or the roundness of the earth. Yet anyone can prove that anything heavier than air, when thrown up into the air, will fall to the ground; anyone can demonstrate the roundness of the earth by traveling around it.

But how about the doctrine that all of the species . . . by the operation of interior, resident forces came by slow and gradual development from one or a few germs of life, which appeared on this planet millions of years ago–the estimates varying according to the vigor of the guesser’s imagination and the number of ciphers left in his basket? . . . On the contrary, no one has ever been able to trace one single species to another. Darwin admitted that no species had ever been traced to another, but he thought his hypothesis should be accepted even though the “missing links” had not been found. . . . If there is such a thing as evolution, it is not just one link–the link between man and the lower forms of life–that is missing, but all the millions of links between millions of species. . . .

When a few bones and a piece of skull are fashioned into a supposed likeness of a prehistoric animal, described as an ape-man, the evolutionists fall down before it and worship it, although it contains a smaller percentage of fact than the one-half percent alcohol permitted in a legal beverage. . . .10

IN THE MOVIE, Brady is completely unfamiliar with Darwin’s works. After he declares his knowledge of the Bible, the following exchange ensues:

Drummond: I don’t suppose there are many portions of this book you’ve committed to memory–the Origin of the Species?

Brady: I am not in the least interested in the pagan hypotheses of that book.

Drummond: Never read it?

Brady: And I never will.

Drummond: Then how in perdition have you got the gall to whoop up this holy war about something that you don’t know anything about?

IN REAL LIFE, Bryan quoted Darwin extensively, in both the Dayton courtroom and his writings.

"Drummond" and "Brady" in court. The film script bears little resemblance to the trial transcript.
“Drummond” and “Brady” in court. The film script bears little resemblance to the trial transcript.

IN THE MOVIE, the prosecution objects when the defense tries to introduce Darwin’s texts as evidence; the bigoted judge agrees and excludes them.

IN REAL LIFE, not only were Darwin’s books allowed in evidence, but Bryan introduced them. I quote the trial transcript:

Mr. Bryan: Let me read what Darwin says. . . .

Mr. Malone [defense attorney]: What is the book, Mr. Bryan?

Mr. Bryan: “The Descent of Man,” by Charles Darwin.

Mr. Malone: That has not been offered as evidence?

Mr. Bryan: I should be glad to offer it.11

IN THE MOVIE, Brady is an obnoxious boor who laughs at his own corny jokes and can never resist making long speeches in the courtroom. Even the judge at last seems exasperated by Brady’s penchant for speeches.

IN REAL LIFE, Bryan never spoke a word in court until the fourth day of the trial, and that was in response to a query. The defense was quoting Bryan’s writings on religious freedom; asked if he minded, he said: “Not a bit.”12

In contrast, Clarence Darrow had already engaged in considerable oratory during the trial, including a two-hour speech on religion, bigotry and the law.

Darrow and Bryan in the courtroom
Darrow and Bryan in the courtroom

IN THE MOVIE, Drummond must turn down a bigoted juror. Brady accepts jurors based solely on their belief in the Bible, and even tries to renege when he learns that one is not as dogmatically religious as he had hoped.

IN REAL LIFE, Darrow turned down no juror for prejudice, and Bryan never spoke during jury selection.

IN THE MOVIE, in one of the script’s worst misrepresentations, the judge disallows any testimony from eminent scientists whom Drummond has brought to the trial. In a droning voice, the judge declares that “zoology” (which he can barely pronounce) and other scientific topics are “irrelevant to the case.”

IN REAL LIFE, Darrow called as a witness Maynard Metcalf, a zoologist from Johns Hopkins. He testified at length.13 It is true that Judge Raulston excluded the jury from that testimony. Darrow had instructed Scopes to plead “not guilty”; the jury’s only responsibility was to determine if he had broken the law. It was not their duty to decide if evolution was true, or if the Butler Act was constitutional.

It soon became clear that the atheistic Darrow was orchestrating a parade of witnesses for the purpose of promoting evolution. (The trial was being broadcast by radio across the nation, and reported in all the newspapers.) The prosecution correctly protested that this was irrelevant to the legal question at hand–Had Scopes violated the Butler Act?–and the judge, after studying the issue, concurred.

However, the defense argued that if Judge Raulston heard further scientific testimony, he would realize he was wrong. Giving great leeway, he courteously consented to hear more from the experts. Here is what he said:

The Court–I am going to let you introduce evidence and I will sit here and hear it, and if that evidence were to convince me that I was in error I would, of course, reverse myself.

William Jennings Bryan then raised a point that riled Clarence Darrow:

Mr. Bryan–I ask your honor: Will we be entitled to cross-examine their witnesses?

The Court–You will, if they go on the stand.

Mr. Darrow–They have no more right to cross-examine than to bring in the jury to hear this issue.

The judge then asked Darrow a pertinent question:

The Court–Colonel, what is the purpose of cross-examination?

Mr. Darrow–The purpose of cross-examination is to be used on the trial.

The Court–Well, isn’t it an effort to ascertain the truth?

Mr. Darrow–No, it is an effort to show prejudice.14

Obviously, when one side in a trial calls witnesses, the opposing party has a right to cross-examine them. But Darrow knew Bryan would ask his experts tough questions like “Where are the missing links?” Even worse, he might ask if they were atheists–which some could not deny without perjuring themselves. All this would spoil Darrow’s evolutionary showcase. He decided to have his witnesses instead make written affidavits for submission to an appeals court, thus avoiding any risk of cross-examination:

Mr. Darrow–We expect to protect our rights in some other court. Now, that is plain enough, isn’t it? Then we will make statements of what we expect to prove. Can we have the rest of the day to draft them?

Darrow was given the whole weekend, during which eight scientists dictated 60,000 words to stenographers.15 Copies were given to the press; excerpts were read aloud in the courtroom. Far from being excluded, the testimony of Darrow’s witnesses occupies 54 pages of the trial transcript. The decision to stay off the stand, and submit only written affidavits, was not made by a bigoted judge, but by the defense itself, in an effort to escape cross-examination. The ploy worked. Ironically, most of the evolutionary “evidence” Darrow’s experts discussed–Piltdown Man, “useless” organs, embryonic recapitulation–now sits in the trash heap of discredited ideas.

IN THE MOVIE, Brady wins the case through a vicious betrayal that reveals much about the writers’ view of Christian faith. The Scopes character, Bert Cates, is engaged to Rachel Brown, daughter of the town preacher. Reverend Brown tells Rachel she must leave Bert. Rachel refuses. He asks why. She says, “I love him, Pa.” He says, “No, no, that is the love of Judas–this man has nothing to offer you but sin.” Rachel asks: “Why do you hate him so?” Her father says, with a malicious expression: “Because I love God and I hate his enemies.” (Got that, teens of the sixties? Only religion and parents stand in the way of “true love.” Indeed, Cates tells Rachel: “It’s his church or our house–you can’t live in both.” )

The vicious--and fictitious--"Reverend Brown"
The vicious—and fictitious—”Reverend Brown”

Reverend Brown orders Rachel to beg forgiveness. Refusing, she assertively confronts her father with how unloving he has been since her childhood. The reverend nearly has a nervous breakdown, falling on his knees and babbling Bible verses.

Later, Reverend Brown leads a prayer meeting which looks more like a storm trooper rally:

Reverend Brown: Do we curse the man who denies the Word?

Crowd (wild-eyed, frenzied): Yes!

Brown: Do we call down hellfire on the man who has sinned against the Word?

Crowd: Yes!

Brown (looking toward heaven): O Lord of the Tempest and the Thunder! Strike down this sinner, as Thou didst Thine enemies of old, in the days of the Pharaohs! Let him know the terror of Thy sword! For all eternity, let his soul writhe in anguish and damnation!

Rachel (sobbing): No, Pa! Don’t pray to destroy Bert!

Brown: Lord, we ask the same curse for those who ask grace for this sinner–though they be blood of my blood, and flesh of my flesh!

At this point, Matthew Harrison Brady intervenes, calling for moderation and forgiveness. He breaks up the prayer meeting, and walks Rachel home, apparently to comfort her. For a moment, the writers seem to be showing a more balanced picture of Brady.

However, we later learn it’s a ruse to milk Rachel for information about Bert Cates! The next day, Brady calls her as a witness, insisting that she repeat to the courtroom what she said the night before. Rachel protests: “Mr. Brady, I confided in you.” But he and the judge compel her to reveal what Bert told her during their most intimate moments– personal thoughts showing he had some doubts about religion. Brady cruelly forces her to the point of tears, saying: “Tell it, tell it all, tell it, tell it, tell it!” In the movie, it is this testimony that convicts Cates.

That night, Rachel goes to Brady’s rooming house. She tells his wife: “I turned to your husband for help. He encouraged me to open up my heart to him. And then he twisted my words. He tricked me! Why? Why did he do it?” She breaks down, sobbing, then tells Mrs. Brady: “If he could do such an evil thing, he must be an evil man. And everything he stands for must be evil too!” The next day, Rachel tells Bert: “I left my father.” True love has won!

IN REAL LIFE, John Scopes had no girlfriend at the time of the trial, and no women were ever called to testify.

IN THE MOVIE, the judge cites Drummond with contempt of court because he makes an impassioned speech about truth and justice, denying that his client has received a fair trial (which in the movie, of course, he hasn’t).

IN REAL LIFE, Darrow’s contempt citation was for repeatedly insulting and interrupting the judge. The spark was Judge Raulston’s ruling that Bryan could cross-examine defense experts if they took the stand. We have already quoted Darrow’s testy remark that the purpose of cross-examination is to “show prejudice.” Let’s read excerpts from the ensuing exchange, which led to the citation:

The Court–Courts are a mockery . . .

Mr. Darrow–They are often that, your honor.

The Court–. . . when they permit cross-examination for the purpose of creating prejudice.

Mr. Darrow–I submit, your honor, there is no sort of question that they are not entitled to cross-examine, but all this evidence is to show what we expect to prove and nothing else, and can be nothing else.

The Court–I will say this: If the defense wants to put their proof in the record, in the form of affidavits, of course they can do that. If they put the witness on the stand and the state desires to cross-examine them, I shall expect them to do so.

Mr. Darrow–We except to it and take an exception.

The Court–Yes sir; always expect this court to rule correctly.

Mr. Darrow–No, sir, we do not.

(Laughter) . . .

The Court–I would not say . . .

Mr. Darrow–If your honor takes half a day to write an opinion . . .

The Court–I have not taken . . .

Mr. Darrow–We want to make statements here of what we expect to prove. I do not understand why every request of the state and every suggestion of the prosecution should meet with an endless waste of time, and a bare suggestion of anything that is perfectly competent on our part should be immediately overruled.

The Court–I hope you do not mean to reflect upon the court?

[At this point, Darrow turned his back on the judge and hunched his shoulders.]

Mr. Darrow–Well, your honor has the right to hope.


Raulston did not charge Darrow with contempt in the heat of anger, as the movie judge does. He made the citation the following day, after reviewing the court transcript. And incidentally, as in the film, he dropped the citation as soon as Darrow apologized.

IN THE MOVIE, Cates and Drummond hang on pins and needles waiting for the jury’s decision. When a “guilty” verdict is read, gloom falls on the defendant and his brave attorney. Brady and the prosecution exult. Bigotry and ignorance have won the day.

IN REAL LIFE, there was no suspense. On the last day of the trial, Darrow himself changed Scopes’s plea to “guilty.” Here are his words:

Mr. Darrow–Let me suggest this. We have all been here quite a while and I say it in perfectly good faith, we have no witnesses to offer, no proof to offer on the issues that the court has laid down here, that Mr. Scopes did teach what the children said he taught, that man descended from a lower order of animals–we do not mean to contradict that, and I think to save time we will ask the court to bring in the jury and instruct the jury to find the defendant guilty.17

Yow! What goes on? Why did Darrow plead Scopes “not guilty,” then do an about-face? The answer lies in his famous cross-examination of William Jennings Bryan. Again, this is what the trial is primarily remembered for–that Darrow trounced Bryan, and that evolution thus trounced fundamentalism. Let’s look at that famous debate.

IN THE MOVIE, Drummond, denied the right to quote Darwin or call scientific witnesses, is brooding in his hotel room. “What I need is a miracle,” he says.

Hornbeck, the journalist, tosses him a Bible, saying: “Miracle? Here’s a whole bagful. Courtesy Matthew Harrison Brady.”

Drummond holds the Bible, thinking and smiling. An imaginary lightbulb pops above his head. Hm . . . If they won’t let him ask science questions, he’ll get ‘em on the Bible. That egotist Brady would never pass up a chance to defend “the Good Book.”

IN REAL LIFE, this decision was anything but spontaneous. A bitter critic of Christianity, Darrow had crafted most of his Bible questions years earlier. He had long yearned to debate Bryan. The night before the cross-examination, he rehearsed it with Kitley Mather, one of his academic witnesses.18

Did Darrow win his confrontation with Bryan? Yes, but not nearly as convincingly as in the movie, and he succeeded for a plain reason. When a trial witness is cross-examined, he may only answer the questions asked. Furthermore, he may not ask any questions himself. Thus Darrow totally controlled the exchange. He took the offensive throughout, while Bryan could only assume the defensive, answering questions, asking none. Normally, of course, no politician consents to debate under such one-sided conditions.

Why, then, in heaven’s name, did Bryan? First, because Darrow baited him by publicly branding him a coward. Over the weekend, he told the press: “Bryan is willing to express his opinions on science and religion where his statements will not be questioned, but Bryan has not dared to test his views in open court under oath. . . .”19

When Darrow called Bryan as a witness that Monday, chief prosecutor Tom Stewart protested, but Bryan declared, to great applause: “I am simply trying to defend the word of God against the greatest atheist or agnostic in the United States. I want the papers to know I am not afraid to get on the stand and let him do his worst.”20

But there was a more significant reason why Bryan agreed: believing that afterwards he’d have the opportunity to cross-examine Darrow on evolution. This was important to Bryan since he had been denied cross-examination of Darrow’s experts.

Mr. Bryan–If your honor please, I insist that Mr. Darrow can be put on the stand, and [defense attorneys] Mr. Malone and Mr. Hays.

The Court–Call anybody you desire. Ask them any questions you wish.21


Darrow strung Bryan along, letting him believe this would happen:

The Witness [Bryan]: I want him [Darrow] to have all the latitude he wants. For I am going to have some latitude when he gets through.

Mr. Darrow–You can have latitude and longitude.22

But as we will see, Darrow apparently had no intention of going on the stand! Now let’s inspect the interrogation.

IN THE MOVIE, Brady is a Bible literalist:

Drummond: You believe that every word written in this book should be taken literally?

Brady: Everything in the Bible should be accepted, exactly as it is given there.

IN REAL LIFE, we find Lawrence and Lee lifted Bryan’s answer out of context:

Darrow: Do you claim that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?

Bryan: I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there; some of the Bible is given illustratively. For instance: “Ye are the salt of the earth.” I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God’s people.23

IN THE MOVIE, Drummond asks Bryan about sex:

Drummond: You’re up here as an expert on the Bible. What is the Biblical evaluation of sex?

Brady: It is considered “Original Sin.”

Lawrence and Lee thus established Brady as a prude.

IN REAL LIFE? Darrow never asked Bryan about sex. Incidentally, the Bible says adultery, not sex, is sinful.

IN THE MOVIE, Drummond asks Brady how old the Earth is:

Brady: A fine Biblical scholar, Bishop Ussher, has determined for us the exact date and hour of the Creation. It occurred in the Year 4,004 B.C.

Drummond: Well, uh, that’s Bishop Ussher’s opinion.

Brady: It is not an opinion. It is a literal fact, which the good Bishop arrived at through careful computation of the ages of the prophets as set down in the Old Testament. In fact, he determined that the Lord began the Creation on the 23rd of October, 4,004 B.C. at–uh, at 9 A.M.

Drummond: That Eastern Standard Time?

IN REAL LIFE, here’s what was said:

Q–Mr. Bryan, could you tell me how old the earth is?

A–No, sir, I couldn’t.

Q–Could you come anywhere near it?

A–I wouldn’t attempt to. I could possibly come as near as the scientists do, but I had rather be more accurate before I give a guess.24

IN THE MOVIE, Bryan crumbles as Drummond brings his interrogation to a climax:

Brady: It is the revealed Word of the Almighty God spake to the men who wrote the Bible.

Drummond: How do you know that God didn’t “spake” to Charles Darwin?

Brady: I know, because God tells me to oppose the evil teachings of that man.

Drummond: Oh. God speaks to you.

Brady: Yes.

Drummond: He tells you what is right and wrong.

Brady: Yes.

Drummond: And you act accordingly?

Brady: Yes.

Drummond: So you, Matthew Harrison Brady, through oratory, legislature, or whatever, you pass on God’s orders to the rest of the world! Well, meet the “Prophet From Nebraska!”

Brady begins cracking up. Finally–even after being dismissed as a witness–all he can do is frantically shout the names of the books of the Bible. The fundamentalists in the courtroom are visibly disillusioned and even angry with their hero.

IN REAL LIFE, nothing remotely resembling this sequence occurred.

Drummond demolishing Brady in the movie
Drummond demolishing Brady in the movie

Sure, Darrow scored some points. One of his wittiest moments came while pursuing Bryan on the date of the Flood:

Q–What do you think?

A–I do not think about things I don’t think about.

Q–Do you think about things you do think about?25

This resulted in an outburst of courtroom laughter. And you can be certain that, while Lawrence and Lee invented most of their dialogue, they kept this. After all, we must have some reality, mustn’t we?

On the other hand, the playwrights took care to eliminate Darrow’s surly remarks, such as his reference to Christianity as “your fool religion.”26

The truth is, Bryan often gave as good as he got. One Darrow strategy was to list various esoteric subjects, such as philology, and ask Bryan if he had ever studied them. Since Bryan was forced to keep answering “No,” it made him appear ignorant. However, Bryan soon discerned that Darrow did not necessarily know the answers to his own questions:

Q–Do you know about how many people there were on this earth 3,000 years ago?


Q–Did you ever try to find out?

A–When you display my ignorance, could you not give me the facts, so I would not be ignorant any longer? Can you tell me how many people there were when Christ was born?

Q–You know, some of us might get the facts and still be ignorant.

A–Will you please give me that? You ought not to ask me a question when you don’t know the answer to it.

Q–I can make an estimate.

A–What is your estimate?

Q–Wait until you get to me.27

Here we see Darrow still baiting Bryan with the promise that their roles would soon be reversed.

But the next morning, Bryan sat stunned as Darrow changed Scopes’s plea from “not guilty” to “guilty,” thus ending the trial. The judge gave Darrow an ostensible excuse by saying he planned to expunge the chaotic Bryan-Darrow interrogation from the record. But it is unlikely that Darrow ever planned to take the stand. It is well established that he intended to keep the eloquent Bryan from making a closing statement. As Darrow biographer Kevin Tierney noted:

Darrow, realizing that Bryan might make a comeback by giving a final address to the jury, pleaded Scopes guilty and waived the defense’s right to a closing speech, thereby under Tennessee law depriving the prosecution of the chance to address the court.28

Darrow himself wrote in his autobiography:

I made a complete and aggressive opening of the case. I did this for the reason that we never at any stage intended to make any [closing] arguments in the case. . . . By not making a closing argument on our side we could cut him [Bryan] out.29

The trial had never been about John Scopes’s guilt or innocence. Its purpose had been to disseminate Darwinism and assail fundamentalism. Darrow accomplished both. He had gotten his witnesses’ testimonies into the record without their being cross-examined; and he had roughed up Bryan on the Bible, then prevented Bryan from reciprocating. Give Darrow credit–he was a great tactician.

Williams Jennings Bryan thought it was a football game. He let Darrow go on offense first; Darrow drove downfield and, after a hard battle, scored a touchdown. Now, as Bryan stood awaiting a return kickoff, Darrow announced that the game was over. He proclaimed himself winner and was carried off the field on the media’s shoulders.

Bryan cynically commented that day: “. . . I think it is hardly fair for them to bring into the limelight my views on religion and stand behind a dark lantern that throws light on other people, but conceals themselves.”30

IN THE MOVIE, when the jury convicts Bert Cates, the judge decides to be lenient, and fines him only $100. Brady is wildly upset.

Brady: Did your honor say one hundred dollars?

Judge: That is correct. That seems to conclude the business of the trial . . .

Brady: Your honor, the prosecution takes exception! Why, the issues are so titanic, the court must mete out more drastic punishment!

IN REAL LIFE, Bryan had opposed having any penalties attached to Tennessee’s Butler Act.31 Regarding the Scopes case, he said:

I don’t think we should insist on more [than] the minimum fine, and I will let the defendant have the money to pay if he needs it.32

Scopes was fined $100, the minimum under the law, but was never required to pay; the Tennessee Supreme Court later disallowed it on a technicality.

IN THE MOVIE, Bert Cates’s career is over. Facing the judge for sentencing, he says: ” I do not have the eloquence of some of the men you have heard in the last few days. I’m just a schoolteacher.” A woman in the courtroom shouts: “Not any more you ain’t!” Cates says sheepishly: “I was a schoolteacher.”

IN REAL LIFE, Scopes wrote in his autobiography: “I could have continued teaching in Dayton. Doc Robinson, as president of the school board, offered me my old job of coaching and teaching math and physics. . . .”33 But Scopes opted instead to undertake graduate studies.

IN THE MOVIE, after his showdown with Drummond, Brady is obsessed with a speech he wants to deliver in court. He says to his wife in their hotel room: “My speech! Where’s my speech? I’ll make them listen! Where’s my speech? I must have it!”

He then sobs to his wife: “Mother! They laughed at me!” Mrs. Brady holds her husband like a child and says, “Hush, baby.”

Brady: I can’t stand it when they laugh at me!

Mrs. Brady: It’s all right, baby. It’s all right.

The next day, after the trial is adjourned, Brady attempts to make his “speech” to the courtroom. But no one is interested–reporters and hawkers are busy talking. Brady pathetically babbles religious phrases, trying to shout above the crowd noise. Drummond, Cates and Hornbeck watch him with looks of disgust bordering on pity. Even his wife is appalled. Then Brady falls down with a big “thud” and dies. Having assassinated the man’s character throughout the script, the writers now kill him off for real, like, “There! Take that, ya lousy stinkin’ bigot!” To add to a touch of sadistic humor, Brady had been waving a fan bearing the name of a funeral parlor.

IN REAL LIFE, spectators laughed at Darrow as much as Bryan. And what was this “speech” Bryan was supposedly obsessed with? He had prepared a closing statement; every attorney does in a jury case. But as we have seen, Darrow, knowing Bryan was a powerful orator, nixed that too by changing Scopes’s plea to guilty.

Bryan made no attempt to deliver a lengthy speech that day in court, and certainly didn’t die there. He did die of a stroke five days later, but as he pursued a very vigorous schedule over those days, he was clearly not the “broken man” some have claimed. Bryan was elderly, had a bad heart and diabetes, and was also nicked by a passing automobile after the trial. Doubtless the case’s rigors took their toll as well.

The movie’s smear of Bryan knew few limits. He was known to have a big appetite, a condition his diabetes probably exacerbated. But the film goes to absurd proportions, with Brady gorging himself on fried chicken right in the courtroom. Brady is not only a liar, but a moron, always disarmed by the wit of E. K. Hornbeck, the journalist based on H. L. Mencken. By contrast, Drummond is brilliant, kind, courageous, honest, and even gets along with Brady’s wife much better than Brady!

The people of Tennessee–except Cates, his students and girlfriend–are also smeared as ignorant bigots. In a masterful stroke of subtlety, however, Lawrence and Lee did not begin every sentence spoken by a Tennessean with “Duh.”

IN THE MOVIE, when E. K. Hornbeck learns of Brady’s death, he says he “died of a busted belly.” Drummond chides Hornbeck for being so callous. The audience sees the attorney is thus gracious to his enemies.

IN REAL LIFE, it was Darrow himself who said Bryan “died of a busted belly.” (Mencken reportedly said: “We killed the son-of-a-bitch!”)34

Lest anyone think me alone in this assessment of Inherit the Wind, I quote Time magazine’s reaction: “The script wildly and unjustly caricatures the fundamentalists as vicious and narrow-minded hypocrites, just as wildly and unwisely idealizes their opponents, as personified by Darrow.”35 Critic Andrew Sarris called it “bigotry in reverse.”36 The New Yorker commented that “history has not been increased but almost fatally diminished. . . . the picturing of Dayton as a community composed entirely of backwoods religious maniacs, which apparently wasn’t the case at all, makes the play a much too elementary study in black and white “37

Constitutional scholar Gerald Gunther said it was the only play he ever walked out on:

 I ended up actually sympathizing with Bryan, even though I was and continue to be opposed to his ideas in the case, simply because the playwrights had drawn the character in such comic strip terms.38

In the movie’s theatrical trailer, after showing some clips of the Drummond-Brady debate, producer-director Stanley Kramer told audiences: “The winner? You’ll have to make that decision for yourselves when you see Inherit the Wind.

Oh, thanks, Stan! We can decide for ourselves! We can choose Brady, who’s gluttonous, hypocritical, ignorant, mean-spirited, prudish, and laughs at his own bad jokes–or choose Drummond, who’s witty, courageous, generous, sincere, and broad-minded.

Inherit the Wind asserts that John Scopes was convicted because he didn’t receive a fair trial. It falsely claims that all evidence supporting his case was disallowed.

Ironically, that’s what Inherit did. It prosecuted William Jennings Bryan, the people of Tennessee, and Christians by showing the “jury” (the audience) only one side of the story–a fabricated one.

When the fictitious “Reverend Brown” whipped glassy-eyed fundamentalists into a frenzy–helping turn them into a lynch mob–audiences were expected to be appalled at how the minister’s propagandizing built hatred into his followers. Ironically, it was the film’s viewers themselves, watching this scene, who were being propagandized and encouraged to hate.

Throughout the movie, defense attorney Henry Drummond speaks out against “bigotry, ignorance and hate.” Those words pretty well summarize Inherit the Wind.


1.  Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Inherit the Wind (1955; reprint, New York: Bantam, 1960), page preceding Act One.

2.   L. Sprague de Camp, The Great Monkey Trial (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968), 432.

3.  John T. Scopes and James Presley, Center of the Storm (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967), 60.

4.  Ibid., 187-88.

5.  Ibid., 134.

6.  Ibid., 60.

7.  Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 96.

8.   The World’s Most Famous Court Trial: Tennessee Evolution Case (Dayton, Tenn.: Bryan College, 1990) (hereinafter referred to as “Transcript”), 226.

9.  Transcript, 322.

10.  William Jennings Bryan, “Mr. Bryan on Evolution,” Reader’s Digest, August 1925, 213-14.

11.  Transcript, 175-76.

12.  Transcript, 117.

13.  Transcript, 133-43.

14.  Transcript, 205-6.

15.  Larson, 184.

16.  Transcript, 206-7; Scopes and Presley, 160.

17.  Transcript, 306.

18.  Larson, 182-83.

19.  “Bryan Now Regrets Barring of Experts,” New York Times, 18 July 1925, p. 2.   

20.  Transcript, 299.

21.  Transcript, 284.

22.  Transcript, 288.

23.  Transcript, 285.

24.  Transcript, 296.

25.  Transcript, 287.

26.  Transcript, 288.

27.  Transcript, 293.

28.  Kevin Tierney, Darrow: A Biography (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1979), 369.

29.  Clarence Darrow, The Story of My Life (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932), 259-60.

30.  Transcript, 308.

31.  De Camp, 62-63.

32.  Ibid., 127.

33.  Scopes and Presley, 206-7.

34.  Larson, 200.

35. “The New Pictures,” Time, 17 October 1960, 95.

36.  Carol Iannone, “The Truth About Inherit the Wind,” First Things 70 (February 1997).

37.  “Mixed Bag,” The New Yorker, 30 April 1955, 67.

38.  Larson, 242.

Picture of James Perloff

James Perloff

James has been writing for alternative media since 1985 when he began contributing to The New American magazine. He is the author of six books, the subjects of which range from COVID-19 to political history to creationism.

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