Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Monkey business

To BBC2 for classic drama Inherit the Wind, where a courtroom collision pits evolution against religion and showcases battles we're still fighting today.

The Kansas board of education annually does a 180 on evolution: this year it's fine to teach it, last year it wasn't. What most of the civilised world considers stubborn science, certain places are rather sceptical about.

This debate (tho' 'debate' implies both sides have logical arguments) has been going on ever since Darwin's ideas crawled out of the mud and grew legs, finding a particularly vociferous and long-lasting incarnation in America. Inherit the Wind (1960) is about one of the most infamous conflicts in this war, the 1925 'Scopes monkey trial', when a Tennessee teacher found himself in court for evangelising about evolution in class.

The meat of Inherit is the battle royal between Spencer Tracy, as the smart, slightly life-weary lawyer defending our young Darwinist and his freedom of thought, and Fredric March, as the blow-hard fundamentalist prosecutor. The two clash violently over the place of god and science in the classroom in front of a Bible Belt audience just salivating for a conviction.

Many of the speeches are taken almost verbatim from the trial, giving them both high-flown eloquence and blinding passion, and Tracy and March spare no sweat in slogging it out. They are as forceful as can be, viciously knocking verbal hell out of one another; each man strikes and is struck to the core of his beliefs.

Tracy almost has the easier ride, despite having to huff and puff and bawl and scowl: his character gets depth and self-doubt, giving him good chances to show off a standard if credible range. But March gives the real tour de force, seeing his sanity spiral beyond his control while defending what he holds dearest. The man crumbles on screen even as his self-belief seems to strengthen.

An annoying sideshow to this is Gene Kelly as the hack reporter covering the trial and ridiculing the locals and their beliefs. His over-cynical asides are wearing, adding nothing to the debate. Yes, we get that Kelly is on one extreme, March is on the other and Tracy is the decent man caught in between, but this over-designed scheme is unnecessary: the lawyers' faiths stand in perfect contrast without more illustration needed.

I was rather disappointed by the ending (the very last scene, not the trial's verdict) since it negates all the passion and arguments that came before, steering a banal middle course designed to satisfy all and satisfying neither. The film shows convincing arguments on one side, loud arguments on the other, but ultimately ends up not having any beliefs of its own.

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