Stanley Kramer /US /1960 /128 mins
Available on dual-format Blu-ray and DVD
There can be no doubt of the important bloc made up of Christian fundamentalists in the American electorate. Their political party is the Republicans and it was they who were predominantly responsible for Trump. The majority take what the bible says as fact despite the scientific evidence to the contrary. There were no dinosaurs in the Bible but they did exist.
Stanley Kramer – that great champion of liberal causes – adapted Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee’s play about the 1925 Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’, when a high school teacher was accused of flouting local laws on the teaching of evolution. The good Christian folk refuse to believe that man was descended from monkeys. A law-changing trial ensued, and it’s this that forms the basis of this classic courtroom drama.
Crucially, the film is “based” on the facts and the real people’s names have been changed. Twinkling Gene Kelly (cast against type) plays the hard-bitten newspaper reporter whose bosses have stumped up the money for the top-quality defence lawyer (Spencer Tracy as avuncular and wise as ever) in exchange for court-side coverage. The fire-and-brimstone prosecutor (Fredric March) wants not just to punish the errant teacher (Dick York), but to keep the filthy blasphemy of the North out of the Deep South.
The trial becomes a media circus with placard-laden parades down Main Street as the bible-thumping locals demand “Godliness Not Gorillas.” The film can easily be seen as a metaphor for spittle-flecked fanaticism and rigid minds that refuse to see that their beliefs don’t stand up. The townspeople, victims of godless science, are prepared to destroy anyone or anything (truth, honesty, justice) that gets in the way.
Spencer Tracy owns the film and Kramer’s roving camera makes a very wordy and worthy script breathe and open up. The director made a series of movies that challenged Middle American attitudes. Yes, the action gets gooey and preachy by the midpoint as Kramer and Tracy hammer home their points for the “simple folk” of the jury (and by implication the little people in the cinema). The action sometimes becomes as suffocating as the Tennessee courtroom. More curious still, it’s the journalist (based on satirist and critic HL Mencken) who comes off worst. His cynicism damning him more fulsomely than any Bible-thumping denier.