Look out for the phrase,“Based on a true story” and other fictions.
When I was in high school in the late 1960s we were assigned to read “Inherit the Wind,” a highly popular play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee about the Scopes monkey trial. This was a 1925 trial in which a Tennessee biology teacher was prosecuted because he taught Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species.” It seemed to contradict fundamentalist Bible interpretations of the creation of the world, although some Christians saw nothing threatening in Darwin. But the teaching of Darwin was in violation of a recently passed state law.
I also saw the movie based on the play. It was a very successful, entertaining movie. The major film had some of the greatest movie stars of that era or any era, including Spencer Tracy, as the defense attorney, and Frederic March, my favorite actor of all-time, as the prosecuting attorney.
Tracy is obviously the famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow, and March is obviously William Jennings Bryan, three times unsuccessful presidential candidate. The movie and play were so successful that my class read and analyzed it. We concluded—as did any casual theater or moviegoer—that Darrow represented good; that Bryan and the townspeople who rooted him on were intolerant know nothings. Much of this was historical drivel, junk food for the people who get history from the tube or the big screen.
Entertaining as an Artfully Told Big Lie
Indeed, there is at least one big problem with all this good against evil entertainment posing as history. It is an illustration of why we should never get our history from popular media—-it is so often wrong. The play’s authors disclaim any historical pretensions. They say “Inherit the Wind” was “a parable,” a declaration against McCarthyism, an affirmation of the right to think. Yet the play is obviously about a historical event. The Scopes’ trial was as famous in its time as the O.J. trial was in ours.
But the profiles of historical figures and events in “Inherit the Wind” were often biased. However, the historical depictions of the play were for many years what I, and many other people, thought was the reality of this famous trial. They remain for millions of Americans the reality of the events in Tennessee in 1925 because the movie plays again and again.
Even though I admit that both the play and movie are dazzling entertainment; that they are impossible not to keep watching, the problem is the history. The facts are faulty. The problem is more than them taking a few dramatic liberties. “Inherit the Wind” is in error about a lot of things. It is grossly unfair to Bryan and, by the way, to the other defense attorneys who also lent their efforts to defend Scopes. Darrow was not alone in defending Scopes as the play would have us believe. There were others who volunteered. However, inaccuracy seems no bar to commercial success.
“Inherit the Wind” has been so successful that the movie is often re-played on TCM, a major cable movie channel in the United States. The play was revived on Broadway a few years ago. I also have no doubt that there are many classrooms in which the play is read and depicted as a morality struggle in which good wins in the end. But again “Inherit the Wind” is flawed.
First the depiction of Bryan, known in the play as Matthew Harrison Brady, is grossly unjust. By the way, I say that as someone who has mixed feelings about Bryan’s political career. He was a leader who believed in easy money policies, which I think were very bad then and now. However, on the other hand, he had the courage to quit as Secretary of State in 1916. That’s because he correctly believed that President Wilson was quietly leading America into World War I through the backdoor, a war most Americans wanted to avoid. I think of the American officials in the Johnson and Nixon administrations who quietly opposed the ill-moral Vietnam War. Few of them, unlike Bryan, resigned.
The play and movie show Bryan as a know nothing, who spurned scientists. He was portrayed as a virtual idiot who wouldn’t deign to read Darwin or any book of science. His character is quoted as affirming that he would never read such “godless” literature. However, in real life Bryan read Darwin some two decades before the trial.
The movie and play also distort the attitudes of the townspeople. In the movie, most townspeople are hateful. They march down the streets threatening to hang the defendant Cates (Scopes) “to a sour apple tree.” However, Scopes wasn’t seen as a devil by most of his fellow townsmen.
The truth of the matter is that, when the state law was passed banning the teaching of Darwin in public schools, town leaders hoped that someone would challenge the law. It would trigger a celebrated trial that would put Dayton, Tennessee, a little town in the middle of nowhere. The trial, they hoped, would put their town on the map.
We’ll Pay for Your Graduate Education
A trial, the first to test the new state law, would bring thousands of people to town for the trial. It would be great for business, town boosters believed. A group of them asked Scopes if he would violate the law. They promised to put him through graduate school if he would. He agreed and “Heavenly Hillsborough,” the town’s name in the play, saw business boom. By the way, very little of this is mentioned in the play or the movie or, if some of it is, it is distorted.
In fact, that is a lesson we should take from the depiction of history in all popular media, especially movies, tube shows and plays. The people who put these things together are usually not historians. They rarely consult primary or even secondary records. They don’t let the facts get in the way of a story because they are trying to sensationalize something, which could be a theme of much of the contemporary mainstream media.
That is why when Hollywood offers history you usually end up with idiot movies such as Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” which purports to show unidentified generals in the Pentagon plotting to kill President Kennedy or the incredibly stupid movie “They Died with Their Boots On.”
Making a Hero Out of a Swine
The latter movie actually tries to tell the viewer that General George Custer was really quite just in dealing with Native Americans, which of course isn’t the truth. Actually, the reckless once-court-martialed Custer wasn’t even just in dealing with his own troops as shown in the book “Son of Morning Star.” Custer, who had a considerable record of going off on his own without orders, probably would have been court-martialed a second time if he had survived the disastrous Battle of the Little Big Horn, something not discussed in that foolish movie.
O.K., given the persistence of popular media, it may be impossible not to come across these episodes of historical stupidity, gawking at them as one would a train wreck. And certainly, they can be so entertaining that it is difficult not to watch them (I still watch “Inherit the Wind” from time to time. I think it is because the two lead stars were fabulous actors).
But what is important is that one realizes that, despite all the Hollywood flourishes, movies rarely present sound history. Donald McRae, who wrote the book “The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow,” calls the movie “overblown” and “a Hollywood Mishmash.” Another good book on the trial is “The Great Monkey Trial” by L. Sprague de Camp).
Instead of “mishmashes” cooked up by media dream factories, consult solid books on any subject; books by creditable men and women who have usually devoted years of research to a subject and can back up their conclusions with facts.
History matters. It can be our guide to a better tomorrow, but only if it is based on ascertainable facts and conclusions, not something given to the credulous with the idea of let’s make something up so it will entertain.