Future Lawyer Blog

Law lessons from movie makers: Inherit the wind (1960) – Prof. Penny Cooper

It would be easy to dismiss some aspects of this movie as merely irritating – renditions of ‘Give Me That Old Time Religion’ on loop or the Vaudeville feel of some of the scenes – but they aptly evoke the place and time. It’s small town America, ‘the buckle on the bible belt’, in the 1920s. A man is on trial for teaching high school children that man is descended from apes.

The names of the characters and the town are fictional but this film is based on the ‘Scopes Monkey trial’. Scopes contravened state law and offended the Christian fundamentalists by teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. The real case was of constitutional importance at the time and drew huge media attention. It involved two of the country’s best known lawyers – a former presidential candidate prosecuted and a leading civil rights attorney defended.

In the film pay particular attention to how the judge struggles to keep a firm grip on the case but wisely restricts the evidence to that which is relevant (no expert testimony here on scientific theories of evolution).

The film illustrates the unsuitability of challenging a ‘wicked’ piece of legislation in a jury trial and also the impact on the witnesses’ lives if advocates fail to remember that they are more than mere cross-examination fodder.

The camaraderie between two adversaries outside the courtroom is well portrayed as is their animosity within it. Fredric March plays the overzealous, overeating and hyper-tense prosecutor. The even bigger performances come from Spencer Tracey, the enigmatic defence attorney ‘Drummond’ paid for by The Baltimore Herald, and Gene Kelly, ‘E K Hornbeck’, the slick newspaper reporter.

Drummond points out that progress comes at a price: ‘Conquer the air, birds lose their wonder and the clouds smell of gasoline’. Fifty years later as ‘phone hacking and tweeting scandals unfold, the observation that telephones came at the price of privacy seems nothing short of prophetic. Drummond was based on Clarence Darrow, in his day one of America’s most charismatic trial lawyers. As Drummond says, humans are ‘neither saints nor devils’. If you read The Old Devil: Clarence Darrow: The World’s Greatest Trial Lawyer by Donald McRae you will certainly see what he means.

‘Inherit the wind’ is a reference to the Book of Proverbs 11.29, ‘He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind’. A small town in a southern state sought fame and fortune through this test case but arguably ended up with nothing but infamy.

Penny specialises in witness evidence and never ceases to be fascinated by anything to do with the courtroom. She carries out research into witness issues and teaches judges and barristers about witness handling methods. As often as possible she likes to get a good DVD, a big bag of popcorn and hold a family film festival.

© Penny Cooper, 18 November 2012

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