Lyin’ About Bryan

  The Scopes "Monkey Trial," which began 75 years ago this week, pitted the 1925 versions of Johnnie Cochran and Marcia Clark against each other in what some lawyers have called "the Trial of the Century." That may seem a long time ago, but the issues of that case have not gone away. As one New York Times book critic recently observed, "... the Scopes trial still holds resonance, as we continue to litigate the role of religion in public life and the power of the state to prescribe what shall be taught in public schools." There's a popular notion that the film Inherit the Wind, with Spencer Tracy in the role of a fictionalized Clarence Darrow, offers a historically accurate telling of this classic case; but that's far from the truth. In fact, the playwrights, Lawrence and Lee, were honest enough to say that "Inherit the Wind does not pretend to be journalism.... Only a handful of phrases have been taken from the actual... Scopes trial." In other words, the screenplay is fictionalized and written to achieve a particular effect.
But the disclaimer was soon lost. And neither the classic 1960 film or its 1999 remake gave any hint that it wasn't accurate history. Alert viewers might have suspected something, since the movie lawyers were named, not Darrow or Bryan, but Drummond and Brady. And the town wasn't Dayton, Tennessee, but Hillsboro. But many things in the film make audiences assume that the film is simply a lightly disguised fabrication, like the suggestion that Brady advocated women's suffrage and had run for president three times, as William Jennings Bryan had indeed done. Over the years, the belief the film is factual has led teachers to show it in class, doing damage in the process to history, science, and religion. So where does the film deviate from the real Scopes Trial? Let me count the ways: First, the film begins with the teacher, Mr. Cates, in jail. The real John Scopes was never in jail. The film gives him a fiancée, who, in Hollywood's sense of irony, is the daughter of a fictional pastor who spouts damnation on both teacher and daughter. The real Scopes was single, with no girlfriend. John Scopes joked of the film, "They had to invent romance for the balcony set." The Hollywood Brady states dogmatically that creation occurred on October 23, 4004 B.C., at 9 a.m. But William Jennings Bryan merely observed that Bishop Ussher had offered this estimate, not the Bible. Also, the movie shows Brady panicking, so upset that he dies in the courtroom. The real Bryan kept his composure. After the trial he traveled hundreds of miles to deliver speeches to crowds totaling 50,000 people. And five days after the trial, Bryan drove to church, then died quietly during his afternoon nap. If you're a student and Inherit the Wind comes up in class, get the facts first -- and when you watch it, don't swallow the propaganda. And parents, you might go to school officials who show the film and tell them they ought to explain to the students that it's fictionalized. My new book, How Now Shall We Live?, will help you sort out the issues in this classic case. And with some helpful resources for students from our BreakPoint website, you'll be able to spot the illusions, and separate fact from fraud.


Chuck Colson



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