In 1925, the Tennessee State Legislature passed the Butler Act, making it illegal “to teach any theory that denies the Story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animal.” Sensing the opportunity for increased tourism, the town fathers of Dayton managed to get first-year science teacher John Scopes arrested and the battle of blind faith vs. informed reason was on.
More than eight decades later, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner have teamed up to take another look at the showdown between legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow and bible-thumping fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan. The result adds further understanding to the psyche of much of America to this day: as one of the commentators stated uncategorically, “We are a uniquely religious nation.”
The eleven-day trial was less about Scopes’ guilt or innocence than a grandstand for Darrow and Bryan. Starting off with a prayer from the Judge John T. Raulston, the result was never in doubt. The skillful interplay of archival footage and present-day re-enactments (not too difficult to arrange given that the town continues to add to its coffers with an annual re-creation) move the story along and Joel Harrison’s violin-rich score adds to the sense of time and place as it effortlessly slips into jazz, country or tension building pizzicato at will.
Curious note: in the historical footage there is much evidence of young minds—albeit segregated—attending class; no such evidence of racial balance exists in the contemporary commentary or re-enactments.
Not surprisingly, the testimony from the expert scientists, who have descended on the proceedings to beef up the defence, is not permitted to reach the ears of the jury. For “Plan B,” Darrow puts his one-time friend, Bryan, on the stand and pokes holes in the literal meaning of the Bible (including the “whopper” of Jonah living in a whale, er, OK “big fish,” refutes the thrice failed Democratic presidential candidate).
Quite rightly, the judge cuts off the cross-examination when tempers rise beyond the already stifling July heat.
Using the law to his advantage, Darrow silences his gift-of-the-gab opponent by not giving a closing argument, robbing the bewildered orator of his chance for a final sermon over the radio and on the nation’s newsreels. No matter, the jury convicts Scopes (remember him?) in nine minutes; he is sentenced to a fine of $100.
Who won? A few days later, Bryan takes a nap after church and dies in his sleep. The faithful opine that God has sent a bolt for the heathen Darrow, and missed! But the notion of divine guidance has been resurrected countless times since. The insatiable power of the clergy of all stripes (and their political devotees) to demand and get blind obedience from their flocks continues to play out in deadly earnest all over the globe, making monkeys of us all. JWR