Friday, May 20, 2005

Disinherit the Wind

Chuck Colson, in his BreakPoint Commentary today, makes an interesting point about how many people base most of their knowledge of the Scopes trial from what they remember seeing in the movie Inherit the Wind (1960), which offered a historically inaccurate, exaggerated account of the 1925 court battle over the teaching of evolution in the Tennessee public schools.

Colson writes: . . .

These myths were exposed a few years ago when a Pulitzer Prize-winning book took on the vicious fictions perpetrated by this motion picture. The book is called Summer for the Gods, and the author is Edward Larson, a history professor at the University of Georgia and a Christian. Larson says that Inherit the Wind has become a "formative myth" that has all but replaced the actual trial in the nation's memory.

For example, in the real-life Scopes trial, the ACLU advertised for a teacher willing to help challenge a law that forbade the teaching of evolution in Tennessee public schools. A teacher named John Scopes—who had never even taught biology, let alone evolution—stepped forward, and the case was started. But in the film, the case begins when a mob of fundamentalist Christians, led by a fire-breathing preacher, barges into a biology classroom, arrests the teacher, and throws him into jail.

Colson goes on to point out how the movie wrongly portrayed Christian prosecutor William Jennings Bryan as an absurd old man while making the character of ACLU attorney Clarence Darrow appear much more virtuous than he actually was.

Of course, writers and producers of movies based on historic events are usually quick to point out that their films are for entertainment purposes only and should not be used for scholarly research. However, in our pop culture-oriented, visual media-driven society, the Hollywood versions of history are all many people will ever know.

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