Methodological Bashing as a Nihilistic Endeavor

Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind is one of my all-time favourites. The film, recounting (with some artistic license) the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial as a commentary on the McCarthy era, immediately struck a chord with me from the very first viewing. Having made some often unpopular and sometimes much-criticised choices in my life, owing to my moral beliefs and intellectual tendencies, means that it was very easy for the film’s take-home message on the importance of free and independent thinking to resonate with me. One line in particular has stuck with me so much that I keep going back to it when, every so often, my resolution is tested. This is the line spoken by Cates’ lawyer, Drummond (the magnificent Spencer Tracey), in response to his client’s increasing self-doubts:

“I know what Bert is going through. It's the loneliest feeling in the world. It's like walking down an empty street listening to your own footsteps. But all you have to do is to knock on any door and say: ‘if you'll let me in, I'll live the way you want me to live, and I'll think the way you want me to think.’ And all the blinds'll go up, all the doors'll open, and you'll never be lonely ever again.”

The importance of independent thinking, however, is not the only major point that Inherit the Wind sets out to make, even if it is the primary one. A much more subtle point, but no less significant in my eyes, is made in the very last scene, in the wake of the trial in which Cates – although found guilty – is sentenced to pay only a very small fine. With the liberal ‘right to think’ having won the trial, Drummond is finally having it with the smug and self-indulgent cynicism of the reporting journalist Hornbeck. “You know, Hornbeck, I'm getting damned sick of you” he says. “You never pushed a noun against a verb except to blow up something”. Hornbeck tries to deflect Drummond’s criticism, but is faced with the following question(s), which leaves him (temporary) out of his usual quick and witty retort:

“You're like a ghost pointing an empty sleeve, smirking at everything that people feel or want or struggle for. I Pity you […]. Isn't there anything? What touches you? What warms you? Every man has a dream. What do you dream about? What do you need? You don't need anything, do you? People, love, an idea just to cling to? You poor slob. You're all alone. When you go to your grave there won't be anybody to pull the grass over your head. Nobody to mourn you, nobody to give a damn.”

Free, independent thinking, in other words, is not synonymous or interchangeable with self-indulgent bashing for it’s own sake. A methodological shoot-down is not so much about seeking a better world as it is about advancing nihilism – the moral view according to which all values are baseless, that there exists nothing to believe in, and no loyalties or purposes other than the urge to destroy. The danger of ‘inheriting the wind’, that final and very insightful scene suggests, is not particular to any kind of belief system along anywhere on the ideological spectrum - religious, conservative, liberal or otherwise. This is one of the things that make this film so much more than an ideological pamphlet, and one of the reasons why it’s so great.