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At the courthouse in Hillsboro, a
small Southern town, Bertram Cates is behind bars, awaiting trial
for teaching his students about Darwin’s theory of evolution. Rachel
Brown, a friend and fellow teacher who also is the daughter of the
town’s minister, visits Cates. She brings Cates some clean clothes
and urges him to plead guilty and throw himself at the mercy of
the court. Cates remains firm in his resolve.
Hillsboro erupts with excitement as prominent lawyers
and journalists arrive for the trial. E. K. Hornbeck, a critic for
the Baltimore Herald, surveys the scene and makes
wisecracks. The Bible-thumping politician Matthew Harrison Brady,
who leads the prosecution, arrives to a warm welcome from the townspeople
and a picnic in his honor. Brady meets with Reverend Brown, District
Attorney Tom Davenport, and the mayor. Brady also holds a confidential
discussion with Rachel about her friendship with Cates. Rachel leaves
the discussion feeling that she has betrayed her friend.
Hornbeck informs the crowd that the prominent litigator
Henry Drummond will represent the defense. The mayor names Brady
an honorary colonel in the state militia. Reverend Brown and the mayor
discuss how they might prevent Drummond from entering Hillsboro.
When the crowd disperses, Rachel and Hornbeck discuss Hornbeck’s
columns, which portray Cates as a hero. Around sunset, Hornbeck
greets Drummond, who has just arrived in town.
A few days later, Drummond, Brady, Davenport,
and the judge conduct jury selection. They accept the illiterate
Mr. Bannister. Brady makes a joke about Drummond’s bright purple
suspenders, but Drummond turns the tables by revealing that he bought
the suspenders in Brady’s Nebraska hometown. As jury selection continues,
Brady rejects Mr. Dunlap, a fervent supporter of Brady. Drummond
mockingly objects to Brady’s honorary title of “colonel,” so the
judge grants Drummond the same title to even the score. Brady and
Drummond accept Sillers, a feed store employee, as a juror. Drummond,
who argues that the evolutionist movement should be given the same amount
of attention as the fundamentalist movement, notes that the townspeople
have erected a sign commanding “Read Your Bible!” in the town square
and have advertised prayer meetings. Frustrated by Drummond’s demands,
the judge declares the court in recess.
A crowd of admirers surrounds Brady as he leaves the courtroom,
but no one dares to come near Drummond. Before Drummond leaves the
courtroom, Rachel expresses to him her concerns about the trial.
Cates relates the hardships he has endured since his arrest. Drummond,
who empathizes with Cates’s struggle and isolation, offers Cates
the opportunity to change his plea on one condition: that Cates
truly believes he has done wrong. Cates decides to persevere for
his cause. Rachel, however, informs them that Brady has asked her to
testify against Cates. A frantic Cates returns to his cell, concerned about
the details of personal conversations that Rachel might betray. Drummond
reassures Rachel that Brady is less powerful than she believes.
Assuring her that Cates is fighting for a worthy cause, Drummond
compliments Rachel on her strength in loving Cates.
On the courthouse lawn, Brady leads a group of reporters
to a prayer meeting that Reverend Brown is about to conduct. Brady tells
the reporters about his former friendship with Drummond. Brown begins
the prayer meeting with a quick recitation of the creation story
presented in Genesis. He proceeds to incite the crowd into a frenzy. The
climax of Reverend Brown’s rant is an incantation to bring the fires
of hell down on Cates. When Rachel protests, her father requests
the same curse for her. Brady, disturbed by Brown’s zeal, interrupts
and reminds the preacher of the Christian doctrine of forgiveness. Brady
calls the prayer meeting to an end and then speaks to Drummond about
their old ties and how they have drifted apart.
Two days later, in the courtroom, Brady questions thirteen-year-old
Howard Blair about Cates’s teaching. Howard confirms that Cates
taught him that humans descended from “Old World Monkeys” and that
his teachings on creation omitted any reference to God. Cross-examining
Howard, Drummond asks the boy about evolutionary theory. The prosecution
objects, but Drummond claims he is trying to establish the basic
human right to think. The prosecution and the judge counter that
the trial is not about the right to think. Drummond asks Howard
whether evolutionary theory has harmed him, and the question confuses
the boy. Drummond asks Howard if he believes what Cates taught him.
Howard says he hasn’t made up his mind. Drummond then asks the boy
what he thinks of modern technological advances that are not mentioned
in the Bible. Howard is again confused, and Brady objects. Drummond
rails against Brady’s absolute notions of right and wrong. Drummond
asks Howard if he understands what is being discussed. When the
boy says no, he is dismissed.
The prosecution calls Rachel to the stand. To explain
why Cates stopped attending church, Rachel tells the story of Tommy
Stebbins. An intellectually curious boy, Stebbins was one of Cates’s
favorite students. When Stebbins drowned in a local river,
Rachel’s father preached that the boy would suffer eternal damnation
because his parents never had him baptized. Upset both by the death
of the boy and the preacher’s reaction, Cates stopped going to church.
Brady asks Rachel further questions about her discussion of Cates’s
ideas, but Rachel falters and becomes visibly upset. The prosecution
rests its case.
Drummond attempts to call several expert scientists to
testify about evolutionary theory, but the judge says that their
testimony is inadmissible. Drummond shifts gears and calls Brady
to the stand as an expert on the Bible. Asking Brady several questions
about Biblical passages that defy the tenets of modern science,
Drummond catches Brady off balance and gains the support of the
crowd. As Drummond exposes contradiction after contradiction in
Brady’s views, Brady becomes hysterical and begins to shout names
from the Bible. Davenport objects, and the judge adjourns the court.
The next day, just before the jury reads its verdict,
Cates and Drummond discuss Cates’s chances. A radio reporter enters
the courtroom to set up his equipment. The mayor takes the judge
aside and tells him that political forces in the state are growing
worried about media coverage of the trial. The mayor implicitly
tells the judge to pass a light sentence. The jury hands their verdict
to the judge, who declares Cates guilty and fines him $100.
The prosecution objects to the light sentence. Drummond demands
an appeal, and the judge grants him thirty days to prepare it.
The judge adjourns the court. Brady tries to read some
prepared remarks, but the spectators in the courtroom begin to leave.
Brady tries to deliver the speech to the radio reporter, but the
reporter says that the station producer has cut him off. Brady has
a mental breakdown and must be carried out of the courtroom as he
deliriously recites what sounds like a presidential campaign victory
speech. Hornbeck mocks Brady, while Cates expresses concern for
Meeker, the bailiff, tells Cates that Hornbeck and the Baltimore
posted $500 for Cates’s
bail. Rachel tells Cates that she has decided to leave her father
and that she has overcome her fear of thinking for herself. Word
arrives that Brady has died of a “busted belly,” and Cates, Rachel,
and Drummond decide to leave together on the train out of town that
Ace your assignments with our guide to Inherit the Wind!