Based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee and directed by Stanley Kramer, the 1925 Scopes trial in which a teacher of evolution is prosecuted for violating a state law is dramatized with the names of Thomas Scopes, William Jennings Brian, Clarence Darrow, and H. L. Mencken changed.
Five men walk into the Hillsboro School and the classroom of Bertram T. Cates (Dick York) who is teaching science. He explains Darwin’s theory that man evolved from lower animals. A man sets up a camera as Cates makes a joke that they will say men act like monkeys. Sam comes forward and charges Cates with violating a state law that bans teaching any theory that denies creation as taught in the Bible and to teach instead that man derives from a lower order of animals. He places him under arrest, and a photo is taken.
Newspaper headlines announce the “monkey trial.” Men sitting around a table in Hillsboro discuss the problem. Rev. Jeremiah Brown (Claude Akins) stands up and says that heaven has chosen them to lead the lost sheep back to the fold. Mayor Jason Carter (Philip Coolidge) stands up and says they should ignore these slanders. They argue whether he has been a good mayor. A banker stands up and says he will not invest in antiquity. He says they can’t close their eyes to all progress. Someone brings in a newspaper which reports that Matthew Harrison Brady has volunteered to prosecute the case. Rev. Brown says the Lord has sent them his right hand. They realize that many people will come to Hillsboro.
At the jail Cates is playing cards with a deputy who says he voted for Brady for President twice. Cates does not know who is going to defend him. They hear a knock, and Cates goes into a cell to make it look good. The deputy lets in Rachel Brown (Donna Anderson) to visit Cates, and he agrees not to tell her father. She and Cates embrace and kiss. She advises him to tell them he is sorry and that it was a mistake. He asks if she wants him to lock up his mind. She says they would be together, but he says it wouldn’t be the same. He reminds her of the warm nights by the river wondering about the stars.
E. K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly) comes in eating an apple and says he sees they have beauty and biology on his side. Cates asks who he is, and Hornbeck shows him the letter Cates sent him and gives him the Baltimore newspaper he writes for. Cates looks at the article while Hornbeck says he has written about the latter day Dreyfus and Romeo with a biology book. He offers her a bite of his apple and says it is not from the Tree of Knowledge. Cates says he makes him sound like a martyr. Hornbeck says he could be, but he has not won his halo yet. That may come after he is put in the arena with the lion. Rachel asks Cates what he is trying to prove, and he says he just wants to teach his class that man was not put here like a geranium in a flower pot. He says life comes from a miracle that took longer than seven days. She says it is against the law. A school teacher is a public servant, and she believes he should do what the law and the school board want him to do. Hornbeck sarcastically sentences Cates to life as a public servant of the school board with waste baskets for ideas on sale in the outer lobby. She does not think this is funny, and he agrees with her. She asks him to leave them alone because the newspapers have stirred up enough trouble for Bert. Hornbeck tells this Socrates that the Baltimore Herald is opposed to hemlock and will provide a lawyer. He says he may get a young lawyer with old tricks or an old lawyer with new tricks, but the law still revolves around the lawmakers. Cates asks why they are doing this. Hornbeck says he learned that the sunrise is an optical illusion from his teacher. He admits he is cynical and says he does hateful things for which people love him and lovable things for which they hate him. He admits he may be rancid butter, but he is on her side of the bread. He walks out.
People are parading down the main street singing “Give Me That Old Time Religion,” and Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) rides in the back of an open car.
Mayor Carter is speaking to the crowd in front of city hall. He confers Brady with a commission as colonel in the state militia. Brady comes up and says he and his wife are glad to be among them. A man says he voted for him three times, and Brady quips he hopes it was in three separate elections. He wishes the welcome was not so warm, and he takes off his jacket. A girl gives him a fan and one for his wife. He asks the spiritual leader Brown to come up and shakes his hand. Brady says he came here because they are under attack from the big cities of the north. He says they did not seek this attack but are simple folk who want to live in brotherhood and peace, to cherish loved ones, and teach their children the ways of the Lord. He says the teachers of evolution are lost. If a man believes he is descended from a beast, he will remain a beast. He says the young ones will turn against their parents, and this will become a land like Sodom and Gomorrah. Hornbeck says he disagrees. Brady says he knows his newspaper and his writings. Hornbeck announces that his paper is sending himself and the most agile legal mind of the 20th century, Henry Drummond. People shout that they will send him away or keep him out. Brady says they should welcome him. If the enemy sends their Goliath into battle, it magnifies their cause. He says Drummond has been arguing cases for forty years. Where he fights, headlines follow. If he is there, the whole world will be watching this trial. Brown gets them singing again. A woman asks if Hornbeck would like a nice, clean place to stay. He replies that he had one, but he left it to come here.
Rev. Brown is playing the organ at home as Rachel comes in. He stops playing and says he waited supper for her. He says peace will come. He thanks God that the sinner is naked and exposed. She tells him to stop preaching to her. She tells him that she is not leaving Bert. He does not understand. She says she loves him. He says it is the love of Judas because this man has nothing to offer her but sin. She asks what he has done that is so terrible and why he hates him so. He says he loves God and hates his enemies. She says Bert loves God. He asks what he is doing with Drummond. He complains that he is coming to spew his atheistic filth into the ears of the people. He says she is a schoolteacher and knows how easy it is to mold minds for good or twist them for evil. She denies he twisted anything. He rejects his agnosticism and tells her to ask for forgiveness for betraying her faith. She denies betraying anyone. He is glad her mother is not here to see what became of her. She says when she was a girl, she was afraid of the dark. She wanted to come to him, but she was always more afraid of him. He is praying to God, asking what he should do. She tells him to get up please. He goes on praying as she backs away from him.
A bus arrives, and Hornbeck welcomes Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) as the devil to Hillsboro, the buckle on the Bible belt. He says they are staying at the misnamed Mansion House. A man is selling Bibles, but Hornbeck buys a hot dog. Henry says he is a man of ulcers. They see a man with a clothed monkey saying that apes devolved from man. Hornbeck calls him grandpa and shakes his hand. A farmer introduces himself to Drummond and tells him they are plain folk and don’t need anyone telling them how or what to think. Henry says that is not why he is here. Hornbeck says the only man in this town who thinks is in jail, and Henry says that is why he is here. They see young men in school sweaters standing outside the Mansion House. One comes forward and tells Henry that they are students of Cates and like him very much. He says they all hope he does right by him. Henry lets him carry his suitcase, and they go inside.
Henry sees Sarah Brady (Florence Eldridge) and shakes her hand warmly. They are glad to see each other, but she wishes it was under different circumstances. He says she looks lovely and introduces her to Hornbeck. Brady is dining and gets up to shake hands with Henry. Sarah warns her husband about what the doctor said about over-eating in this heat. Brady says he read Hornbeck’s article and says it is very biased reporting. Hornbeck says the duty of a journalist is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. Brady introduces Henry to Mayor Carter and the prosecutor Tom Davenport (Elliott Reid). Brady says he and Henry have worked together many times, and twice Henry campaigned for him. After all these years they find themselves on the opposite sides of an issue. Henry says that is evolution, and he goes to his room.
A crowd has gathered outside the courthouse. They cheer Brady and boo Drummond.
In the courtroom Judge Mel Coffey (Harry Morgan) pounds his gavel and says they can dispense with the taking of photographs. He asks Henry and the prosecutor if they are ready to question the next juror, and they both say they are. He tells the clerk to call a name to fill the last seat on the jury. Jessie H. Dunlap (Ray Teal) is called and comes forward. Reporters are talking on telephones, and the Judge tells them they have to stop in one minute. Hornbeck calls Brady the high priest of mumbo jumbo.” Brady says the temperature is 97, and it may get hotter. He asks if they can remove superfluous outer garments. The Judge gives permission. They take off their jackets, and Brady asks Henry if his suspenders are the fashion in the great city of Chicago. Henry says he brought them special and bought them in Brady’s home town of Weeping Water, Nebraska. People laugh. Jessie says he is a farmer. Davenport asks if he believes in the Bible. Jessie says he believes in the Bible and Brady. Davenport says he is acceptable. Henry says he has no questions, and he is not acceptable. Brady asks if he is refusing him a place on the jury only because he believes in the Bible. Henry replies that if they find an evolutionist, they can reject him. Brady objects that he did not ask him one question. Henry says he will ask him a question. He asks how he is, and Jessie says he is hot. Henry excuses him. Brady objects to the note of levity, and the Judge says he agrees with Col. Brady. Henry objects to Brady being called a colonel and says he is not aware of his military record. He complains that it is prejudicial. Judge Coffey says they want to give him a fair trial and asks what he suggests. Henry says they can break him to a private. The judge summons the mayor who asks him to summon Henry who comes forward. Mayor Carter makes Henry a temporary honorary colonel too. Henry thanks him.
Mark calls George Sillers (Gordon Polk). He admits he is a religious man. Brady asks if he has any children, and he says he does not know of any. Brady asks what he would think if his child came home and told him that a godless teacher—. Henry interrupts by objecting that the prosecution is denouncing the defendant before the trial has begun. The judge sustains it. Brady asks if he has any reason he would favor Cates. Sillers says he hardly knows him, but he bought peat moss from him and paid his bill. Brady says he is an honest man, and he accepts him. Henry asks Sillers if he works hard at being a religious man. He replies he is busy at the feed store and that his wife takes care of that. Henry asks if he takes care of this life, and she takes care of the next one. Davenport objects that is argumentative, and it is sustained. Henry asks if he has heard of Charles Darwin and if he would invite him to dinner. Brady objects that he is asking hypothetical questions. Henry says he is trying to establish that he is not working hard at evolution either. Sillers says he is just working at the feed store. Brady asks if he can be impartial, and Henry objects that he already accepted him. Brady says he wants a fair trial, and Henry agrees. Brady says unless the jurors conform to the laws and patterns of society—. Henry asks if he wants to put them all through a meat grinder to make them all the same. He tells Sillers to take a box seat. The judge rules they are both out of the order and that the jury has been selected. Because of the excessive heat he adjourns court until tomorrow morning.
Mark hands him a paper, and the Judge reads the announcement that Rev. Brown will be holding a prayer meeting. Henry objects to that commercial announcement and asks if they will announce an evolution meeting. The judge says he knows of no such meeting. Henry says it is not enough that people coming into the court have to pass under a sign that says “Read your Bible.” He wants that sign taken down or another put up which says “Read your Darwin.” Davenport says they want to treat Drummond with fairness and as a guest, but he says he is not a guest but a lawyer. Brady tells him to stop using the court as a platform for his obscene ideas. The judge says they are both out of order because the court is adjourned. Brady argues with Henry who says he swears for a reason because they have to use all the words they have. A woman shouts that Drummond is an atheist, and she asks Hornbeck what he is going to write now. He says he who sups with the devil must have a long spoon. A man tells Cates that they will run him out of town. Hornbeck says the Baltimore Herald is with him right up to the lynching. Rachel comes over and tells Cates to call the whole thing off now. Henry asks who she is, and Cates says they are engaged and that she is Rev. Brown’s daughter. She says they are using him as a weapon against his own people for something bad. Henry says it is not as simple as good and bad. She asks why he came here to make Hillsboro different. He denies that is his purpose; he came to defend Bert’s right to be different. Bert says he does not know what the point is anymore. He says he tried to open their minds and give the kids knowledge they could use; but they are using it to strangle him. Hornbeck says he is learning because disillusionment is what little heroes are made of. Bert asks if he will end up dead with a paper medal on his chest, the world’s biggest chump who died fighting. He says to Hornbeck he is a headline and to Henry he is a cause. Henry asks what he is to himself. He tells him to face it that he chose to get into this by himself because of something he believed in. Bert says he did not know it would happen this way. Hornbeck says it could get worse because the people are in a lean and hungry mood. Bert says they look at him as if he were a murderer. Henry says in a way he is because he killed one of their fairy-tale notions. They will bring down the wrath of God, Brady, and the state legislature every time. Rachel says he makes a joke out of everything. Henry says he knows what Bert is going through. It is a lonely feeling like walking down an empty street listening to your own footsteps. All he has to do is knock on any door and say if you let me in, he will live the way they want him to live and to think the way they want him to think, and the blinds will go up and the doors will open. He will never be lonely again. If he wants to change his plea, if he honestly believes that the law is right and that he is wrong, then he can tell him, and he will go back to Chicago. Rachel tells Bert that she has been going to her father’s church every Sunday, and this is where she lives and where they will live. She asks what kind of a life she will have. He asks what kind of a live they would have, if he gave up now. Would it be like her father’s life of hallelujahs and ignorance. He says what goes on in this town is not necessarily the Christian religion in other places. He can’t live the way she wants him to; she is the one who has to decide between his church or their house. The deputy tells Bert he has to take him back now, and he goes. Henry asks Hornbeck if he has ever been in love. He says only with his own words, thank God.
At a dining table Brady is serving himself as he says that he has been to the universities and seen the altars where they sacrifice their children to the gods of science. He says their rewards are confusion and self-destruction, new ways to kill each other in wars. He says scientism is the way of darkness. Hornbeck asks if he believes that the majority of Americans agree with him. Brady says it is not him they agree with, and there is no state where the believers in evolution are a majority. He says the people themselves will decide. Another reporter asks how he accounts for the unfortunate comments that his crusade has aroused. Brady says the attacks on him come from a vociferous minority that controls the press. He hopes they will not be influenced by this same negative bias. He folds his hands and prays. At another table Henry starts to eat a sandwich. Brady tells him to go ahead because he said grace for him too. He says the mass of people will continue to worship God. Henry invites Sarah to sit at his table, and he holds a chair for her. She sits down, and they talk about the past. She says she missed him, and she never dreamed their ideas would separate them. Henry says Brady still has a loud voice, and she says he still has something to say. He asks if she means how people should live. She believes that everyone wants to be his brother’s keeper and be taken care of. He says it is more convincing coming from her. Brady finishes reading from a paper and says that is all.
That evening Rev. Brown welcomes people to the word, and he preaches how God created everything in six days. Henry and Hornbeck are listening too. Brown asks if they believe the word, and most shout yes. He asks if they curse to hell those who oppose the word, and most agree. Hornbeck asks whatever happened to silent prayer. Brown asks God to let his soul remain forever in damnation, and Rachel says no, don’t pray to destroy Bert. Brady comes forward and puts his arm around her, and he tells Rev. Brown that he knows this is his faith; but he warns him against being overzealous in destroying those he would save and have nothing left but emptiness. He quotes from Proverbs, “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.” Brady says that as children of God they should forgive each other. He urges people to return to their homes with the blessings of the Lord upon them all. People begin to leave, and Brown comes down and walks past Rachel. Sarah says they will take Rachel home; but she replies she can’t go home because he hates her. She says her own father damned her. Sarah says no man has the power to damn. Rachel says he has always done it. He did it to Bert and the little Stebbins boy. Brady asks about that, and she says that is how it all started. He was just an innocent child, and Brady says God has no wrath for the innocent. She says Bert said that too. She would like to explain it clearly so that they would understand. Brady says they will do all they can to help her.
Brady and Sarah walk back to the Mansion House and see Henry sitting on the porch. Brady says he will be up soon, and Sarah goes inside. Brady says they are not the men they used to be. Henry comments on how much Brady ate for dinner. Brady laughs and sits down next to him. He says how it is funny how men can drift apart. They used to have mutual admiration, and he asks his old friend why he has moved so far away from him. Henry says motion is relative; maybe Brady has moved away by standing still. Brady says if progress means abandoning God and the faith of their fathers, but Henry says he saw a demonstration of that faith tonight. Brady says he saw a reflection of the violence and hate of the world around him. He says they are indifferent to it because their faith was challenged. These are simple people who work hard and need to believe in something beautiful, more perfect than what they have. Henry says they are window shopping for heaven like his golden dancer. He was seven years old, and it was a beautiful rocking horse. His parents could not afford it, but they saved and gave it to him for his birthday. When he rocked on it, it broke. That is how he felt about that religious meeting. He says Brady thinks he is giving them hope, but Henry believes he is stealing their hope. Henry gets up and says as long as the prerequisite for that paradise is ignorance, bigotry, and hate, he says to hell with it. He goes inside.
In court Brady is questioning a student, and Howard (Jimmy Boyd) says Cates taught them to keep an open mind on the origin of species. He says he said the Earth was too hot for life at first. Then it cooled off, and cells developed. Six men walk in, and Henry and Hornbeck help them find seats in the first row. Howard says some animals sprouted legs and walked up on the land. Brady asks how long this took, and Howard says a couple million years or maybe longer. Then came fish, reptiles, and mammals. Man is a mammal. Brady asks how man came out of this slimy mess according to his professor. Howard says they “evoluted” from the old-world monkeys. Brady jokes that they are not even evolved from good American monkeys. He asks if Cates referred to God. Howard says he does not remember that. Brady asks if he mentioned the miracle God achieved as described in the beautiful book of Genesis, and Howard says no. Brady turns to the spectators and calls them “ladies and gentlemen.” Henry objects and says he is supposed to be submitting evidence, and there are no ladies on the jury. Brady says he does not need to make a speech because he is sure that everyone is moved by this tragic confusion. He says he has been taught that he wriggled up from the filth and muck below. He says the Bible-haters and evolutionists are brewers of poison and that the legislature has had the wisdom to have the poison they attempt to sell to be clearly labeled. If this legislation is not upheld, these children will be shorn of their faith by the teachings of godless science; but if the law is upheld, people will rise up and call this courtroom blessed. Brady says he is his witness and sits down. Henry says he is glad he did not make a speech. Henry asks if it was warmer than it is here, and Howard says it probably was. Henry asks if he read from a book on the evolution of species, and Howard says yes. Henry asks if there was anything wrong in that, and Davenport objects he is asking the boy to make a moral judgment. Henry says he is asking if anyone here has the right to think. The judge says the right to think is not on trial here; but Henry disagrees with that because it is in danger in this courtroom. Brady says a man is on trial. Henry says a thinking man may be fined and imprisoned because he speaks what he thinks. The judge asks him to rephrase his question. Henry asks if this fuss about evolution did him any harm. Howard says no. Henry asks if he still honors his father and his mother, and he says yes. He asks if he murdered anybody. Davenport objects, and it is sustained. Brady says he should ask him if his faith in the holy scripture has been shattered. Henry says when he needs his advice, he will ask for it. Henry asks if he believed everything Cates told him. Howard says he is not sure and has to think about it. Henry says good for him. He asks if there is anything sinful about his father’s tractor because it is not mentioned in the Bible, and Howard says no. He asks if the telephone is sinful, and Howard says he never thought about it. Brady says no one else did either. He says Henry confuses material things with the great spiritual value of the revealed word. He asks why he is bewildering this child. He asks if right has no meaning for him. Henry answers that it may prejudice the case, but he admits that right has no meaning to him; yet truth has meaning as a direction. He says it is peculiar in their time that they measure every action by right and wrong. He asks Howard if he understands this, and he says no. Henry says maybe someday he will, and he thanks him and excuses him.
Brady stands up and says he understands because he has seen what he can do to a jury. He says no one has forgotten the Endicott publishing case when he got the jury to believe that the obscenity was in their own minds. He says it was immoral to use judgment by confusion. He asks if he thinks he can get away with that here. Henry says he is not trying to get away with anything. He is merely trying to stop the clock-stoppers from dumping medieval nonsense into the United States Constitution. The judge says this is not a federal court. Henry says you have to start from somewhere. Brady says he is trying to make them forget the lawbreaker and put the law on trial. He says they have the answer in their next witness, and he calls Rachel Brown. Henry asks Cates if he knew about this, and he says no. Hornbeck says they should have.
Rachel goes to Bert and then takes the stand and is sworn in. Brady asks her to repeat things he told her last night. She admits she is engaged to Cates and that they attended the same church but do not do so now. She says he did not leave the spirit of the church. He asks why he left the church. She says it was because of the Stebbins boy. She says two summers ago he was one of Bert’s students, and he used to use his microscope. Bert said he had a bright mind, and he might become a scientist. He went swimming with other boys and got a cramp and drowned. At the funeral her father preached that Tommy did not die in a state of grace because his father would not allow him to be baptized. Bert stands up and tells her to tell them what her father really said, that his soul was damned to hellfire. Jessie curses Bert as a sinner. Bert says religion is supposed to comfort people, not frighten them to death. The judge calls for order. Rachel says Bert believed it was not fair that a child could not go to heaven. He did not abandon God but that church. Bates asks if it is true that after the death of the Stebbins boy, Bert left the church. He says they are trying to get insight into why he went astray. Henry objects because whether his client went astray is a matter of interpretation. He says to strike it from the record. The judge sustains it and tells the jury to disregard that. Brady asks her to tell the jury more of his opinions on religion. Henry objects again, but the judge allows this line of questioning. Brady tells her to repeat what he told her. Bert stands up and says she can’t because what he said were questions you ask your own heart. If she says them out loud, they will sound like answers. She says she can’t, but Brady tells her to speak up. She says she confided in Brady. She says she can’t remember. The judge tells her it is unlawful for her to withhold pertinent information. Brady says that Bert told her that God did not create man, but man created God. She says Bert did not say that. He was bitter because of the Stebbins boy and said that men created a vengeful god out of their own bigotry and the devil out of their own hell. Brady asks if he said there was no heaven but stars and planets and dust. He asks her what he said about holy matrimony. Henry objects. Brady shouts at her that she should tell it all. She cries. Brady says that under the circumstances he believes the witness should be excused. The judge asks Henry if he has any objection to excusing the witness at this time subject to future recall. Henry says the defense must have the right to challenge the words put into the mouth of the witness by the prosecutor. Bert tells Henry not to. Henry asks to confer with his client and asks if he wants that to go into the record that way. Bert says it is not that important. Hornbeck says he just pulled him apart. Bert tells Henry he has got to do as he says. Henry asks what, send him to jail? Bert tells him to let her go. Hornbeck says he just handed his head to her on a platter. Bert tells him to stay out of this. Henry asks him not to tie his hands; but Bert tells him to let her go, or he will change his plea to guilty. Henry says no questions, and the Judge tells her she is excused for the time being.
Davenport says the prosecution rests its case. Henry calls a zoology professor from the University of Chicago. Brady objects, and Henry asks on what grounds. Brady asks what relevance it has. Henry says his client is charged with teaching evolution. Certainly evidence on that subject must be admitted. The judge says he does not understand his reasoning. Henry says he wants the professor to explain the theory of evolution to the jury so that they will know what it is about before they pass judgment on it. Brady argues that the law they are here to enforce excludes such testimony. He says the state has made it clear they don’t want these ideas in the schools, and he refuses to let these agnostics use the court as a sounding board to shout their heresies into the headlines. The judge rules that zoology is irrelevant to the case. Henry calls a deacon of a church who is a professor of geology. Brady objects, and the judge sustains him. Henry asks the judge if he is denying the existence of zoology, geology, and archaeology; but the judge says he does not deny their reality but their relevance to the point of law. Henry calls an anthropologist and philosopher. Brady objects, and Henry says the defense has brought these men to Hillsboro at great expense and inconvenience. He says their testimony is basic to the defense of his client. He intends to show that what Cates taught in class is no crime, but it is as incontrovertible as geometry to any enlightened community of minds. Davenport says that in this community and state the exact opposite is the case. The language of the law is clear. They do not need experts to testify about a law that is on the books. Henry asks if they need a gallows to hang him. Davenport says that is an insult to this community. Henry says this community is an insult to the world.
Henry asks the Judge for permission to withdraw from this case. Bert tells him he can’t quit now. He says why not; he was ready to five minutes ago. The judge asks what reasons he has. Henry points to the spectators and says there are two hundred, and another is that his client has already been found guilty. Brady asks if expression of honest emotion will in any way influence the honest administration of the law. Henry says that you cannot administer a wicked law impartially; you can only destroy and punish. He warns them that a wicked law like cholera destroys everyone it touches, its upholders and as well as its defiers. He tells the judge if you make a law that makes it a crime to teach evolution in the public schools, that tomorrow you can make it illegal to teach it in private schools. Then you can make it a crime to read about it, and soon you may ban books and newspapers. Then you may turn Catholic against Protestant and Protestants against each other and try to foist your own religion on the mind of man. If you can do one, you can do the other because fanaticism and ignorance always need feeding. Soon with banners flying and drums beating they will be marching backward to the 16th century when bigots burned people who dared to bring intelligence to the human mind. The judge hopes he is not implying that this court is bigoted. Henry says he has the right to hope. The judge says he has the right to do more than that. Henry says he has the power to do more than that. The judge says he will exercise that power by ordering him to show cause tomorrow morning why he should not be held in contempt of court. He orders him held in custody until then, and he fixes bail at $2,000. Henry asks why he does not make it $4,000. The judge says he made it four. Hornbeck stands up and says his paper will post bond and that he will wire his paper immediately. The judge says until then Drummond can experience their municipal accommodations. John Stebbins (Noah Beery Jr.) comes forward and says he will put up his farm. The judge says they cannot ascertain its value. The banker stands up and says he will honor his commitment for his farm because he has considerable more equity in it than that. The judge says he can make arrangements with the court clerk.
That evening people march with signs and torches singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Rachel is in bed, and a doctor gives her father pills for her and advises him to keep her in bed. The doctor goes out. She does not speak to her father.
Cates in jail looks out of his cell at the crowd singing. They sing “We will hang Bert Cates from a sour apple tree.” Someone throws a bottle that breaks on the bars of his window. The next verse says they will hang Henry Drummond, and they march down the street.
Henry is washing his face and answers the door. Hornbeck is wearing a hood and says trick or treat before removing it and coming into the room. He says they have nothing to burn but their intellectuals. He says those are the bulls that make our laws by the democratic process. Henry asks if he has something better to suggest. Hornbeck says Henry is going out in a blaze of glory, though he was pretty impressive there for a while. He recalls part of it as Henry lies on a bed. Hornbeck tells him to wake up because Darwin was wrong. Man is still an ape, and his creed is still a totem pole. When he first became upright, he looked at the stars and thought they were something to eat. When he could not reach them, he thought they belonged to a bigger creature, and that was how Jehovah was born. Henry says if he had his worm’s eye view of history, it would make it a lot easier. Hornbeck says he would still be trying to make sense of the human race. He tells him to take his blinders off. He asks if he knows that the future is obsolete. He still thinks man has a noble destiny. Hornbeck says he has already started on his backward march to the sea from which he came. Henry asks about a man like Bert Cates. Hornbeck calls him a monkey who tried to fly. He climbed to the top of the totem and jumped, and nobody was there to catch him. Henry says he was there and saw what they did to his witnesses. Hornbeck says he needs a drink. Henry says he needs a miracle, and Hornbeck tosses him a Bible courtesy of Brady.
In court Henry is holding a Bible, and he apologizes sincerely to the judge for any remarks he made in the heat of the discussion. The judge says that the man who came into the world to save it taught us to forgive. He believes in those principles and forgives him. He accepts his apology and withdraws the contempt citation. Brady says he feels no animosity to Henry, and he hopes he has learned a lesson so that he will come to the one who gives him life. Hornbeck says Brady has no enemies, but his friends hate him. Henry says he may learn from the prosecution. He asks to withdraw his withdrawal so that he can continue as counsel for Cates. The judge accepts this and tells him to proceed. Henry says the court has ruled out scientific knowledge, and he asks if the court would allow expert knowledge on the holy Bible. The judge asks Brady if he objects. Brady says if he can advance their case by using the Bible, he has no objection. Henry calls one of the world’s experts on the Bible and its teaching, Matthew Harrison Brady. Davenport says this is preposterous. The judge calls it unorthodox because he never heard of the defense calling the prosecuting attorney as a witness. Brady agrees the trial is unorthodox; but if the interests of right and justice may be served, he will testify. Judge will let him decline to testify as a witness against his own case. Brady says he will not testify against anything, but he will speak out as he always has for the living truth of the holy scriptures.
Brady takes the stand, and Henry says he does not have to take the oath. Brady says he has studied the Bible as much as any layman and tried to live according to its precepts. He admits he has committed many passages to memory. Henry asks if he has learned anything from Darwin’s Origin of Species. Brady says he is not the least bit interested in it and has never read it. Henry asks how he can wage this holy war against something he does not know anything about. He asks how he knows that the writings of Darwin are irreconcilable with the book of Genesis. Brady asks him to repeat the question, and Henry tries to read a quote from Darwin. Davenport objects that he should not be allowed to read from this, but that he must stick only to the Bible. The judge sustains that. Henry says they will play in his ballpark. Henry asks if every word in the Bible should be taken literally. He ask if Jonah was really swallowed by the whale. Brady says it says a big fish, not a whale. He believes it. Henry asks about Joshua stopping the sun in the sky, and Brady accepts that too. Henry asks what would have happened if that were true. He asks if they believed that the sun moves around the Earth, and he asks Brady if he believes that or that the Earth moves around the sun. Brady says he has faith in the Bible. Henry explains that if the sun stopped, the Earth would have stopped spinning on its axis, causing mountains to fly off and the Earth to be burned up by the sun. Brady does not believe that would have happened. Henry asks if he would ban Copernicus from the classroom and pass a law throwing out all scientific knowledge. Brady says that God created natural law and can use it as he pleases. He is amazed that the scientists with all their wisdom fail to grasp this simple fact.
Henry reads from Genesis, and he asks where Cain’s wife came from. Brady says he leaves the agnostics to look for her. Henry asks if it never bothered him and asks if someone pulled off another creation in the next county. He is afraid what would happen to the world if everyone had his curiosity. Henry says there are many “begats.” He asks how they did that and asks if folks got begat then as they do today. Brady replies the process is the same, and his scientists have not improved it any. Henry says all these people were brought forth by sex, and he asks what he thinks of sex, not as a father or husband but as an expert on the Bible. Brady answers that it is “original sin.” Henry acts surprised that all these holy people got begat by original sin. He asks if the begetting made them less holy. Davenport rises and asks where this is leading, and the judge asks what bearing this has on the case. Henry says he has denied him all his own witnesses; he must let him examine this one witness in his own way. Brady says he is willing to endure his sneering and disrespect, for he is feeding the prosecution by his contempt for all that is holy. Henry objects. Brady asks on what grounds and asks if something is holy to the celebrated agnostic. He says yes, the individual human mind. In a child’s mastery of the multiplication tables there is more sanctity than in all their shouted amens. An idea is a greater monument than a cathedral, and man’s advance in knowledge is a greater miracle than all the sticks turned to snakes or the parting of waters. He asks if they are to forgo this now because Brady frightens them with a fable. He walks over to the jury and tells them that progress has never been a bargain; you have to pay for it. He says you can have a telephone, but you may lose privacy and the charm of distance. Women may vote, but they may lose their right to retreat behind their powder puff or petticoat. Men may conquer the air; but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline. He says Darwin took us forward to a hilltop from where we could look back and see where we came from. For this insight and knowledge they must abandon their faith in the pleasant poetry of Genesis. Brady says they must not abandon their faith. Henry asks then why did God give man the ability to think. He asks why he denies the one faculty of man that raises him above the other creatures of the Earth, the power of his brain to reason. He asks what other merit humans have. He says an elephant is larger, the horse swifter, the butterfly more beautiful, the mosquito more prolific, and even the sponge is more durable. He asks if a sponge can think. Brady says he is a man, not a sponge; if God wants a sponge to think, it will. Henry asks if a man should have that privilege. Henry walks over to Cates and says this man wishes to think. Some people applaud. Brady says he is deluded and has lost his way. Henry says it is sad that not everyone has Brady’s knowledge. Henry shows him a rock and asks how old he thinks it is. Brady says he is more interested in the rock of ages than in the age of rocks. Henry says the geologist told him that this rock is at least ten million years old. Brady says he got his scientific testimony in after all. Henry shows him the fossils remains of creatures who lived in this county millions of years ago when this area was submerged in water. Brady says the Bible gives a fine account of the flood; but the dates are mixed up because that rock is not more than six thousand years old. He explains that Bishop Usher calculated that according to the Bible the creation occurred in the year 4004 BC on October 23 at 9 a.m. Henry asks if that was Eastern Standard Time, and he notes it could not have been daylight savings time because the Lord did not make the sun until the fourth day. Brady says that is correct. Henry asks how long the first day was and whether it was 24 hours. There was no sun, he asks how one would know how long it was. Brady says the Bible says it was a day. Henry asks what he thinks, and Brady says he does not thinks about it. Henry asks him to think about it and asks if it could have been 25 hours. Brady says it is possible, and he admits it might not have been a 24-hour day. Henry says it could have been 30 hours, a week, a month, a year, a hundred years, or even ten million years. Davenport objects and demands to know the purpose of Drummond’s questions. Brady says he wants to destroy everyone’s belief in the Bible and in God. Henry says that is not true, and he knows it. He says the Bible is a book, a good book, but it is not the only book. Brady says it is the revealed word of almighty God who spoke to the men who wrote the Bible. Henry asks how he knows that God did not speak to Charles Darwin. Brady says he knows because God told him to oppose the evil teachings of that man. Henry asks if God speaks to him, and Brady says yes and that he acts accordingly. Henry says Brady gets God’s orders and passes them on to the rest of the world, and he calls him the prophet from Nebraska. Henry asks if God tells Brady what is good, and if to be against Brady is to be against God. Brady says no; each man is a free agent. Henry asks then why is Cates in jail. He asks what if Cates had the influence to pass a law that only Darwin could be taught in the schools. Brady says that is ridiculous because there is only one truth in the world. Henry says it is the gospel according to Brady. God speaks to Brady, and he tells the world. Henry asks him to suppose that a Cates or a Darwin might have the audacity to think that God might whisper to him, that an unBrady thought might still be holy. He asks if a man must go to prison because he disagrees with the self-appointed prophet. He suggests they could extend the testaments and have a book of Brady. They can hex the Pentateuch and put Brady between Numbers and Deuteronomy. Brady stands up and tries to make a speech while Henry says the witness is excused. Brady says he believes in the books of the Bible and names them up to Ezekiel. The judge adjourns the court until the next morning. Sarah walks over to Brady and says they should go home to the hotel. He walks out with her.
Sarah answers the door, and Rachel comes in and says she has to talk to him so that he can explain to Bert that it was not her fault. Sarah says he is sleeping. She wants the world to know that Brady is a fake. Sarah slaps her face and says she is sorry. They both sit down. Rachel says she dreamed she was in the witness chair and was chained to it; she kept begging him to let her go. Sarah says this has been a nightmare for all of them. Rachel says hers was real. She turned to her husband for help, and he encouraged her to open her heart to him. She says he twisted her words and tricked her. She asks why he did it. Sarah says she does not know and wonders if it meant too much to him. He may have been tired or afraid. Rachel says she taught her students that Brady was a great man. She asks what she is to teach them now. Sarah says he is still the same man. Rachel says if he did that, he must be an evil man. Sarah tells her to stop. She says youth can be so pure. She asks what she knows of evil or the sum of a man’s life. Rachel says he betrayed her, but Sarah says she betrayed herself. She saw her husband as a saint who must be right in everything he says or does. Then she sees him as a devil, and everything he says or does must be wrong. She says her husband is neither a saint nor a devil. He is just a human being who makes mistakes. Rachel asks how she can defend him. Sarah says she is defending the forty years she lived with him. He carried the burdens of people like her, and at least he stood for something. She asks Rachel what she stands for. She asks if she believes in Bertram Cates. Sarah says she believes in her husband. She asks Rachel who she believes in.
Brady comes out of the bedroom and says he was asleep. He asks Rachel what he can do for her and calls her his child. She says she is not his child any longer nor anyone else’s. She goes out. He sits down and asks Sarah what she wants. She says he hurt Rachel. She says he was always a good man, and that is why she loved him from the beginning. People said he made mistakes. He could have been President three times. She never doubted him because his decisions were honest. He never sacrificed his principles to win. He says he did not mean to hurt her. He hoped a victory here would have been a monument to God that would last a thousand years. She says every man has to be his own monument; he can’t do it for them. If he does, it becomes his monument and not theirs. They will topple it as soon as they find a flaw in it. He says she means a flaw in him. She says they turned away from him this afternoon. He says they didn’t understand, but he will make them understand. He asks where his speech is and looks for it. He finds it and says it is not just this case but God himself is on trial. They will have to listen to him. She kneels down before him and says they will listen. He says they laughed at him, and she hugs him and says it is all right.
The press is getting ready in the courtroom. Brady is looking at his speech while eating chicken. Cates comes in with the deputy and sees Rachel. He asks if she brought more clean shirts. She says she left her father and asks if she messed things up badly for them. He says it was not her fault because he knows how Brady can twist things. She says it was not his fault; she should have done this from the beginning. He says she does not have to say anything; he is just glad she is here. They sit down next to each other. Henry comes in and welcomes Rachel back to his side. He asks the man with the WGN microphone what it is. The man says it is an enunciator and that they are going to broadcast the verdict. Henry says, “God, that is going to bring down a lot of walls.” The man says he is not supposed to say “God” on the radio. Henry asks why the hell not, and he is warned again. Hornbeck comes in and tells Brady about the power of radio. The jury comes in, and Brady puts away the chicken. The judge comes out and tells the radio man to go ahead. He introduces the scene to the listeners. The mayor comes up and tells the judge he talked to the lieutenant governor, and because of the newspaper reports the boys at the capital would like the case simmered down; but the judge says he has an obligation to the law. The mayor warns him that November is not far off. The judge asks if the jury has reached a verdict, and the clerk brings it to him. The judge says the verdict is unanimous that Bertram Cates is guilty. The radio announcer gives the result, and the judge tells him to leave now. The judge tells Cates to rise and asks if he wants to make a statement. Cates comes forward and tells the judge he is a just a school-teacher. A woman shouts that he is not anymore. He says he was a school-teacher. He feels that he was convicted of violating an unjust law. He will continue in the future as he has in the past to oppose this law in any way he can. The judge says there is no precedent because this is the first violation of this law. He sentences him to pay a fine of $100. Brady takes exception and asks for more drastic punishment to make an example. Henry objects and says the fine is of no concern because Cates is not going to pay it. They are going to appeal this decision to the state supreme court. He asks for thirty days to prepare the appeal, and the judge grants it and fixes bond at $200. The judge declares the court adjourned. Brady says he wants to read his remarks. Henry objects to this. The judge sustains him and says people may remain after court is adjourned to hear his address, and he adjourns the court. Brady speaks, but few can hear him because of the noise of other people talking. After a while it becomes quiet, and he collapses. Sarah and others go to him.
Henry says he cannot imagine the world without Brady, and he asks what he died of. Hornbeck says he died of a busted belly. Henry says there was much greatness in the man. Hornbeck asks if he can quote him, and Henry says he can write whatever he pleases. Hornbeck asks how you write an obituary for a man who has been dead for thirty years. He asks Henry what he said to the minister and says it fits for him. Hornbeck goes to look it up in Proverbs, and Henry quotes it to him from memory. Hornbeck says they are growing an odd crop of agnostics this year. Henry says he is getting sick of Hornbeck because he never pushed a noun against a verb except to blow up something. Hornbeck says he is using the lawyer’s trick of accusing the accuser. Henry asks what he is accused of, and Hornbeck says contempt of conscience and sentimentality in the first degree. Henry asks if it is because he refused to erase a man’s lifetime. Hornbeck says they should leave the lamentations to the illiterate, and he asks if it is “Be kind to bigots week.” He asks why they should cry for him; he cried enough for himself during his life. Henry says a giant once lived in that body; but he got lost because he looked for God too high up and far away. Hornbeck calls Henry a hypocrite and a fraud, the atheist who believes in God. He asks if he was as religious as he was. Henry says everything is grist for his mill. He asks if he understands the meaning of what happened here today, but Hornbeck says it has no meaning. Henry says he has no meaning because he is like a ghost pointing and smirking at everything that people feel or want or struggle for. He pities him and asks what touches him or moves him. He asks what he dreams about or needs. He asks if he does not need anything, an idea or people to cling to. He is a poor slob who is all alone. When he goes to his grave, no one will pull the grass up over his head. No one will mourn or give a damn. He is all alone. Hornbeck says he is wrong because Henry will be there. He asks who else would defend his right to be lonely. Hornbeck puts on his hat and walks out. Henry puts on his jacket and picks up the Darwin book and the Bible and weighs them in each hand before taking them both with him.
This true story portrays three famous and influential people who got locked in a legal battle in a small town where religious fundamentalism was dominant. William Jennings Bryan was a deeply religious man and pacifist who ran for President as a Democrat three times. After the trial he traveled hundreds of miles, giving speeches, and he died of diabetes and fatigue five days after the trial. Clarence Darrow was perhaps the greatest trial lawyer of the 20th century and a free thinker. H. L. Mencken was a brilliant journalist, satirist, and a critical expert on language. This famous trial shows the conflict in America between fundamentalist Christians and liberals who value science and freedom of thought.