30 January 2000 | FlickJunkie-2
A thought provoking film. George C.Scott gives a compelling performance.
This film is a remake of a 1960 movie about the 'Scopes' monkey trial in July of 1925, argued by prominent statesman William Jennings Bryan (for the prosecution and the Bible) and equally the prominent Clarence Darrow (for the defense, scientific thought and Darwin). Rather than compare it with the original, which I understand was brilliant, I will evaluate it on its own.
This is a powerful and thought provoking courtroom drama about a school teacher who was arrested for teaching evolution, then considered a heresy against God and the bible. The topic is unfortunately as timely today as it was 75 years ago. The film is extremely effective at illustrating the pervasive ignorance and fear so prevalent in fundamentalist religions. It depicts with great clarity, the frenzied and irrational efforts undertaken to suppress any knowledge that threatens to debunk the myth and simple minded traditions that bind the faithful together.
Unfortunately, the presentation of the story had certain flaws that kept it from being a truly great film. My biggest objections are all directorial. First, this film was visually mediocre and pedestrian. The camera basically followed the speaker around the room at the same angles from pretty much the same distances. There were very few reaction shots which would have greatly enhanced the drama. I don't think there was a single reaction shot of any member of the jury and only a couple from the gallery.
Director Daniel Petrie takes enormous artistic license in presenting the trial. The way it was portrayed it seemed more like an unmoderated debate between the lawyers than a criminal trial with rules of court. Granted, it was a small town in 1925, but this was ridiculous. In real trials, lawyers have two opportunities to give speeches in a trial, in opening and closing statements. During the trial itself, they are only to ask questions and gather evidence under very strict rules. They can't give speeches or lead the witness or inject their opinion about a witness' testimony. This was flouted in the film as lawyers violated these rules repeatedly with nary an objection from the other side. Ironically, the most important speeches of the trial, closing arguments were completely missing from the film.
I found Jack Lemon's portrayal of defense lawyer Henry Drummond to be disturbingly restrained. Lemon is clearly capable of unfettered rage and indignation, yet he played his character with resignation and defeatism rather than frustration and wrath. He simply didn't fight hard enough for the principles in which he supposedly believed. I blame this on Petrie.
Without question, the performance of the film belonged to George C. Scott in his last performance before his death (a stunning coincidence since William Jennings Bryan, on whom Scott's character is based, died shortly after this trial. So it was his last performance as well). Scott is magnificent as the bible thumping prosecutor rattling the rafters of the little courthouse with his booming gravel voice. This was the type of part Scott was born to play and it may have been his best performance since Patton. For this reason alone this film should be on every film buff's list. If only Lemon brought similar fire to his part, this film would have been riveting.
Beau Bridges was a bit overly obnoxious as the sardonic reporter E.K. Hornbeck. The role called for a good deal of cynicism, but Bridges got carried away.
Lane Smith gives a terrific performance as the Lord possessed Reverend Brown, who damns his own daughter to hell for refusing to renounce her love for her fiance Cates, the accused school teacher. His sermon at the prayer meeting was more than worthy of any cable TV evangelist.
I gave this film a 7/10. I think it would be rated higher by most people who think of a courtroom as more of a dramatic setting than place of justice. Overall it is a credible update of a topic that should remain in the forefront of our minds if we hope to continue living in a free and rational society.