In his Academy Award-nominated 1960 drama, "Inherit the Wind," director Stanley Kramer offered a fictionalized depiction of the famed Scopes "monkey" trial of 1925, in which Tennessee high school instructor John Scopes was tried for violating the state's Butler Act, a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution.
Fifty years after its initial release, with activists on the political right and left still bitterly divided over social issues, the film remains sharply relevant, something the Malibu Film Society hopes to underscore with a special anniversary screening and panel discussion Sunday.
"If you ever listen to the Christian stations on the radio, they are still upset over this film," said Karen Kramer, the director's widow, who will participate in the discussion, along with her daughter Kat Kramer and Eugenie C. Scott of the National Center for Science Education, the only national organization that defends the teaching of evolution in schools.
"I finally called them one day and said, 'It is not about the Scopes trial. It's about freedom of thought, freedom of speech. It is the 1st Amendment.' "
In fact, both the movie and the 1955 Broadway play on which it was based were responding to the blacklists of the McCarthy era. "In the 1950s, everybody realized that," said Edward J. Larson, a Pepperdine University professor who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book on the Scopes trial, "Summer for the Gods," and also is set to appear on the panel Sunday. "What happens was they set up the Creationists as strawmen for McCarthy and they didn't think there were any Creationists left. But the strawmen outlived the McCarthyites."
It was the allusions to McCarthyism that initially attracted Stanley Kramer to the project, Karen Kramer said. He wanted to "take another shot at the blacklist and hire the same writers he hired for 'The Defiant Ones,' Harold Jacob Smith and Nedrick Young." (Young was a blacklisted screenwriter who used the pen name Nathan E. Douglas.)
Scott is careful to point out that "Inherit the Wind" is not 100% historically accurate; it's a work of fiction that takes liberties but still has plenty to say about the real-world events that served as its inspiration.
"I always tell people, 'Don't look at it as a movie reporting on the Scopes trial,' " she said. "It does capture a very important mood that reflects the anti-evolution movement, [which contends that] evolution is not biblical, so it should be opposed. That theme is particularly strong in the movie and is central to the Creationist message today: Evolution leads to evil, and evolution means that you can't believe in God and you have no moral rudder."
In her view, Scott said the film remains compelling "because it's a great story. It engages your interest and deals with serious issues. The Scopes character ... he does what is right."
Where: Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, 24855 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Price: $15 in advance; $20 at the door
Info: www.malibufilm society.org