WHILE the basic conflict is intellectual in the new film, Inherit the Wind - freedom of inquiry clashes with the slavery of dogmatic thought - it is one that can be made dramatic in a straight confrontation of two men, one a tough, agile advocate of freedom and the other a stanch, shrewd supporter of the mental block. This is the triumph of the picture, which Stanley Kramer has made and which opened yesterday at the Astor and the redecorated Trans-Lux Eighty-fifth Street.
For with a dramatic face-off between Spencer Tracy and Frederic March, the two unsurpassable actors persuaded to play the roles, Mr. Kramer has wonderfully accomplished not only a graphic fleshing of his theme but he also has got one of the most brilliant and engrossing displays of acting ever witnessed on the screen.
It is not an unmentionable secret that the stage play, Inherit the Wind, of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's, upon which this picture is based, was a thinly disguised re-enactment of the famous trial of John T. Scopes - called the "monkey trial" by some newspapers - that took place in Dayton, Tenn., in 1925, or is it a point to be avoided - that its principal courtroom antagonists were supposed to be Clarence Darrow, the defense attorney, and William Jennings Bryan. The latter is made more apparent, if not more explicit, in the film by Mr. March's extraordinary make-up and assumption of the mannerisms of Bryan. His fine simulation of a bald dome, a fringe of flowing hair and a way of tightening his lips and making gestures and nervous flutters with a palm-leaf fan are vividly recollective of the "silver-tongued orator" who made the air ring with his phrases in support of the fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible at the Dayton trial.
But the accuracy of the resemblance is mainly a dividend for those who remember what Bryan looked like. The artistic virtue of it is that it gives a stunning comprehension of a proud, pompous demagogic man, full of dogmatic assertion and theatrical flourishes who stands serenely encircled by ignorance until the locks of his own mind are forced.
As the man who accomplishes this forcing, by dint of his intelligence, tenacity, patience, inspiration and adroitness at verbal argument, Mr. Tracy does not endeavor to do a resemblance to Darrow, but he gives a fine, forceful simulation of a strong, home-spun advocate of good sense. He is, of course, the lawyer who defends the young school-teacher charged with violating the state law forbidding the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution.
As courtroom antagonists, Mr. Tracy and Mr. March strike continuous sparks that fall into the highly volatile tinder of surroundings that richly represent a community of generally ignorant, bigoted people supercharged with emotion over the trial. All of this, too, is re-created by Mr. Kramer with colorfulness and clarity so that humor or as well as grass-roots toughness is piled with insensitivity.
Conspicuous in the surroundings are assorted small-town types and several characters closely related to the principals. There is the young man on trial, a hayseed hero, played stalwartly by Dick York; a fire- snorting fundamentalist minister, performed robustly by Claude Akins, and the latter's tormented daughter, played tautly by Donna Anderson. There's the wife of the fundamentalist lawyer, whom Florence Eldridge quietly makes a beautifully ladylike dispenser of compassion and loyalty, and there's a nimble newspaper reporter, played briskly and glibly by Gene Kelly.
Some changes have been made by Nathan E. Douglas and Harold Jacob Smith in writing the play into a script. Some academic and theological points have been blunted, the carnival atmosphere of the trial pointed up. But the essential conflict of the principals is precisely what it was, and it grows in tempestuousness and tension until it is the big dramatic thing.
When the two men come to their final showdown and the barrier of dogma is breached, it is a triumphant moment for human dignity - and for Mr. Tracy and Mr. March.