Anyone who wants to understand why religion and science continue to clash so fiercely in American culture would do well to turn back the clock to 1925. That was the year a high school teacher named John Scopes was arrested for violating a Tennessee law forbidding the teaching of evolution. The story began in a New York office where the secretary of a struggling organization called the ACLU noticed a small headline. It announced new legislation in Tennessee banning the teaching of evolution in public schools. ACLU President Roger Baldwin believed the law violated a teacher's right of free speech. Responding to a newspaper ad, local citizens in Dayton, Tennessee volunteered one of their own teachers -- tall, shy John Scopes -- for a test case.
The trial was America's first major media event. One hundred and fifty reporters came to Dayton to report on the proceedings. At least two million words were dispatched via Western Union with eight telegraph operators tapping out 175,000 words a day. WGN radio of Chicago broadcast coverage of the trial on the first national radio hookup.
The national press, and in particular leading American journalist H.L. Mencken, lampooned the people of Dayton, calling them hicks and yokels. Outside the courtroom, a circus atmosphere prevailed. Chimpanzees shared the streets with fire-and-brimstone preachers.
The crowds didn't come to see Scopes or to hear the arguments of his ACLU attorneys. They came to witness a clash of titans, a fight to the finish between two of America's greatest orators, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. For thirty years Bryan had been a progressive force in the Democratic Party. He'd supported women's suffrage and the rights of farmers and laborers, and he believed passionately in majority rule. But on the question of the origins of man, Bryan proved to be a traditionalist, putting his faith in God. Opposing him was the most brilliant defense attorney in the U.S., the tall, grizzled Clarence Darrow. For years Darrow had been trying to engage Bryan in a debate over religion. Hearing that Bryan was coming to Dayton, Darrow volunteered his services -- without pay -- for the defense.
Monkey Trial is a film that pits scientific discovery against religious fervor. It's about a moment in history when two men faced each other across a courtroom, each trembling with rage, each attacking the faith of the other. The clash symbolized a new fault line in American culture -- a time when scientific advances began to challenge the bedrock of truth that the Bible represented to so many people.
Wounded by the media during the proceedings, the fundamentalist movement withdrew from the limelight after their conclusion. But far from destroying fundamentalism in America, the trial merely drove the movement underground. Some scholars even argue the media circus helped to seal off fundamentalist Christians from their secular neighbors, severing ties between forces that had previously worked together in American history.
Filmmaker Christine Lesiak (Around the World in 72 Days) weaves together interviews with leading historians, America's foremost scholars, and Dayton residents who sat in the courthouse, to vividly capture the passions that were unleashed for three weeks in July of 1925. In doing so, she begins to strip away the myths that obscure the meaning of one of the most important trials of the century.