Jason Robards as Henry Drummond and Kirk Douglas as Matthew Brady. These two fine actors have big shoes to fill. If you’ve ever seen the excellent 1960 version of the famed Scopes Monkey trial you’ll know just what I mean. Let’s not go into a comparison here but instead focus on the actors and this made for TV effort.
Young idealist teacher Kyle Secor is on trial for teaching the theories put forth by Charles Darwin in the classroom. In a fast moving plot to fit into a TV time slot Kirk Douglas arrives in the small town to take the role of the prosecutor while at the same time defend the bible from those that would distort it and lead others to believe in the theory of evolution. He’s given a hero’s welcome to the sounds of the classic standby “Give Me That Old Time Religion.”
Douglas brings his wife with him. It’s none other than Jean Simmons. This reunites the two leads from the 1960 classic Spartacus where Kirk had the title role in what might be his greatest film opposite Jean playing the beautiful slave girl Varinia who captures his heart. This bit of trivia alone should be enough to convince anyone to tune in and give this film a look as their scenes do display a tenderness that recalls their memorable collaboration 28 years prior.
Quietly arriving in town with little fanfare is the lawyer for the defense, Jason Robards. At one time he and Douglas were close but the years have moved them in different directions and beliefs.
That much is evident when the jury selection begins and the sparring commences in the courtroom. While the two continue to bicker it’s Robards who seems to be doing it in jest and having a good time at the expense of Kirk’s close minded take on the theory of evolution.
Robards is soon to learn that he has few friends in town. Least of all the judge presiding over the case played by John Harkins. He’s a by the book/bible ruler who is giving Robards very little latitude throughout the proceedings.
At one point Robards tells his defendant Secor a story or perhaps parable might be a better word leading to the conclusion of “all shine and no substance.” This pretty much sums up both the character and the performance of Kirk Douglas. Perhaps a little harsh on Kirk as I assume that was an intention on his part in his playing of the bible thumping showman with the ego to match. Still it comes off as a bit over the top at times when he’s grand standing at the local church or in the court room. Once again Douglas the actor is playing a character that is hard to like as he did in his early days of stardom.
Robards gets the much more likable character who is cast in the light of good opposite Kirk’s more or less straight minded villain. Robards continually goads Douglas along in jest though he clearly has his eye on the prize during the film’s 95 minute running time. When Kirk clearly misuses a trust in the court proceedings even his wife Simmons stands in judgement against him.
Reporter Darren McGavin turns up here as well in a role originally played by another Hollywood icon in the ’60 version and he really doesn’t have much to do till the fadeout when he gets to chomp a bit opposite Robards on ethics and right and wrong. Personally I love when McGavin plays a reporter. It’s just that I prefer him to be playing one named Carl Kolchak in the cult series The Night Stalker.
Like many TV remakes of earlier films, the scripts and speaking parts are paired down leaving mainly the leading parts to do the acting. This version is no different and actually comes in 33 minutes shorter than the earlier version from noted film maker Stanley Kramer. A coles notes version if you please.
While Kirk has always been one of my favorite actors it’s Robards who calmly walks off with the better results in this made for TV production that has Peter Douglas credited as the film’s executive producer.