Scopes Trial

emmyEmmy Award for Best Non-Fiction Speical Series  

10 days that Unexpectedly Changed America

On July 21, 1925, the eyes and ears of America turned to the tiny town of Dayton, Tennessee, where the presence of famed lawyers Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan transformed the trial of a 24-year-old high school teacher into a legal brawl over the role of science and religion in government – a debate that still rages today.


Kate Davis and David Heilbroner co-directed “Scopes: The Battle over America’s Soul” in 10 DAYS THAT UNEXPECTEDLY CHANGED AMERICA.


Only a few months earlier, at Bryan’s urging, the Tennessee legislature had passed the Butler Act, making it illegal for any state-funded school to teach that humans evolved from a “lower order of animals.” When the American Civil Liberties Union offered to defend any teacher willing to become a test case, Dayton’s civic leaders saw an opportunity to put their struggling town on the map. They found a willing defendant in first-year science teacher John T. Scopes.



The trial made front-page news around the country, and took place in a circus atmosphere with “monkey dolls” for sale on the courthouse lawn and “simian sodas” sold at the drugstore. But for the deeply religious Bryan (a three-time Democratic presidential candidate) and his longtime friend Darrow (a pugnacious big-city attorney and outspoken champion of personal freedom) the trial marked a crossroads in American public thought.




The proceedings took a number of dramatic turns, starting on day one when the presiding judge commenced the trial with a fundamentalist prayer, much to Darrow’s dismay. He later refused Darrow’s key witnesses, a panel of evolution experts, the chance to testify. Finally, the trial spun out of control when Darrow took the extraordinary step of calling Bryan to the stand in an effort to discredit his old friend and his anti-evolution crusade.

Award-winning filmmakers Kate Davis (Jockey, Southern Comfort) and David Heilbroner (Jockey, Pucker Up) combine archival footage, reenactments and interviews with historians to shine surprising new light on a fascinating story that has been told many times, perhaps most famously in director Stanley Kramer’s highly fictionalized 1960 feature Inherit the Wind.


“The debate between science and religion is still very much with us 80 years later, as we grapple with stem-cell research and teaching intelligent design,” said Davis and Heilbroner. “What we tried to do in this film is refute the myth that science won at the Scopes Trial. If anything, Scopes' conviction proved that organized religion could become an influential political force, one that persists to this day, stronger than ever.”