Stanley Kramer, Rama Sethu and The Inheritors of Wind

September 25, 2007

A few weeks ago, I happened to watch two powerful Stanley Kramer courtroom dramas: Inherit the Wind and Judgment at Nuremberg (they now join my all time favorite in this genre - Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men). What drove me to write about these films are the Ram-Sethu issue and the subsequent spate of arguments on Desicritics.

Inherit the Wind is based on the famous Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee, where the legality of teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution of humans was questioned by Biblical fundamentalists. Both the film and the real trial were star-studded affairs (the irascible H L Mencken reported on the real trial).

To be fair, much of the credit for the film’s grand fireworks goes to writers Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee, on whose play the film is based. But lets give Stanley Kramer credit for those haunting close ups of the fundamentalist prosecutor-statesman Matthew Brady (Fredric March) on stage, shot from below, towering him in our eyes for the messianic sway he holds on the masses. It’s as though the camera were searching his face and inquiring, in an attempt to understand the ‘other’.

Equally memorable are the tense respect-disagree dynamic between Brady and the agnostic defense lawyer Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) captured on a quiet Tennessee night, the sweat oozing out of the film as a literal and metaphorical reminder of the heat in that state, and the theme song, “Gimme that ol’ time religion”, used to contrast the two forms of religion-the cacophonous public version sung by the village crowd versus the dulcet private version accompanying the last shot of Drummond.

Judgment At Nuremberg is a much more complex film. It is set in post-World War II Nuremberg, where judges were tried for the “justice” they meted out in the Third Reich.  As Hans Rolfe, the German defense lawyer, Maximillian Schell deservedly won the Oscar for his powerhouse portrayal of German indignation. Here, too, it is he and the Hitler-hating German judge Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) whose close-ups and monologues seek to understand the ‘other’.

During the trial, Rolfe points out how Churchill and American businesses flirted with Hitler before the war, and asks, “Are they not to be blamed?” And as Stanley Kramer’s alter ego, Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy, who else?) concedes when sentencing the judges, “There is some truth in this”. Haywood doesn’t condone Ernst Janning; in fact, he denies Janning redemption by pointing out that the latter had lost moral ground the very first time he sentenced an innocent man to a concentration camp. But what is remarkable about Haywood is that this doesn’t blind him to the finer side of Ernst Janning.

Stanley Kramer’s strength lies in this very quality: He takes an almost egalitarian view of human flaws, and yet maintains an empathetic, noble worldview. His moral compass is a sensitive one; its needle surveys the entire moral dial, but always settles at the right position. He is tolerant of contradiction, but not of dishonesty. (Mani Ratnam’s “Is he a thug or a genius?”, “I think both” in Guru is the Indian example I can recall). His morality is not the hasty judgment of the preacher; it is the calm, dispassionate analysis of the philosopher. His camera is always zooming in on the ‘other’, always inquiring. And his only fierce commitment is to the relentless pursuit of truth-that often unpalatable, usually messy and almost always imperfect ideal.

This commitment is what makes the best in science and art score over judgmental doctrine. With its blind, algorithmic opportunism, science mainly ends up being a dispassionate description of how the universe is, not a passionate prescription of how it ought to be. And the best writing is always peopled with gray characters, it always appeals to empathy rather than moralistic judgment, it is always more feely than preachy.  The Ramayana is such writing; reading it literally diminishes it. Those who do so have inherited nothing but wind.

A telecom engineer with an incorrigible itch to write.
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September 25, 2007
02:21 AM

Excellent analogies - You should do more comparisons of contemporary events and classic films.

September 25, 2007
03:07 AM

"The Ramayana is such writing; reading it literally diminishes it. Those who do so have inherited nothing but wind."

PH, I'm an atheist, but if you're going to diminish the faith of those who revere the Ramayana, why not apply the same standards to Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, etc?

You're trying to create a world of compartmentalized standards, whereby some ethnicities get more respect for their culture and traditions than others do. You're preaching for a world of double standards and apartheid.

If politicians are allowed to scoff at faith in the Ramayana by claiming it as superstition, why can't politicians be allowed to scoff at the Koran or the Bible in the same way? You don't see that same freedom of commentary being allowed towards other religions, because our overwhelmingly biased liberal media won't allow it. They don't feel any obligation towards even-handedness. If BJP takes a stand, the biased left-wing media rush to call it a 'fatwa', but if the racial DMK party were to make a similar announcement, you won't see the media apply the same 'fatwa' label. Hell, even if a Muslim group declares a fatwa on somebody, you won't see the liberal media call it a fatwa.

There are different standards being applied to different ethnic groups, and that is naturally causing heartburn. That type of asymmetry is NOT what secularism is about, and that's why such behavior is complained about as PSEUDO-SECULARISM.

A lot of barely-literate Third World left-wing activists have little idea of what secularism is, or how to practice it. They've simply been fed the word, and have seized upon it as a spearhead to target religions or ethnic groups they don't like.
Until we acknowledge the prevalence of this problem, we can't have an honest debate.

September 25, 2007
10:32 AM

Thanks for those encouraging words, I'll keep that in mind. And sadly, I may run out of classic films, but I'm sure we won't run out of contemporary events :)

September 25, 2007
11:14 AM

Thanks for your comments. You said,
if you're going to diminish the faith of those who revere the Ramayana,....... You're preaching for a world of double standards and apartheid

If you used "You" in the sense of "one" (as in "if one is doing xyz"), I can't find much to disagree with you. I hope you didn't mean that I was being selective, because I wasn't, period.

And reverence for the Ramayana is what I'm arguing for, not against. I said that those who read it literally diminish it, not those who revere it as an epic.

Hope that clarifies.

Man Singh
September 25, 2007
05:12 PM

PH you are comparing tow altogather different things.

Histority of ramayana is being investigated for long times. Historicity of Ramayana is being investigated for long time. The most negative and most positive interpretations has been written and published in India and abroad incldung some of the most derogatory as `Hindu samaj ke path bhrashtak Goswan=mi Tulsidas' by Sarita magazine of athiests of India.

But Hindus never reacted to any of such pursuits in spite of knowing pretty well that that all such attempts were mischevious.

You were suppose to compare up to this point and could have easy coparaed the attitude of christian fundamentalists and Hindus based on the reaction of two on intellectual pursuit of some prehistoric writings.

Humanity should appreciate the tolerance of Hindus of all favourable or unfavourable outcomes of limited scinetific investigations carried out on prehistoric lietrature of Hindus.

Raamsetu issue is altogather iddiferent. Here situation is as if a group of people is starting destroying statue of jesus christ based on some half cokked historical infromation that `Historically jesus never existed' and this statue of 2000 yr old is hindering our developmental project.

Films are fine Mr PH.
Articles are fine Mr PH.
Archeological reports based on limites research and evidence are fine.

But starting destroying the prehistorical heritage is ridiculous. Those who have read Ramayan know pretty well that it says that ramayana is ever existing katha. Even when Ram was born Ramayan was existing. becasue as per Vedic system of time calculation, Time is a circular variable not a straight line assumed to be by western system.

Vedic system says time repeats itself every 8.64 Million years ie one Kalp or manu.

Events of one kalpa are sometimes nararted even in second kalpa by trikaal darshi saints liek vedvyasa and Dharma is based on such ever existing set of principles.

It is difficult to gigest for our generation whose minds are trained in western system of `straight line time variation' vis a vis vedic system of `Circular form of time variation'.

Now which system is correct has to be decided yet. Scientifc understading is changing very fast and hence we should not be in hurry to destriy our pre historic heritage based on limited and ever changing assumptions of modern scinces.

More over we should compare apple with an apple and not apple with an orrange. Your article misses this point.

September 25, 2007
07:06 PM

PH, the current flare-up over Ramayana is the attempt to destroy a heritage site which is revered by the Hindus. If someone were to campaign for destruction of a Muslim site, they will be hearing the din over it for the rest of their lives. No politician can even dare to question the veracity of the Koran or the Bible. The Da Vinci Code and the Satanic Verses are banned from India.

So it's not credible to say "let's treat Hindu culture as abstract and thus allow its heritage sites to be destroyed" while at the same time allowing that "Islam and Christianity must be protected from criticism, and their holy sites must never be touched".

Hey, if you want to apply a certain standard, then apply it consistently, and not selectively. Ethnically selective liberalism isn't liberalism at all.

September 26, 2007
12:42 AM

thanks for the movie recommendations. i love 12 angry men.

September 26, 2007
11:08 AM

I appreciate your comments and thank you for the same.
I can't get into a debate about the Vedic time system for a couple of reasons. One, I'm ignorant about it. Two, web debates aren't the medium to really engage in such lengthy subjects.

But modern science (I'm not sure the label "Western" science is accurate-science, as our knowledge of the world, is not hemisphere based) does have some pretty reliable methods to date events-Sediments in rocks, Radiocarbon dating (based on C14's decay rate)Dendochronology (tree rings, used to calibrate Radiocarbon dates), genetics (Molecular clock, Bayesian methods, Principal Component Analysis, etc.)-none of which refer to local historical traditions, oral or written. They may be wrong of course, but the error is unlikely to be too great. In any case, until that happens, it makes sense to refer to these dates.

As for the 8.4 million clock cycle, modern science would be pretty hard pressed to agree.

Please do not take this personally, web debates tend to get noisy, and thts the other reason why this will be my last word on this:)

Best wishes.

September 26, 2007
11:19 AM

I'm not sure how to respond, because although I'm more on your side than not, I really can't seem to explain it well:))
For the record: I'm against a bans on books, movies in general. I did mention the Scopes trial and Biblical fundamentalists. It would've been gratuitous to bring in Mulsim equivalents in this article, but I've done so in others where applicable.

Whether the site should be destroyed or not, is another issue-one that I don't know much abt, to be honest.
My argument is more with the spirit in which one expects scientific bodies (ASI, in this case) to "lay off" from even making historical claims about heritage sites. This is much like the creationist lobbying, IMHO.


September 26, 2007
11:29 AM

Thanks, I'm glad I could point you to these. If u liked 12 Angry Men, you'll probably like these as well

Man Singh
September 26, 2007
03:07 PM


I have no reason to disagree with you other then three points:

1. Have any scinetist ever measured teh age of Rocks present in Ramsetu? have you ever seen that report of any such statememnt from any geologists(This is not area of archeology at all)

2. All age measuring techniques you have mentiones have level of error in million years at least.

3. Even if we do not have `modern' scientific evidence to verify a cultural heritage monument, should we destroy it even when other alternatives are available to carry out development work?

Religion and Science in India is never at confrontation opposite to Cristianity and Islam.

Vidhya and Avidhya both are said to be equally importamt in Ishopnishad(shloka 7 to 11).

A scientific mind is never pessimistic. who knows tomorrow scinetists will find `evidence' as they are finding new evidences day after day for new things.

Therefore it doesn'nt make sense to strat destroying cultural entities only becasue `we do not have evidence today'.

Moves , opposition views, critical analysis are fine. But strating destruction is altogather senseless and that's why every roght thinking Indian need to oppopse destruction of Raam Setu.

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