The Crucible (based on Arthur Miller’s book with the same title published in 1953) is a 1996 film directed by Nicholas Hytner starring Winona Ryder and Daniel Day Lewis. It’s a period drama documenting in a fictional way the witch hunt that took place at the end of the XVII century in Salem, Massachussets, in which dozens of people were arrested and about twenty of them were hanged for Satanism.
The first thing that struck me is that the eighty-year-old Miller himself edited the script based on the play he wrote more than forty years earlier. The second is the substantial investment in sets and costumes: an army of carpenters built dozens of wooden buildings to recreate the village of Salem of the late 1600s, and there’s an impressive number of extras dressed in beautiful and believable costumes with dirty and scruffy hairstyles (hygiene was not highly considered at that time).
But there are actually other things I liked about this film, especially given the metaphorical value of the text written by Miller during the 1950s when the US were going through a huge anti-Communist witch hunt (the so-called McCarthyism). The Hollywood blacklisted author was genuinely angry when he wrote the Salem accusers as a group of (literally) mad, bloodthirsty teenagers and he described the wrongfully accused as morally superior, they even refused to sign false confessions to avoid being hanged.
Then, the film is also historically accurate for the most part (not in all its aspects: the love story between Abigail, Winona Ryder, and John Proctor, Daniel Day Lewis, is fictional). Not only are the names of the characters those of the real inhabitants of Salem, but, more importantly, the film highlights the real reasons behind the witch hunt: envy, the desire to steal other people’s lands, jealousy… It’s scary to see how religious extremism was used to settle scores in the Puritan society of the time, especially because it’s so similar to what we see every day. We are always one step away from getting back to such extreme situations, whether it be 1950s’ McCarthyism or the hatred of immigrants which so popular among the supporters of current populist governments and politicians in many so-called developed nations.
However, The Crucible is far from a perfect movie. Winona Ryder and her female friends seemed to me a little too constructed and contrived to be credible (but perhaps this was the point: there was a desire for revenge in Salem, and they were a mere tool in the hands of more powerful people). They were even dancing naked in the forest on a freezing night like actual witches (and what was Reverend Parris, Bruce Davison, doing there, a digestive stroll?). Daniel Day Lewis is obviously good (apparently he never showered while making the movie to appear more credible), but he’s far too theatrical, while the others around him are not and the contrast feels really odd. Even the key scene of the film, his confession, is shouted and exaggerated when perhaps it would’ve worked even better if delivered in a more subtle way.
Finally, but I realize that this could be an unfair criticism, was there a need to reiterate the message of the movie in 1996? Maybe there was, because, as I wrote before, it seems to me that our societies are always on the verge of making again mistakes like this one, but I can’t help but think that the film would have been more powerful and relevant had it come out at the same time as the play on which it’s based, in 1953.
What else to say? Paul Scofield, in his last role before retirement, is a hateful and monolithic villain and probably represents what Miller thought of those who participated in the hunt for Communists in the US at that time, and the figure of John Hale (Rob Campbell) is interesting, even if I don’t understand who he’s supposed to represent: maybe some non-communist politician who didn’t approve the witch hunt?
In any case, The Crucible remains a period drama that needs some research on its genesis to be fully appreciated and to understand its real meaning (essentially because it was released 40 years after the facts to which it refers), it flopped at the box office, it certainly doesn’t offer the best Daniel Day Lewis interpretation, and despite the imposing sets and splendid costumes it doesn’t fully convince in terms of historical reconstruction due to certain characters’ choices. Ciao!