By John H. Foote
12. THE CRUCIBLE (1996)
Twice I have had the pleasure of directing productions of Arthur Miller’s extraordinary play The Crucible, which might always be the most relevant work ever written. Both times were among the most exciting times I have building a play with two exceptional casts. Each time they were in, meaning they were with me, aware of the importance of what we were creating but never in self-important mode. I believe we honored Mr. Miller with our productions, capturing the essence of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and the madness of mass hysteria often found in modern times.
Forever timely, when first produced in the fifties, it spoke to the nightmare of McCarthyism, sweeping America with its guilt by accusation or association nightmare. Through the years such witch hunts have been common, and I was always perplexed as to why Hollywood had never made a film from the play? All the other post-war American dramas had been filmed, often more than once, but The Crucible had been made into a film only in France, and in French.
Fresh from his success on The Madness of King George (1994), Nicholas Hytner made known his interest in making a film from the play and got his wish when Fox came on board to make the film with him. Arthur Miller was hired to adapt his own screenplay (who better) and his son in law, the great Daniel Day-Lewis, took the lead role of John Proctor. Supporting him were Joan Allen as Elizabeth Proctor, Winona Ryder as the sexually charged Abigail, Paul Schofield as Judge Danforth, and in the key role of Reverend Hale, virtually unknown actor Rob Campbell. Oscar nominated actor Bruce Davison would portray the insidious Reverend Parris, blind to Abigail’s wicked ways, and Frances Conroy, a few years from fame on Six Feet Under, would portray one of the hysterical villagers.
Hytner chose to shoot the film, much of it, overlooking the sea, so the swirling, raging water captured the equal unrest in the village when the children are found to be dancing, forbidden, and Abigail claims to see the Devil. With a simple pointing of the finger and the accusation, innocent men and women, even children, were tried and hanged, because there was no way to plead against her! You were accused, the court believed Abigail and the girls, and your obvious defense was that you were innocent, which then you must prove. Only John Proctor knows why the girls are doing this, and only Proctor can break them and bring down their kangaroo court.
Because the Puritans of 1692 were a theocracy, the government and church were one, and had absolute power, a frightening thought today. The Bible was taken as literal, no room for interpretation, and these people believed in the Devil just as they believed, deeply in God.
Proctor holds a secret against Abigail that only he, Abigail and Elizabeth know. John and Abigail had a brief affair, sexual encounters forbidden by the church because John is a married man. Abigail wants John for her own, she desires Elizabeth dead, and all this is why she begins to say she can see people walking with the Devil. She even is so bold as to make a threat against Judge Danforth, who fails to see her lies and pretense. When the servant girl of the Proctors returns home to tell the family that Elizabeth has been mentioned in court, John interrogates Mary Warren (Karon Graves) making clear she must tell the court what is truly going on. She tries but falls apart when the girls are turned against her in the court room.
Taken into custody, Proctor vows to tell the court about he and Abigail which will break the court, and he does. But when Elizabeth is brought in to confirm his story, his lechery, she attempts to protect her husband and lies for him. They are both thrown in jail and Proctor now faces death unless he confesses. The only man who believes Proctor against the girls is young Reverend Hale, but no one listens to him given his age and the presence of the all-powerful Danforth.
Complete innocents are accused and hanged by the neck, until realizing the noose is closing in on her, Abigail steals her uncle’s money and flees Salem, knowing she is undone. Yet still the court proceeds with the executions! Knowing Abigail has lied, knowing the entire mess is predicated on lies and falsehoods, the court continues to execute.
When pushed into a corner to sign his name Proctor does so, but then snatches back the document when told it will hang in the town. Back and forth he and Danforth go until Proctor, when asked why it is important they not see his name, he roars from the deepest part of his soul, “Because it is my NAME! Because I can never have another in my life!” Realizing he is beaten no matter which way he goes, he decides to die in honor and tears the document in half, going to his death beside the absolutely innocent Goody Nurse, a near 90-year-old woman who has never done anything wrong in her life and served only the church and God.
Such a time of madness this must have been in 1692. Guilt by accusation, no possible way to prove your innocence, and terror lurking each day that the much-feared accusatory finger of Abigail land on you! My God, and then to be believed? Mass hysteria swept through Salem and is clearly documented in the court record from 1692 (which I have read) and it is not to be believed. One cannot think that truly learned men would take the word of a child rumored to be sexually active with a married man over that of good decent citizens, but that is exactly what took place.
Miller wrote the play after being jailed for contempt of court when called before the House of Un-American Activities (HUAA) in their sweeping hunt for communists during the fifties. Sitting at the side of rabid Senator Joseph McCarthy were the insidious lawyer Roy Cohn and Vice President Richard Nixon, the three men ruining careers with their accusations. Miller did indeed know men and women who had attended communist meetings, but he refused to say who they were because he knew, as everyone did, the government already had the names. They wanted more to ruin. Many fought back, many named names, Academy Award winning director Elia Kazan being among those who gave the government what they wanted, ending his long friendships with Marlon Brando and Arthur Miller. When the play opened on Broadway in 1953 it was immediately hailed a masterpiece of the American theatre and remains so all these years later. Among the most studied and performed play in American, is there anyone who does not know the story?
Hailed as the major release of the year for 20th Century Fox, the film was being touted as their major Oscar player. It earned the coveted cover of Entertainment Weekly’s annual Fall Movie Preview, and it was being said it could conceivably be nominated in every single category of the Oscars. Early reviews were positive raves, further stating the film was going to be very special. Then Daniel Day-Lewis finished second in the balloting for Best Actor at the voting of the New York Film Critics’ Awards. I saw the film with the press, interviewed Arthur Miller, then … waited, and waited. Nothing. The film was finally released in a couple of New York theatres, and three in Los Angeles, two in Toronto and a handful across the United States, extinguishing any heat the film had ramped up leading to the Academy Awards. I named the film among the best of the year in 1996, but it never found the audience it needed.
When the Academy Award nominations were announced, the film was nominated for just two – Best Supporting Actress for Joan Allen and Best Screenplay Adaptation for Miller. That was it. No more.
Daniel Day-Lewis gave a towering, thundering performance as John Proctor and absolutely deserved to be a Best Actor nominee. I have seen many John Proctors over the years, including Karl Martin in a version I directed, but Day-Lewis is the definitive Proctor in my mind. Conflicted, his pride holding him back, only when he gives them his name, and thereby sacrifices himself to the rope does he find peace, does he break the circle of the girls. It is a magnificent performance, stunning in its raw and visceral power, and superb in his portrayal of a man bewildered by what is happening in the village, as though he cannot quite believe it. How was this actor NOT nominated? Well to begin no one saw the film! The most highly touted film of the Awards Season and no one was seeing it. Shameful.
Further, a superb film version of possibly the greatest play of the 20th century and no one was seeing it.
Winona Ryder was bewitching as Abigail Williams, a sexual creature who has made love with Proctor and liked it very much, enough to want his wife dead and she in his place. They have lusted together knowing it was wrong, but she cares nothing for the sin, only wanting more. Her power grows, and her lust for power with it, as the fear grows in the village. A mere glance from her can wither a man, fearful of being accused of consorting with the devil making Abigail a woman to be feared.
Joan Allen as Elizabeth is superb, portraying a woman angry at her husband for cheating on her but also understanding why he did. She does not appear the sexual creature Abigail is and knows that about herself, taking some of the blame on herself for his cheating. “It was a cold I kept John” she tells him as they face death together, forgiving him for his actions if he can forgive her. Their love for one another is pure and strong, for even after John is hanged, we know Elizabeth will sing his glory and his strengths to everyone who listens.
Paul Schofield is superb as the Judge Danforth, also a Reverend as the village is governed by a theocracy. Very aware of the power he carries, he wants nothing more than to honest get to the bottom of “this swamp” he tells the villagers, but even he is not free of being accused by the girls. With that deep voice, sounding like God himself, Schofield gives a wonderful performance.
I did struggle with Rob Campbell, believing an actor of greater weight might have given the role the heft it needed. Though a man of God, he realizes the entire court is a sham and cannot believe his superiors cannot see through the girls, Abigail especially. How can they send a decent and good man like Proctor to his death? Or the luminous Goody Nurse? What is her crime but a life of goodness devoted to the church? A stronger actor would have given the role greater strength, someone like Edward Norton or Ralph Fiennes might have been a better choice.
Arthur Miller’s screenplay was virtually word for word, though he opened the play up to allow for exterior scenes to be shot in and around the village. This gave the story a less claustrophobic feel than the play, though we gain the sense that the girls’ behavior has become the stuff of gossip and news travels fast. When Abigail walks through the crowds, they part in front of her as Moses parted the Red Sea, and she loves every bit of the attention she is getting. The other girls, however, see how her power is becoming corrupt, how she is becoming more and more hungry for power, enjoying it all far too much. That is when mistakes get made, her first being an accusation threatened at Danforth. Miller had written All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, each remarkable works, Death of a Salesman especially, but to me this is his greatest work.
The cast was superbly directed by Hytner, who mastered the art of directing film here far better than his previous film. He seemed to have developed an appreciation for close ups and long shots for The Crucible and understood the value of film editing while shooting the film. He seemed to know the shots which would cut together more than he had on the first film he had made, and of course being from the theatre, he knew the play so well. Hytner was wise enough to allow the narrative to be carried by the actors, when you have a screenplay such as this, the smartest thing to do.
A Puritan village set was built for the film overlooking the sea, the turbulence of the ocean suggesting what was to come within the small village. A brilliant stroke for all.
In bringing this play to the screen Hytner has assured that it will be seen for generations to come and making it as fine as he did, ensure it will be forever immortal. Masterful.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.