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The Crucible (1996)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

"Arthur Miller's timeless tale of truth on trial"

Arthur Miller's screenplay, based on his successful play of the same name, tells a tale derived from the Salem witch hunt of 1692. Though set in Salem, Massachusetts centuries ago, this film has tremendous relevance for our times. The rising influence of behavior not based on rationality in today's world makes the story of a people, whose belief in the “invisible world” dominates their lives, seem strangely familiar. Many themes in the story: infidelity, envy, vengeance, greed; unfortunately seem to reside in every human era, but other even more damaging flaws abound both in the world of the story as well as in today's world.

As the credits roll the movie begins with Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder) waking her younger cousin Betty Parris (Rachael Bella). They dress hurriedly, walk down stairs, leave their house and, meeting several other young women, leave their village. Running and laughing under the light of the full moon in the woods they come to an open area among the trees. Here they meet Tituba (Charlayne Woodard) a slave from Barbados. The girls and young women form a circle kneeling around a marked area containing a pot over a fire.

Each of the girls has brought something, which they toss in Tituba's pot as they each say male names. Last, while Mary Warren (Karron Graves) watches from outside the group, Abigail hands Tituba a cloth holding a chicken which Tituba swings by its legs around her head. She chants rhythmically in an unfamiliar tongue while the girls in the circle plead with her to cast spells to make those they named love them. Abigail comes to Tituba's side and whispers to her. Tituba replies, “No, Abby. That be a bad thing.”

Abby grabs the chicken and swinging it against the pot, kills it and rubs its blood on her face. The girls scream, though the act seems to affect them differently as some start to disrobe and others run wildly. At this point, the girls see the local minister, Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison) -- who has been approaching through the wood -- and erupt in chaos, most of them leaving the glade. Betty and Abigail don't leave as Betty, screaming, says she can't move. Reverend Parris investigates the pot's contents which startle him.

The next scene shows Betty back in bed, seemingly asleep, with Abigail and Tituba in the same room and Reverend Parris coming up the stairs to join them. He carries a rod and tells them to wake the child and come to his study. He seems to intend punishment with the rod. However, Betty will not wake up. Abigail goes through the street of the coastal Massachusetts village. Sent to the local doctor's house to fetch him, she finds he has already gone to the Putnam's house where their daughter has symptoms similar to Betty's. At the Putnam's the doctor confesses to never having seen symptoms like those of their daughter. Ann Putnam (Frances Conroy) says, “It's the devil isn't it. The devil has taken hold of them.” She yells to her husband Thomas (Jeffrey Jones).

Thomas Putnam, a wealthy merchant in Salem, argues with Rev. Parris. He favors a witchcraft explanation, the minister opposes the idea, saying he must pray. The doctor agrees. Rev. Parris returning to his house confronts Abigail about summoning spirits. She denies it, but Rev. Parris suspects there was more than dancing happening in the wood the prior evening. He asks Abigail about John Proctor, but Tituba interrupts calling Rev. Parris to see people downstairs.

The scene shifts to John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) using a scythe on his field. John's wife Elizabeth (Joan Allen) calls to him announcing visitors: Giles (Peter Vaughan) and Martha (Mary Pat Gleason) Corey. Giles tells John he must come to a meeting called by Rev. Parris. At the meeting Rev. Parris announces he has summoned Rev. John Hale to help with the situation surrounding the two girls.

After the announcement Abigail and the other girls leave the church. The girls go to Betty's room where she seems to sleep. Abigail tells Betty that she's told Rev. Parris everything. Betty opens her eyes and calls for her dead mother. She rises from the bed saying she will fly to her mother, but the other girls stop her from leaping out the window. Betty accuses Abigail of wanting to kill John Proctor's wife. In response, Abigail threatens all the girls with violent retribution should any of them say anything about the evening in the wood other than that they were dancing. When Betty screams again, those at the church service notice and come to the girl's room

Rebecca Nurse (Elizabeth Lawrence), one of the leaders of the more sensible faction among the church group, calms Betty. When the Putnams ask her to treat their daughter, Rebecca responds saying their daughter will stop when she tires of it. Both Rebecca and Abigail seem pleased to see John Proctor arrive at the minister's house. Rebecca suggests to the group sending Rev. Hale back when he arrives saying, “Let us rather blame ourselves than the devil.” Putnam disagrees and his wife seems to blame devilish activity for her loss of seven children. Proctor speaks reasonably about not ascribing such matters to otherworldly interference, and leaves.

While unhitching his horse Abigail comes to Proctor around the corner of the house. Proctor and Abigail approach and they talk of what has passed between them. Abigail kisses him, but Proctor rejects her. As Proctor makes to leave the area again Rev. John Hale (Rob Campbell) arrives. Proctor introduces himself to Hale and helps him carry his many books heavy with “authority.”

Rev. Hale examines both Betty and the Putnam's daughter. While at the Putnam's house he asks about any strange events. Rev. Parris tells of the dancing in the forest, which leads Rev. Hale to gather the girls together and question them. They accuse Tituba, who tells of Abigail's complicity. However, Abigail claims that Tituba makes her act in strange ways affecting her with Barbados songs. Rev. Parris beats Tituba until she confesses to compacting with the devil. Rev. Hale, in a supposed effort to save Tituba and bring her back to God, asks her if when she compacted with the devil, he brought other people along with him. The girls join in with Tituba in accusing others. The Deputy Governor, Judge Thomas Danforth (Paul Scofield), comes to handle the investigation.

That introduces the major players and sets the scene for the body of the film. With Judge Danforth's entry “the authority of the State” comes to Salem (as Arthur Miller puts it on the DVD's featurette). Before Danforth's arrival not much truly lasting harm has occurred. However, Danforth possesses interesting attitudes such as expressed by his statement: “A person is either with this court or against it. There be no road between. This is a new time ... a precise time.” That sounds quite familiar to me, almost prophetic, considering the movie was made in 1996. History does run in cycles and as Santayana put it: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” I hope that watching The Crucible may help in learning from history.   

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