Dir. Nicholas Hytner
Starring: Daniel Day Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, Joan Allen
From the Blair Witch we progress to the tale of the Salem Witches. We arrive in Massachusetts as the first settlers did, scratching a living on an unforgiving shore. America was a new land, and these hardy souls were barely a toe-hold on the edge of a continent. But they brought many things with them – their religion, their sins and their superstition.
The settlement in question is Salem, Massachusetts, and the year is 1692. After dark the girls of the town gather in the woods. They ask Tituba (Charlayne Woodard), the Reverend Parris’s Barbadian slave, to cast folk spells to make the objects of their desires fall in love with them. But the Reverend (Bruce Davison) surprises them. In the shock two of the girls, including his own daughter, fall unconscious. Rumour gets around that it was the devil’s doing. One by one Tituba, Abigail and the other girls realise that the population want to blame everything on the devil. By confirming this belief, recanting their sins, and blaming others they can clear themselves of the guilt for their relatively minor wrongdoings. Whereas if they deny that the devil was involved they are seen as willing witches covering up his doings and must be punished. This gives the girls great power – they can name anyone in the community they wish. Abigail seizes upon the opportunity to name Elizabeth Proctor (Joan Allen) as a witch – she is in love with Elizabeth’s husband John (Daniel Day Lewis), with whom she had an affair. John is therefore keen to prove that these tales are lies and save his wife. However, he is in an irrational situation. Refusing to confess guilt is taken as a sign of guilt. Only the innocent who lie and claim guilt are safe; the innocent who refuse to lie are sentenced to hang. “If you do not know what a witch is, how do you know you are not one?”
Everything is hence topsy-turvy. It proceeds from a faulty premise – that there is witchery at work in Salem. Thereafter it is like a game of tag; once named a suspect has to pass on the blame to someone else. And so the mania spreads and the list of those arrested likewise spreads. John Proctor’s initial hope is to disprove that first premise, based on what Abigail told him. To do so he must condemn himself as an adulterer (“the crime of lechery”). Moreover, the authorities, as personified in Paul Scofield’s riveting performance as the steely Judge Danforth seem to be aware that there is a subjective element to all this. When Abigail later names Reverend Hale’s wife he sternly tells her “You are mistaken child. Understand me?” The forces of law are not willing to countenance some charges; at the same time they may be motivated themselves by fear of the girls. Abigail does essentially threaten him at one point: “Let you beware, Mr Danforth. Do you think yourself so mighty the Devil may not turn your wits?” Everyone is out to protect themselves, from Tituba, to Abigail, to Reverend Parris, to the judge himself. The Puttnams, while devastated by the loss of their children, are clearly also eager to use the opportunity to acquire the land of their neighbours – a fact dwelt upon more heavily by Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1957 film version produced in collaboration with Communist East Germany. The only ones who refuse to condemn others – such as John and Giles Corey (Peter Vaughan) – must, inevitably, according to this skewed logic, face death.
The story is based in truth. Or two truths. The Salem Witch Trials really did occur, though the events were amended for dramatic license. But another set of trials influences the script: Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. During the late 1940s and into the ‘50s public grillings were held to look for evidence of Communist agents or sympathisers in government, entertainment and other areas. Witnesses were often asked to name people they suspected of being Communists. Those who did – such as Elia Kazan, director of Splendor in the Grass and A Streetcar Named Desire) - were treated as ‘friendly witnesses’. Those who refused were blacklisted. Arthur Miller, writer of The Crucible, was called before HUAC himself in 1956 and convicted of ‘contempt of Congress’. McCarthy’s search for ‘Reds under the bed’ is now routinely classified as a ‘witch-hunt’. It was Miller who first made that parallel clear with his 1953 play of The Crucible.
The Crucible was hence initially a stage-play before it was a film. The provenance is impeccable however – Miller himself adapted his play for the screen and was nominated for an Oscar for his work. The transition from stage sets to film sets gives the film an added dimension. Whereas, say, Streetcar still looked like it was filmed on a stage set (albeit a large one), The Crucible suits the bleak marshes and mudflats of its cinematic setting. The cold grey sea and sky and the ever-present wind remind viewers that this is a harsh landscape where these settlers were only just able to subsist. And it was directed by a man well conversant with the stage: Nicholas Hytner, one-time director of London’s National Theatre (and old boy of the same school as yours truly). He was also responsible for the successful stage-to-screen transfers of Alan Bennett’s The Madness of King George and The History Boys. (He is best off sticking to theatrical adaptations however, as his next gig after The Crucible was the abject written-for-the-screen Jennifer Aniston vehicle The Object of My Affections). Some of the language does betray its stage origins. Perhaps not surprising – the events in question happened less than a century after Shakespeare was writing, and I’ve often thought it difficult to suspend disbelief entirely when watching Shakespeare simply due to the alienness of much of the language to a modern ear. Miller tried to use the cadences of the King James Bible to inform his characters’ speech patterns. The believability of the characters hence depends on how well they can breathe life into these phrases. Scofield is genuinely superb as Danforth – he commands ever scene he is in as the stern servant of the law with only flickers of humanity brought to the surface by Giles Corey’s self-taught lawyerisms. Most of the cast give a good account of themselves. Vaughan has some trouble translating his essentially comic character to the bleak tragedy presented, and Ryder is not wholly successful at wrapping her mouth around such awkward phrases as “I will bring with me a pointy reckoning that will shudder you… I have seen some reddish work done at night.”
But Ryder is generally good as the leader of her cabal of hysterical and impressionable girls. Daniel Day Lewis is Daniel Day Lewis – he did not bathe for the duration of filming and built the Proctors’ wood house himself to get in character. He must have impressed Arthur Miller with his portrayal as Miller later allowed him to marry his daughter Rebecca. There are some notable others amongst the cast that brought me up sharp. There is some exceptionally odd casting. Peter Vaughan, who played Corey, is most famous to British eyes as criminal kingpin Grouty in the sitcom Porridge. Thomas Puttnam is played by Jeffrey Jones, also known as Dean Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And it took me ages to place the distinctive gravelly voice of George Gaynes as Judge Sewell before I twigged that he had previously starred as the hapless Commandant Eric Lassard in the Police Academy series!
What have I learnt about Massachusetts?
Frankly, the first settlements here don’t look to have been a barrel of laughs. It was brought home to me as never before just how tough life would have been, with the ever-present wind coming off a steel gray ocean to sough through the marram grass on the mudflats. I got the impression that these colonies really were outposts stranded on the very edge of a vast continent, with one eye turned to sea. That sea was their highway, with ships sailing from Boston to Barbados as normal. Those settlers brought with them an idea of collective working as shown by their meeting hall; they also brought with them their Christianity and superstitions, and the local reverend would seem to be the most important person as a community leader. But because they were so intertwined and close to each other disputes would have to be resolved by outside parties. Land to be passed down through the generations was the only important thing. That, and one’s name.
Can we go there?
Yes – the film was shot as near as dammit on location. The town of Salem has now grown up and merged into the surrounding northern suburbs of Boston, but a similar location was found for shooting along the coast to the north-east – Choate Island in the estuary of the Essex River in Massachusetts. It is part of the Crane Wildlife Refuge, which explains its unspoiled state. There are a couple of colonial-era buildings within the refuge too, although they are 18th century rather than 17th – the Choate House on Choate Island and, intriguingly, the Proctor Barn on neighbouring Long Island. Some interiors were filmed in Beverly (home of Reverend Hale) at the Old United Shoe Factory (now the Cummings Center) on Elliott Street.
The genuine Salem itself has plenty to see and do to remember the real witch trials – particularly around Halloween. The town is home to the Salem Witch Museum, the Witch History Museum and the Witch Dungeon Museum.
Overall Rating: 2/5