THE CRUCIBLE (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 4 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Depiction of the Salem Witch Trials

Crucible poster

Directed by: Nicholas Hytner

Written by: Arthur Miller

(based on the play THE CRUCIBLE by Arthur Miller)

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, Joan Allen, Bruce Davison, Rob Campbell, Jeffrey Jones, Peter Vaughn, Karron Graves, Charlayne Woodard

Two years ago, I read THE CRUCIBLE in one of my college courses. I found it to be a fascinating look on the Salem Witch Trials and an equally interesting commentary on the McCarthyism era. It’s really surprising to me that this well-regarded classic has only been adapted into film format only twice. The first was a 1958 French film (ironic, seeing as the story is set in Salem). The second (and latest) movie is this Award-season hopeful that tanked at the box office and walked away with only two Academy Award nominations (neither of which were won). Luckily, a viewer can venture for something outside of mere entertainment. This same kind of person might appreciate a tough piece of art that is just as concerned about delivering a powerful message as it is telling an engaging story. In this case, the story being told is a fictionalized account of the Salem witch trials. The characters are based around very real people, but the play (and film adaptations) remain pieces of historical fiction.

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The film is set in 1692. A group of teenage girls in Salem, Massachusetts have gone dancing around a fire and committed some sort of ritual that might be perceived as black magic. Seeing as this is a Puritan community, dancing is forbidden and the possibility of conjuring spirits just makes matters worse. The girls in question begin to play on the townsfolk’s fear of Satan and accuse other residents of witchcraft, resulting in imprisonment (if they confess) or execution (if they refuse to confess). This is the kind of judicial logic we’re dealing with in this time period.

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John Proctor is a humble farmer who believes that God is good, but Salem would be a far better place if the citizens actually took his core teachings into their hearts. Abigail Williams, the leader of the accusers, had an affair with John and now seeks to get revenge on his wife. The court system is flawed and faith is deadly in this community. As more good people are suffering fates from the false accusations, John tries to find a way to beat the system and prove that Abigail is a vicious liar. The real question is how far he will go to see reason prevail and if it will prevail at all?

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THE CRUCIBLE is one of those rare movies that absolutely makes the viewer angrier and angrier as it goes along. It’s not that the film is awful (though it does have some problems I’ll address soon enough), but you feel for the dire situation that it’s presenting. The effect this film brought on me is nothing short of infuriating (much like the play itself). Arthur Miller was actually responsible for the screenplay and it helps that he’s adapting his own work here. Some scenes were added (at least, I think they were since I can’t remember some of these things going on in the play at all) and it seems that Miller was having a blast working in a bigger playground. A stage only has so much room for sets and actors, but THE CRUCIBLE plays out with plot points that are given sufficient time to develop.

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There in lies the rub of this film. At points, this movie doesn’t feel like a movie. Instead, it feels like a stage play. I mainly feel this came in the sets themselves. At points, the actors appear to be on a sound stage. We don’t see a rig or stage crew members in the background, but it has the same feeling nonetheless. The costumes are also a bit hokey and feel false. Again, it’s not like they look completely fake, but it’s the same effect I got from the set design.

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The running time also becomes an issue. Just because a play might run three hours long (given all the production work and time that you can execute the final product), doesn’t mean a film version should run even close to the same length. There are some portions of THE CRUCIBLE that could have been significantly shortened down or (in a couple of cases) taken out of the final cut completely. This might have made for a tighter running time. It’s a movie primarily full of talking heads, but what they’re talking about brings the real notable quality. The infuriating power that the story radiates (despite these technical problems) makes for a movie with an even more relevant point to make.

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All in all, you might dig this film adaptation if you’re a fan of the play itself. If you thought it was boring when you may have been forced to read it for school, then you might not like it nearly as much. Personally, I thought this 1996 film was stiff around the edges, but the material remains potent enough to make for a decent viewing. Fan of Miller’s work or interested in the Salem witch trials (albeit a fictionalized version of it), you will probably like THE CRUCIBLE. If you’re not a fan of the play and are being forced to watch this in class, then you probably won’t think too highly of it.

Grade: B-

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