The Crucible
directed by Nicholas Hytner
(Twentieth Century Fox, 1996)

In 1691, a gaggle of teen-age girls gave America its first and longest-running political metaphor: the witch hunt.

In 1953, Arthur Miller extended that metaphor into a political allegory in his prize-winning play The Crucible. Yet it only reached the big screen a year ago, courtesy of director Nicholas Hytner. Why it should have taken more than 40 years for Miller's play to get from the stage to film is beyond me. But personally, I'm just glad it's finally arrived.

The Crucible is set, appropriately enough, in colonial Massachusetts, where no noose is good noose, and the Puritans are quick to see the devil in all the ill that befalls them.

The right Rev. Parris is no exception. Parris, a widower, lives in Puritan Salem with his daughter (Rachael Bella) and his niece, Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder). The Puritans, textbooks tell us, were a group of religious separatists who make the Amish look like party animals.

One night Parris discovers Williams and his daughter dancing with some friends in the woods under a full moon. But this is no simple twist party: one of the girls is showing her own full moon, and one has drunk the blood of a chicken. After that, nothing goes right for the right reverend.

His daughter goes into a swoon, and his parishioners, many of whom were never quite sure the reverend was on the right side, demand an investigation. So Parris sends for the colony's most respected witch hunter, the right Rev. Hale (Rob Campbell).

Given the choice between being hanged as witches or hailed as converts, the girls quickly begin recalling incidents of supposed bewitchment, and -- in a move that would have made Sen. McCarthy's committee very happy -- naming names.

There is, of course, one person who could stop all of this, local farmer John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis). But Proctor is half a hero at best: For everyone knows of his adulterous affair with his former servant girl, the ever-lustful Ms. Williams. And in the end, it's Proctor who faces the ultimate test: Should he confess to witchcraft -- that is, lie to save his own life -- or should he take his honor to the grave.

Over the past 44 years, The Crucible has offered countless actors a chance to show their stuff on stage, and most of Hytner's cast rise to the occasion on the big screen. Joan Allen is superb as Proctor's much-tested wife, and Campbell does a nice turn as the witch hunter who begins, too late, to doubt the veracity of his witnesses. But no one can top Paul Scofield as Judge Danforth, the man who oversees the trial, and is thus called upon to exercise the power of life and death.

Only Day-Lewis seems to have trouble with his part. He is, perhaps, a little too handsome and a shade too untroubled to make a good Proctor. The role might have been in better hands with someone more complex -- a Sam Shepard, perhaps, or Scofield in his younger days.

Even so, The Crucible puts the "ven-" back into venerable and proves the big screen can convey ideas as well as car chases. It's courtroom drama that puts Perry Mason to shame, with a personal message for those who think it's OK to stand back and watch fires burn themselves out.

In a world in which history seems all too eager to repeat itself, I recommend watching it -- repeatedly.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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