Daniel-Day Lewis Wrestles With His Conscience in Arthur Miller’s Red Scare Allegory


Arthur Miller’s The Crucible has a unique place in American literature.  The play upon which this movie was based tells the story of one dark chapter in our national history (The Salem Witch Trials), using it as a commentary on another (McCarthyism); and yet the story remains perennially relevant.

Miller’s wrote The Crucible out of  frustration at those who chose to “name names” before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, particularly his friend, director Elia Kazan.  Kazan testified before the committee in 1952:  The Crucible was published in 1953.  It was, Miller later wrote, “motivated in some great part by the paralysis that had set in among many liberals who, despite their discomfort with the inquisitors’ violations of civil rights, were fearful, and with good reason, of being identified as covert Communists if they should protest too strongly.”

Arthur Miller wrote the screenplay of The Crucible when it was adapted for the screen 44 years after first being performed on stage.  It’s still very much his vision of both the world of Puritan New England and the Red Scare America in which Arthur lived as a young playwright.  The film opens with a scene not in the play, however, and one which complicates the motives of a number of characters.  A group of young Puritan girls scurry into the woods in the early morning hours to play at spell casting with the help of Tituba, a Barbadian slave.  Most of the girls want only to cast love spells, throwing offerings of plants into a steaming cauldron as they say the names of the boys whose hearts they want to win.  But one young woman, Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder) has a darker desire and a darker way to bring it to pass.  She brutally kills a chicken and smears her mouth with its blood after wishing for the death of Elizabeth Proctor, the wife of her former lover.

This seems a pretty earnest attempt at practicing witchcraft, and belies the notion that the girls were entirely pretending and that witchcraft is no threat to the community.  Skeptical moderns may scoff at the notion of witchcraft, but the Puritans lived in a world saturated with a sense of the supernatural.  What the girls do in the woods (discovered by the local clergy, Rev. Parris (Bruce Davison) lends credibility to all of the terror and consequences that follow.

After returning to the village two of the younger girls fall into catatonic states.  In the Puritan’s religious framework, looking for explanations often led in one of two directions – the will of God or the power of Satan.  It didn’t take long for some of the other girls to charge that they were being oppressed by witches and to start naming names.  The adults in the community were only too ready to accept this explanation and to call in the authorities.  Rev. Hale (Rob Campbell) comes to town toting stacks of book on the works of the devil.  He’s followed by Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth (Paul Scofield) who has the authority of the English crown to try and sentence the accused.  Soon it seems that the whole village is caught up in witch-fever.  It’s not simply outcasts and cranks who find themselves on trial, but upstanding citizens of Salem.  Only the testimony of the accused is believed, leading to a terrible catch-22.  For the accused, the only way to save themselves is to confess.  Those who insist on their innocence are found guilty anyway, and hanged.

Among those caught up in the hysteria are John and Elizabeth Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis and Joan Allen).  Abigail Williams was a domestic servant for the Proctors until she and John had an affair.  Although she was dismissed from the Proctor household and John has made clear his determination not to repeat this particular sin, it’s safe to say that Abigail is not over it.  She bears a grudge against Elizabeth and intends to win John back, even if it’s over Elizabeth’s dead body.

Humanity never seems to outgrow its need for someone to blame, to hold accountable for what’s gone wrong; someone to make the focus of our fear and anger.  Miller’s concern was not so much with the wild eyed accusers, either in Salem or during the Cold War.  Instead it was, as Miller said, “the paralysis that had set in among many liberals.”

It was an interesting experience to watch The Crucible a few months after seeing 2016’s The Witch, a horror movie set in the same historic and spiritual context.  Social pressures, oppressive beliefs systems, burgeoning adolescent sexuality – these were all present in The Witch, too.   But the spiritual oppression in The Witch was much more concrete, the historical world even more immersive.  The Crucible felt surprisingly modern by comparison.  The “bewitched” young girls swarm through the town at will, like a plague of shrieking locusts.  Did 17th century teenage girls really have that much freedom? Finding our way into the world of Salem may be impossible at this point, and the comparisons to McCarthyism are limited.   Religious fervor is a hell of a drug, and more than capable of creating its own kind of crowd psychology; evident in in rites as varied as Ghost Dances, Vodou ceremonies and Pentecostal revivals.

But the Salem in Arthur Miller’s screenplay is also a toxic brew of repressed sexuality, greed, envy, political ambition, and unvarnished vindictiveness.  Scapegoats serve many useful purposes, both personal and corporate.  In 17th century New England they might have been those who allegedly made pact with the devil, and in the 1950s  they were party members and fellow travelers.  But we shouldn’t feel that we’re beyond all that, as recent years have seen one group after another used as the convenient “others” from which we must be protected.  When a North Carolina man entered a Washington, D.C. pizzeria with a rifle this past December, looking for the satanic child sex ring he’d heard about on conspiracy news sites, was he any less gullible than the good folks of Salem?  When, in 2014, two 12 year old girls stabbed a classmate to appease a fictional character (Slender Man) were they any less dangerous than the girls of Salem spell-casting in the woods?

Humanity never seems to outgrow its need for someone to blame, to hold accountable for what’s gone wrong; someone to make the focus of our fear and anger.  Miller’s concern was not so much with the wild eyed accusers, either in Salem or during the Cold War.  Instead it was, as Miller said, “the paralysis that had set in among many liberals.”  The Proctors, who live outside the village, initially view the witch trials with concern and skepticism, but detachment.  They think their respectability will protect them and their friends.  That’s not how “witch hunts” work, of course.  Innocent are swept up in the current,  and the evidence required becomes flimsier and flimsier.  One neighbors’ suspicion is enough.  One 20 year old connection to the wrong political party.  One suspicious sounding middle name.

Winona Ryder is ill-suited for the role of Abigail Williams.   Her fury is believable enough, but she never seems other than a 20th century actress in period costume.  Her attempt at a period-appropriate New England accent is especially grating.  The rest of the cast of The Crucible fares better.  Scofield is magnificent as the judge.  He is charming, composed, utterly confident that what he is doing is good and right.  Rob Campbell’s Rev. Hale begins with the same confidence, but becomes increasingly disturbed by the scope of the trials and the number of people who are dying because they will not confess.  He ends his time in Salem a broken, but one might hope, a better man.  Allen and Day-Lewis both give the kind of fine performances that mark their careers.  John and Elizabeth Proctor’s marriage has been weighed down by his guilt and her distrust.  Nevertheless, they are good people and both behave with integrity under pressure.  Their reconciliation in the face of death is a beautiful scene, though even this subplot is complicated for modern viewers.  For all of John’s guilt, it is his wife who ends up begging for forgiveness for having created a “cold house” that (presumably) drove him to infidelity.  And as for Abigail, she is a teenager who was bedded by her older, married employer, and yet she is portrayed as pure villain. Hearing John and Judge Danforth try to establish whether or not Abigail is a “whore” is unsettling.  There’s some misogyny at work in Miller’s handling of the story, whether he intended it or not, though admittedly there was plenty of misogyny in 17th century Puritanism, as well.

Director Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George, The Object of My Affection) brings more sensationalism to the story than is necessary.  The camera swoop up and down like a bird of prey, faces are shot in close up from below as in a horror film, characters nearly foam at the mouth in fear and rage.  But the best scenes are the quieter but still ominous ones in which all-powerful interrogators seal the fate of innocents, on behalf of God himself.  It might be easier to spot dangerous mass hysteria if it was always this…well, hysterical.  But the dirty work of scapegoating is usually done by men with impressive titles, by duly appointed committees, by petty bureaucrats just carrying out instructions.  The real villains don’t foam at the mouth, they just sign orders.

I’m afraid there will never be a time when The Crucible is not relevant.  Today we are deeply divided in our politics and religion, more tribal than ever.  Walt Kelly was right when we he said that “we have met the enemy and he is us”, but it’s in human nature to resist that insight to the death (someone’s death – as long as it’s not our own).  We’ll always manage to find another enemy outside ourselves.  The Crucible is a valuable reminder that once the hanging or hearings or deportations start, no one is safe.

Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray release of The Crucible looks a bit faded to me.  How much of this is the use of an older master and how much is endemic to the film’s muted color schemes and cinematography, I’m unsure.  The sound quality is strong, which is a special treat in any film featuring Paul Scofield’s marvelous voice.  Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Nicholas Hytner and Arthur Miller; a making-of featurette, a 1996 conversation between Daniel Day-Lewis and Arthur Miller (some of the same footage appears in the featurette), and the movie’s original trailer.