'The Crucible," written by Arthur Miller more than 40 years ago, is very much a drama of its time. Its story deals with the religious hysteria and literal witch hunting that swept an American town in the late 17th century. Its real subject is the political hysteria and figurative witch hunting that swept much of American society in the 1950s, when anti-Communist crusaders like Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities stalked the land.
It has taken a long time for "The Crucible" to reach the screen in a Hollywood adaptation, written by Miller himself and starring an impressive cast. The good news is that it turns out to be very much a drama of our time. The story is unchanged, but its theme relates surprisingly well to today's versions of the bias and scapegoating that Miller rightly deplores.
The movie begins with a burst of the outrageous: A group of young girls is having a wild party in the woods near Salem, the Massachusetts village where they live, complete with erotic dancing and fantasies about magic spells aimed at people they don't like. Caught in the act and hauled before the strict elders of their community, they blame the devil for their crimes. To strengthen their defense, they launch a smear campaign against various local women, accusing them of witchcraft and consorting with the forces of evil.
Their accusations grow more sweeping and strident by the day, causing alarm among ordinary citizens and even dismaying the authorities, well-meaning men who believe they are doing God's will by prosecuting the case. The plot thickens when we learn of an illicit connection between John Proctor, a farmer of good repute, and Abigail Williams, one of the young accusers who has a secret reason for attacking Proctor's wife.
Miller's main concern in 1953 was to cast light on American paranoia regarding Communism in general and Soviet influence in particular, especially as this gathered momentum through government hearings frequently designed to damage careers and ruin reputations.
For viewers familiar with the '50s era, the film adaptation carries the same cautionary interest. At the same time, its warnings about scapegoating and self-righteousness clearly apply to modern-day extremists who insist on the absolute correctness of their particular views.
"This is a precise time," says one character in the drama, adding that "we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God's grace, the good folk and the evil entirely separate!" This kind of self-willed certainty did not disappear with the 17th century, and "The Crucible" holds it up for scrutiny in a manner at once sad and salutary.
The movie has been solidly if unexcitingly directed by Nicholas Hytner, who scored a hit with "The Madness of King George" not long ago. Arthur Miller's son, Robert, produced the film. Heading the cast, Daniel Day-Lewis makes a sturdy John Proctor and Winona Ryder is impressively energetic as Abigail.
Paul Scofield brings dignity to the chief judge, Joan Allen is poignantly persuasive as Proctor's wife, and Bruce Davison plays a local clergyman with his usual skill. Credit also goes to Andrew Dunn for cinematography that takes maximum advantage of the rugged landscapes of Hog Island, a New England wildlife refuge.
'The Crucible' has a PG-13 rating. It contains lascivious behavior as well as violence and adult themes.