20 Years On: “The Crucible”

Some films will always pack a punch. No matter how much time has passed the ability to feel various emotions, and not just for the characters, is a constant. The film was that well constructed that it will always be a welcome sight. Sometimes not just as an example of good or decent filmmaking, but as a way to remind you of what’s come before and how sometimes, it’s not something that should be repeated.

The Twentieth Century Fox film “The Crucible”, is still one incredibly emotional and compelling look at the truth and consequences of false accusations.

This drama stars Daniel Day-Lewis (“Lincoln”, “Nine”), Winona Ryder (“Stranger Things”, “Show Me a Hero”), Paul Scofield (“Quiz Show”, “A Mall for All Seasons”), Joan Allen (“The Family”, “Room”), Bruce Davison (“Ge a Job”, “Kingdom”), Rob Campbell (“Chicago Med”, “Winter’s Tale”), and Jeffrey Jones (“10.0 Earthquake”, “Hemingway & Gellhorn”).

The film was directed by Nicholas Hytner (“The Lady in the Van”, “The History Boys”) and written by Arthur Miller (“Everybody Wins”, “Death of a Salesman (1985)”). It is based on the play of the same name by Miller.

The film originally opened on Nov. 27, 1996. It would go on to be nominated for two Academy Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, and two BAFTA Awards, winning one among several nominations and a few wins.

Few films can affect me in the same way over and over again. This is one of them, but more importantly and amazingly, it may be the only film that consistently pisses me off more and more as the film progresses. How could it not? If you know the history behind this film, which isn’t specifically the history of the time the film’s events take place (although that’s a plus!), but more how this went from stage play to film, and what allowed for the play to exist in the first place, then you’re in pretty good shape. You understand completely how this film can piss me off so much. What makes it a bit more interesting isn’t that the source material is 63 years old, but that it’s still, by and large, incredibly relevant. This film turning 20 years old this year (two days ago) is just as important as it’s the most immediate way to see what Miller was thinking and how he chose to represent it all.

I mentioned relevant, but I wasn’t simply referring to a modern historical standpoint. I’m talking today. This year. This past U.S. Election cycle. The awful treatment of Muslims, refugees, and immigrants, is at an all time high, and no amount of reasoning will make any of it acceptable. In attacking these groups of people, mostly out of misplaced fear and other anxieties, all we’re doing is opening the door to a past that’s a huge stain on the history of this country. Most reasonable people understand this and wish to avoid a repeat. However, if this keeps up, and under a new president, who hasn’t yet proven he won’t be that type of president, or lead an administration that’s allowed to behave in any similar way to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and Joseph McCarthy, if not worse, then we’ll be right back to standing in line for our turn down that slippery slope, if we aren’t already.

With this film, there’s really three components that make it possible for it to be so memorable and emotional. Three that blend so well and work to balance all that’s going on. And there’s surprisingly a lot. That’s where a lot of the film’s (and really the play too, I’m sure) brilliance comes from. Miller wasn’t just telling a story about charges of witchcraft and the lengthy trials that took place, but a story on a different type of witch hunt, all while giving you as close to real characters as possible. It’s through this that you’re able to see clearly all that he was doing, but still have to work a little as he’s not holding your hand.

There’s the emotional level this film achieves which is not just for character’s and the events they endured or were killed during. It’s the emotional level achieved when watching this film. There seems to be this balance which allows for you to be emotional for the plight of various character’s one moment, and then outraged, annoyed or sad because of the film itself. Or in my case, pissed off. For one thing, I tried thinking about how this related to the real life events that inspired Miller in the first place. I came nowhere close, I’m sure, but it was a good way to access something beyond just general facts on this time. It also allowed for me to gauge myself. To see where I stood with all of these moral questions. Sometimes it’s not easy to figure out what you would do, but here you get plenty of opportunities.

While this emotional area was fascinating and somewhat strange to experience, I felt it leant itself to the rest of the film. The characters. There were just so many moments that never felt over dramatic or overdone. You got what you needed and reacted accordingly. And I’m not just talking about with Day-Lewis or Allen, but all of the other somewhat minor character’s whom you get to know a little about, but nowhere near the other two. One scene, which was quite effective, was when Allen is being arrested and shackled to the cart with other accused witches, including Mary Pat Gleason’s Martha Corey. There’s so much shock and disbelief on top of the fact that they’re watching Allen be taken from her children. That scene alone told me the types of relationships they all had with one another and why this whole hunt was out of control. Even now, thinking once more on this moment and many others, I’m in some of disbelief about it all. The power a film has can truly last a long time.

Allowing you to spend so much time in this film and get so emotionally invested, were the excellently made costumes, sets, and props. Everything’s so authentic, that in a matter of minutes you’re there. You’re another member of that small town. Because it’s been some time since I last saw this film, I was genuinely surprised. Then, because it’s what I do, I just stared at everything, but not in that obnoxious and obsessive way that could easily take me out of the film. More like that new neighbor who’s taking in their neighbor’s house for the first time. One thing I did notice, which was confirmed when I watched the very limited special features, is that the entire town was built. That amazing detail and dedication to getting it right is incredible! While it’s not a new concept, it’s still refreshing to see and know. Somehow that little tidbit just made the film even more special. It certainly explains another reason I was able to get into this film’s time period and just go with what I saw.

But most of the above mentioned aspects of the film wouldn’t matter or be possible without the acting and well crafted characters. These character’s clearly represent an ideology, but also are well created that you can view them wholly as individual people. You can care for them. I referenced the scene where Allen is arrested as a strong emotional sequence, which it is, but it’s also one of the ways I found myself learning about these other character’s. Their actions said it all. Their shock, like at the end of the film, was all I needed to know. While I do love these character’s, even with little known, I’m not going to go so far and say these are the deepest of performances or characters, but there’s clearly plenty to latch on to. They all manage to move past the “good enough” level. There are multiple character arcs and depending on who it is, it’s more and more depressing to watch them suffer. Again, that’s one of the brilliant things Miller achieved here. He painted so many of them as noble and with integrity, but, in the end it didn’t matter. I must say, these stellar performances from all, definitely fueled my ability to be so emotional about this film, and find that even from a film standpoint, it’s one that should be seen from time to time. I don’t see it ever not being rewarding.

Film has been around for some time, and while it usually serves a good way to be entertained and challenged, it can also keep history on people’s minds. It can remind audiences of years gone by, horrible moments in history that should be learned from, or just those that have gone by seemingly unnoticed. There’s also the film’s that can entertain and make a larger point about a moment in the past, which seems pretty rare all on its own. This film sadly seems to be somewhat relevant, like the play once way, but that’s another aspect of its brilliance. It just happens to be accessible during any time. It’s a constant reminder, which hopefully it can one day go to just being and entertaining film.

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