Witchfinder General

December 25, 2010

Thanks to the blogger at the tilting planet and his futile preoccupations for pointing me to this little low-budget gem, Witchfinder General from 1968.  It isn’t rated highly by most – Ken Russell, hearing that his film, The Devils (1971), was thought to be influenced by it supposedly said it was the worst he’d ever seen (from Wiki) – but I think it tells its story rather well.  It’s a small film, focusing on a few characters in 17th century rural England, no large historical tableaux, no battles, but it makes its point, and Oliver Cromwell shows his face.

Based on a novel that fictionalizes an historical character, Matthew Hopkins, it tells of his cynical and profitable work searching the countryside for suspected witches, and extracting confessions when he finds them.  They are tortured, hanged, and burned; Hopkins gets a hefty fee, and the local officials who request his assistance get a cut of the action too.  How much of this story is invented, I do not know, but it captures something about the nature of witch hunts, 17th century and contemporary.

Despite the fact that he’s doing the Lord’s work in the midst of the Puritan Revolution, Hopkins is a bit of dandy.  His undoing comes when he “tries” and executes the uncle of the attractive young lady shown at top who is betrothed to a gallant soldier in Cromwell’s army.  The young man vows vengeance, and achieves it, hacking away at Hopkins’ carcass with a hatchet, and crying “You have taken him from me!” when his fellow soldiers shoot Hopkins to end the bloody frenzy.

Before his end, however, Hopkins has a good run, and even invents, or claims to, a new way of burning the devil’s minions, by lowering them with ropes onto a burning pyre – we’ve seen that before…  He also takes the time to personally “interrogate,” in the privacy of his rooms, any comely maiden that is brought before him.

In the case of the soldier’s woman, she serves herself up to him, knowing that is the only way to have a chance of saving her uncle until her beloved returns from the war.  Her uncle is killed anyway, and she is ravished and raped.  The film ends with Hopkins’ death and her deliverance, but the soundtrack is of her horrified screaming.  Is there any true deliverance for her, after her ordeals?

Crucible – what makes a classic?

April 12, 2009


After reading John Demos’ new book, The Enemy Within, I finally went and read Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible. It tells the story of the rising hysteria leading to the Salem Witch Trials in Puritan Massachusetts.  First performed during the 1950s when the McCarthy Red Scare was in full swing, it’s relevance to the politics of the time was obvious and it gave American popular culture the term “witch hunt”, as in political witch hunt. The play is immensely powerful and disturbing.

Reading the play now, although I was fully aware of its political connotations, I read it as a comment on the endlessly recurring situation of group hysteria, trampling of rights, triumph of fear over reason and the toll in death and ruin it takes, the ease with which we humans loose our footing in civilization and slip into mental barbarism. Thus a classic – eternally relevant, solidly of its time and of ours, always.

The edition I had contained a vast amount of critical material, including many reviews of the day, positive and negative.  It’s strange reading them – so many are battles over the validity of the play’s critique of McCarthy and the HUAC.  The funny thing is that some of the reviews seem to imply that if Arthur Miller’s politics could be discredited, if the reviewer could demonstrate that there really was a threat from Communism, that there really were Communist spies among us (obviously, there were some) then the play’s message was invalidated.  Witch trials were just irrelevant!

…But they come back, over and over again.