The Scarlet Letter (1995)




Director:  Roland Joffe

Cast:  Demi Moore (Hester Prynne), Gary Oldman (Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale), Robert Duvall (Roger Prynne/Robert Chillingworth), Lisa Jolliff-Andoh (Mituba), Edward Hardwicke (Gov. John Bellingham), Robert Prosky (Horace Stonehall), Roy Dotrice (Rev. Thomas Cheever), Joan Plowright (Harriet Hibbons), Malcolm Storry (Maj. Dunsmuir), James Bearden (Goodman Mortimer), Larissa Laskin (Goody Mortimer), Amy Wright (Goody Gotwick), George Aguilar (Johnny Sassamon), Tim Woodward (Brewster Stonehall), Joan Gregson (Elizabeth Cheever).

Film based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous American novel.  A tortured priest has a child with a woman and the Puritan community shuns the woman and forces here to wear a scarlet "A" on her dress for her sin of adultery.  She also has to raise her child alone.  The effect is muted by the happy ending.


Good movie.  This is set following the famous Thanksgiving dinner between the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony and the local native Americans under chief Massasoit for now Metacomet, the son of Massasoit, says that "my father should have let you die."  He adds: "Your people have murdered my father with their lies." 

The time is 1666.  The narrator is Pearl, the future daughter of Hester Prynne who has just arrived in the Colony.  Her husband Dr. Roger Prynne send her ahead to take charge of their new home.  Hester, however, is in for a real shock.  She has entered the land of the Puritans, the extreme moralists, who allow almost no freedom from overly strict rules and regulations.  Almost immediately upon her arrival, she is told that she has too much lace in her dress, for the Puritans dress in less fancy clothes.  The Puritans also don't like that she is without a male escort. 

Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale takes a likely to Heather and she to him.  But knowing the wrath of the Puritans, he tells here that he has already put her in too much danger; that he must go and never speak to her again.  And so they try to avoid each other.   

The Tarrantine Indians attack an English ship and massacre most of the men aboard.  The Reverend Dimmesdale finds a glove with the name "Dr. Roger Prynne" on it and assumes Dr. Prynne is among the massacred.  He tells Hester of the "good" news (Hester was given to Prynne mostly in payment for her father's debts to the doctor).  Hester wonders how long of an official grieving period she must follow, if no body is positively identified as that of Roger Prynne.  The answer is a whopping seven years.  (These Puritans are just too much for words.)

Meanwhile, Hester gets into more trouble.  She and the reverend have sexual intercourse.  She is then brought before the magistrates on the charge of heresy simply because she said  that perhaps those of faith can make their own religious rules.  It has also been reported that Hester has been seen vomiting in the mornings and the magistrates ask her straight out: "Are you pregnant?"  She admits that she is pregnant.  They demand that she tell them the name of the father of the child, but she refuses.  (The punishment for the father would be hanging.) She is arrested for the crime of adultery and fornication  (If Hester's husband should appear, then her punishment would be changed to hanging.)

It turns out that the Indians captured Roger Prynne and brought him to their village.  But it appears that the Puritan goes a little overboard when he participates in the Indian ceremonies, scaring his hosts.  They believe that he has a ghost in him and should be sent home.  When she is finally released from jail with her new born infant, Pearl, she is forced to wear the big scarlet letter "A".  Everywhere she goes in public, a drummer boy follows her beating a dirge.  Ever the plucky one, Hester says about the letter "it's not a badge of my shame, but your own." 

But this is not the end of Hester's problems, no.  Her unwanted husband (kicked out by the Indians) shows up to make problems for her.  And then she is condemned as a witch.  At this lowest of her low points, we'll leave Hester for the viewer to discover if she is completely ruined or just starting to fight. 

Quite a few New England intellectuals, such as Hawhtorne, spend a lot of ink writing in condemnation of the excesses of the Puritanical code.  They didn't actually kill the ethic because it is now the dominant value system in the United States, but they did seriously soften its harsher points.   (Today the United States is of two different cultures, one very Puritanical and the other non-Puritanical and the two groups are at each other's throats.)

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



 Historical Background:

"Massasoit" was born in Montaup, a Pokanoket village (at today's Warren and Bristol, Rhode Island). He led the allegiance of seven lesser Wampanoag sachems.

1620  --  settlement by the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. 

Two significant outbreaks of smallpox devastated the Wampanoag.

1621  --   Massasoit visited Plymouth.  He struck a treaty with the English guaranteeing their security in exchange for their alliance against the Narragansett.

1632  --  Massasoit fell ill from one of the many diseases brought by the English.  He recovered.

1639  --  birth of the second of the three sons of Massasoit was Pometecomet, Metacomet or Metacom (also known as "Philip"). 

1660 --  Massasoit's eldest son, Wansyttam, became sachem of the Pokanoket on the death of his father.

1662  --  after the death of Wamsutta, Metacomet succeeded him.

1675-1676  -- King Philip's War, the bloodiest war in American history relative to the size of the population.  Over 600 colonists and 3,000 Indians were killed 

1676 (August 12)  -- hunted by a group of rangers led by Captain Benjamin Church, Praying Indian John Alderman fatally shot Metacomet (Philip) on Mount Hope in Bristol, Rhode Island.  His head was mounted on a pike at the entrance to Fort Plymouth for over two decades. (His wife and eight year old son were captured and sold as slaves in Bermuda.)


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