Film Review - Witness (1985)
'Witness' is a film made in 1985 by the great director Peter Weir. On the face of it, it's a straight forward story - a little boy is witness to a brutal murder, and a policeman has to protect him and his mother from the killers who are determined to silence him. To safeguard the witness and his mother, the cop decides to take them back to the security of their home community and whilst waiting for the inevitable showdown with the killers, he falls in love with the child's mother. Simple enough, except that the killers are fellow policemen, and the community to which the mother and child belong, are the devoutly religious Amish.
The resultant culture clash between policeman John Book and the Amish community, together with the film's sensitive acting, its stylish direction, and its music and cinematography, form the cornerstones of this review.
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This review includes indications as to the eventual outcome of the movie (notably the relationship between John Book and Rachel). These spoilers will include a warning.
All screenshots on this page are taken by the author from the movie 'Witness'
What’s the Story ?
Rachel Lapp is a recently widowed mother of a young son, Samuel, set to embark on a train journey to visit her sister in Baltimore. It may be a nice trip away from sad memories, but for Rachel, and particularly for her son, this is something more like a great adventure. They are members of the Amish community, the religious sect in Philadelphia which shuns all modern conveniences and lives a lifestyle more akin to the 19th century than the 20th. So the train ride is full of new sights and experiences for wide-eyed Samuel. And when the train stops at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia and Rachel and Samuel face a long wait for their connection to Baltimore, the boy wanders off to explore the station, the people, and all the busy to-ings and fro-ings of commuter life, which he has never seen before. And then he sees something else which he's never seen before. He sees a murder committed right in front of him, and he sees the face of one of the two killers.
Rachel and Samuel's adventure has suddenly turned into a nightmare. Samuel is a key witness to a violent crime, and it is up to John Book, a local law enforcement officer, and his colleague Elton Carter, to try to solve the case and figure out who the killers are. It doesn't take long. During a visit to police headquarters, Samuel is left alone for a short while to look around and a chance glance at a trophy cabinet reveals the frightening truth - the man he saw carrying out the brutal attack was a police officer named James McFee.
John Book confides in his superior Chief Paul Shaeffer - a mistake, because it very soon becomes clear that Shaeffer himself is also implicated in the crime. Corruption is reaching high places and apart from Carter, there is no one Book can trust in Philadelphia, and nowhere he can feel safe. Injured in a car park shoot out with McFee, he decides the only place to keep Rachel and Samuel safe is back in their own community among the Amish.
With that the story changes. Book drives Rachel and Samuel back to their home but blood loss from his injury means that Book is forced to stay there with them whilst he recovers from his wounds. He tries to integrate as much as he can into the Amish community, helping out with daily chores including cow milking and barn building. And to avoid arousing suspicion in the local village, he dresses in the style of the Amish. But as he recuperates, the tough city cop also begins to develop an affection for gentle Rachel, and Rachel sees in him an excitement and charisma which just doesn't exist in the staid and orthodox lifestyle of her community. They fall in love.
Despite the inherent good nature of the Amish, a tension between the big city cop and the devout people of the community develops. Rachel's family are disturbed by the relationship between her and Book. And this is a man who lives with a gun by his side, and the pacific Amish are more than a little worried by the trouble his presence in the community may bring, and indeed eventually does bring. Whilst Book and Rachel begin to consider whether there can possibly be a future for them together, the villains are getting closer. Eventually three crooked cops - Shaeffer, McFee and 'Fergie' - learn exactly where Book and Rachel and Samuel are, and in the early hours of one morning, they arrive with guns in the peaceful community and begin to walk towards the Lapp farmhouse ...
Main Cast and Characters
Elaine (John Book's sister)
Facts of the Film
DIRECTOR : Peter Weir
- William Kelley, Pamela Wallace, Earl W Wallace (story)
- William Kelley, Earl W Wallace (screenplay)
YEAR OF RELEASE : 1985
RUNNING TIME : 112 minutes
GENRE : Crime / Drama / Romance
GUIDANCE : Some violence and brief nudity
ACADEMY AWARDS :
- William Kelley, Pamela Wallace, Earl W Wallace (Best Writing / Screenplay)
- Thom Noble (Best Film Editing)
ACADEMY NOMINATIONS :
- Edward S Feldman (Best Picture)
- Peter Weir (Best Director)
- Harrison Ford (Best Actor)
- John Seale (Cinematography)
- Stan Jolley, John H Anderson (Art and Set Direction)
- Maurice Jarre (Music - Original Score)
Principal Characters and Performances
Harrison Ford was of course the big name star of 'Witness', top billing on the strength of his great successes as Han Solo ('Star Wars') and Indiana Jones. Although he had appeared in bit parts in many TV series and films, it was something of a departure from his most celebrated roles in Sci-Fi and Fantasy Adventure to star as ordinary cop John Book in a crime drama. But Ford's performance is full of star appeal, and is eminently watchable.
Casting of Kelly McGillis as Rachel Lapp was the most difficult among the lead actors - the difficulty was to find an actress who could be very alluring, and yet could also don a bonnet and look wholesome and not too worldly wise. Kelly had only starred in one cinema film before this.
The grandfather figure of Eli Lapp was played by Jan Rubes - a Toronto opera singer and actor who looks and sounds perfect for this role.
Lukas Haas was just nine years old when he starred in 'Witness', and the role is an endearing one. Samuel Lapp spends most of his time outside of the Amish community just walking around wide-eyed, which may not have required huge acting ability on Lukas's part, but it was exactly what was needed. Lukas did struggle by his own account with conveying the right amount of shock during the grusome murder scene. The child actor was spared seeing it enacted on set, but it took a very stern talking to by Peter Weir to make a now worried Lukas react in the way he might have had he really seen a murder.
The villains of the movie are played by Angus MacInnes as 'Fergie' and Danny Glover in an early film role as McFee. Their boss - and John Book's boss - is Chief Shaeffer, played by Josef Sommer. Sommer's character is interesting as he is a man who is to all appearances a respectable family man. But he has become corrupt.
Several of the actors were taking part in their first ever major cinema movie including a young Viggo Mortensson in a bit part as Moses Hochleitner, and notably Alexander Godunov as his older brother Daniel Hochleitner. Godunov was not a recognised actor, but a celebrated Russian ballet dancer who had defected to the West. Despite his lack of any true acting credential, Director Peter Weir felt that Godunov would be perfect for the character of Daniel. And the role of Daniel Hochleitner - although relatively small - was to become perhaps the most interesting portrayal in the film, and is featured in the next section.
It is clear that in the making of this film of Amish folk, the director regarded the ability to convey the right personality as being more important than the possession of a recognised wide acting range. In that, he was right.
Special Feature : A Look at the Complex Personality of Daniel Hochleitner
There's no doubt which is the most unusual role in this movie, a character quite rare in the world of cinema. It is the character of Daniel Hochleitner, as played by Alexander Godunov.
In 'Witness' Daniel Hochleitner is the Amish man who is presented as a love rival to John Book for Rachel's affections. Although he never says as much to Book, or to anyone else, it is clear that Daniel is somewhat besotted with Rachel. But therein lies the problem for the scriptwriters. In Hollywood movies the love rival to the hero is almost always either a villain, or a witless fool. But neither persona would be right for Daniel. Daniel is a good guy, peaceful, kind and considerate. And if Book cannot marry Rachel because of the seemingly irreconcilable differences in their cultures, then Daniel will be all she has left to spend her days with. So the balancing act which must be performed is to show Daniel as a man who remains decent, whilst resenting the presence in the community of John Book. It's a balancing act which the director, the scriptwriters, and to his credit, Alexander Godunov, get just right.
In the final scene of the movie Book is driving away from the farm. And down the road comes Daniel, symbolically replacing him at the Lapp's farmhouse. Daniel may not be the ideal exciting lover Rachel has begun to dream about, but perhaps with their shared Amish lifestyle, he is, after all, the right man to be her husband - a relationship which will work. One would like to think so.
Both Sylvester Stallone and Jack Nicholson were originally considered for the role of policeman John Book before Harrison Ford took the part.
A couple of references are made to John Book's skill as a carpenter. Harrison Ford was a carpenter before he became a film star, and it was carpentry jobs for George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola which first introduced him to these directors.
In one breakfast scene, Harrison Ford's character quips 'Honey, that's great coffee!' It's an allusion to a TV advertisement. But it's actually a real ad which Ford himself had auditioned for unsuccessfully in his early days as an actor.
In preparation for their roles, Harrison Ford spent time patrolling with the Philadelphia police, whilst Kelly McGillis lived with an Amish widow and her family to learn about their ways, including their manner of talking.
The Amish do not like being photographed, so no Amish were involved in the filmed sequences, although some of the extras were played by Mennonites - a similar but slightly more liberal-minded religious sect. Regrettably but perhaps unsurprisingly the Amish were critical of the film's portrayal of their community, and also feared that the film's popularity would lead to increased tourist intrusion into their way of life.
The choice of Sam Cook’s song 'Wonderful World' in the barn where John Book and Rachel Lapp dance, was Harrison Ford’s.
In the later barn building scene the framework of a barn really was put up in one day, albeit partly by crane.
The silo scene near the end was potentially quite dangerous. An oxygen cylinder was hidden under the corn, and the shot was ended at the moment when the actor could no longer hold his breath and reached for the mouthpiece of the gas cylinder.
As so often seems to happen, several major studios failed to see the potential of the script for 'Witness'. The most cited reason is that the storyline was 'too rural'.
'Witness' is laden with well crafted sequences of film - so many that it is diffcult to know what to include and what to leave out of this review. But two themes dominate - the contrast between Amish society and modern society, and the burgeoning romance between Rachel and John Book.
In one very early scene we see the Lapps’ little pony and trap sedately cantering along the highway to the railway station followed patiently by a long line of modern day traffic notably a huge truck - the contrasts between the technologies of the truck and the trap are obvious and striking.
Soon afterwards we see Rachel and Samuel at the train station and we watch Samuel as he wanders round trying to comprehend all he is seeing, finding a man who he thinks from his dress is a friendly Amish, but who turns out to be an orthodox Jew, and then heading to the toilets and a fateful meeting with the killers.The whole atmosphere, sights and sounds of the train station - busy with humans yet somehow cold and unfriendly to these two people from a different culture - are beautifully handled.
Many of the other early scenes show the misunderstandings between the Amish and modern society - some in the city are curious about the Amish, some are patronising, and some clearly just regard the Amish as a bit weird and are uncertain how to speak to them. And of course the reverse situation applies when John Book spends time in the Amish community; now he has become the outsider, uncomfortable and uncertain how to behave. And the Amish view him as an alien and strange presence.
The relationship between Book and Rachel is sensitively and subtly observed. There is a scene in which Rachel joins Book in the Lapp's barn whilst he works on repairing his car. The scene develops into a well choreographed little song and dance routine, which is really quite endearing to watch. The restrained affection of the two people involved has an authentic ring to it, as both try to adjust their natural behaviours to respect the limits of what the other will accept.
There are only three truly violent scenes in what may nominally be a crime thriller, but all are very well handled. The first is the brutal killing in the train station. The second is a brief, frantic gun fight between Book and McFee, and the third is the climactic 'shoot out'. It begins at dawn with three armed men parking up and then striding towards the tranquility of the Lapp's farmhouse, guns in hand. It has an aura of 'High Noon' about it, and is none the worse for that.
Special Feature : The Barn Building Scene
There is a seven minute scene in the middle of this film which is special. One day during his stay amongst the Amish, Book is asked to participate in the building of a barn - a scene which has been described by Harrison Ford as a ‘genius scene’. I must agree.
The whole community gathers in the field and the men set to work raising the framework and hammering it into place. the women provide copious drinks refreshment and prepare for a meal. And the stirring music of Maurice Jarre begins to play. And the whole scene builds as the barn builds. What's so good about it? Peter Weir talked about the wholesome appeal of seeing a community coming together to construct something, not for money but for social good. But there's much more to it than that; the sight of the huge framework being raised is immensely uplifting, the sight of fifty plus men clambering over the erected framework is strangely artistic, whilst children learning the skills of their fathers and the work of the womenfolk are carefully observed. And the interaction between John Book and Daniel Hochleitner is so subtle - a comradely working relationship, yet with a clear underlying suspicion on Daniel's part. And all played out to that music.
It's strange how even a trivial scene can be so impactful. There is no violence, no plot driven dialogue, and indeed little purpose other than to show the togetherness of the Amish community and John Book's increasing integration into it, and yet for the author of this review, the barn building scene is unmatched in any other movie. No doubt many will disagree, but surely all will admire the creative talent brought to bear on this sequence by so many of the production team.
For the author of this review there are few negatives in 'Witness', one of the finest crime/romantic dramas ever made.
Is the scene in which Book manhandles a potential culprit believable? American city cops may not be noted for their sensitivity, but would they really press the face of a suspected murderer up against a car window for a terrified nine year old child to identify? Perhaps not, but this scene does help to demonstrate the stark difference between the tough culture that Book knows, and the gentle culture of the Amish.
The final shoot-out is really creatively choreographed with some features unseen in any other movie (such as death by grains of corn?) For all that is it credible? How could the villains, walking into an Amish community loaded with guns, hope to get away with it? How could they have subsequently accounted for their activities? Best not to think too deeply about that.
Dialogue is not given a pre-eminent importance in this film; the director sets rather greater store by great characterisation and atmospheric cinematography. Nonetheless, the conversations notably between Book and Rachel, Book and Eli Lapp and between Book and Daniel Hochleitner, all serve to emphasise the great divide between the city cop and the Amish, and the strange relationship between the two leads.
There is plenty of sardonic humour from John Book as he experiences mild bemusement at the ways of the Amish.Typical is the comment when he passes time whilst recuperating in Rachel's home by reading a farming magazine. Rachel Lapp asks him if he's enjoying the read:
'Oh yeah - learning a lot about manure. Very interesting.'
Perhaps the key sentence is the one which Book utters in the morning after a stormy night in which he and Rachel stood staring at each other (she bare breasted) contemplating but not pursuing a physical realtionship. He says to Rachel:
'Rachel, if we'd made love last night, I'd have had to stay, or you'd have had to leave.'
At that moment both must realise that any long term future between them is doomed.
The final scene as Book leaves the Amish community, originally included several pages of dialogue as John Book and Rachel say their goodbyes. That dialogue was entirely cut from the film. One version says that the cut was forced by Harrison Ford becoming ill. But Peter Weir liked the absence of dialogue - he felt that by this stage of the movie, both had said and experienced all that was needed, and both were now aware of the futility of their relationship. John Book and Rachel Lapp knew how they felt, and so did the audience - words weren’t necessary.
What’s so Good About It?
Even though 'Witness' tells the story of a brutal murder witnessed by a young child, it should be clear after reading this review that the film is not primarily a crime thriller. Indeed the crime is really just a means by which two people from really disparate cultures can be brought together. Having been brought together, the film explores their differences in belief, personality and behaviour - and how these differences both attract and divide them.
Such a relationship could quite easily become cliché-ridden, or else it could become a vehicle for a comedy of musunderstandings (and indeed there is much dry humour in 'Witness'.) For it to work as a sincere and touching drama requires great skill, and that skill is evident throughout the creative and technical crew - well recognised with a clutch of Academy nominations for direction, screenplay, cinematography, film editing, set design, and music, as well as one for Harrison Ford as Best Actor.
Characters are well drawn, but the relationship of Book and Rachel Lapp is delicately portrayed. One can identify with both sides of the relationship, even though neither may have a lifestyle quite like our own. And the Amish community is portrayed in a sensitive manner. The film features some great set pieces including the brilliant barn building sequence, and Maurice Jarre's synthesised music score which compliments that scene, is just wonderful. It was Oscar nominated - it should have won.
Conclusions and Recommendations
'Witness' is certainly not a typical crime movie, and it's certainly not a typical romantic movie. The focus of this film, and the whole raison-etre for the relationship between John Book and Rachel Lapp, is to explore the clash of cultures. It is an extreme clash - not merely two nationalities or even two religions - but almost two eras of time. John Book is comfortable in the big city, irreverently coarse, unsentimental, happiest with a gun at his side. Rachel Lapp lives a lifestyle more akin to the 19th century than the 20th, simple, innocent, with little concept of what goes on outside of her community. Both get to sample the other's lifestyle, and see things they like and dislike. The way this is handled, makes this a rare film.
It is difficult to know exactly who this movie is aimed at (other than fans of Harrison Ford) but it should appeal to anyone who loves skilled film making, and authentic, sensitive portrayal of human beings in a setting which tests them to the extreme.
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