Witness: Book in Hiding

8 YEAR OLD SAMUEL: SOLE WITNESS TO A MURDER. THREE KILLERS WHO’LL STOP AT NOTHING TO SILENCE HIM. ONE HONEST COP WHO’LL GIVE HIS LIFE TO SAVE HIM…

witnessThe original title of the screenplay was “Called Home” and it devoted a lot of time to Amish customs. Producer Edward S. Feldman still believed in the story and made a deal with the screenwriters who delivered a revised version in six weeks. Several studios took a look at it and said no, including Fox who didn’t fancy itself as making “rural movies”.

Eventually, Paramount agreed to do it and soon Feldman had two prominent names attached to it – Harrison Ford and director Peter Weir. Fox would end up wishing they knew how to make “rural movies”.

When Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis), a young Amish widow, and her 8-year-old son Samuel (Lukas Haas) go to Philadelphia to see Rachel’s sister, Samuel witnesses a murder in the railroad station. Detective John Book (Ford) is assigned the case and tries to make Samuel identify the murderer – which doesn’t happen until the boy sees a picture of narcotics detective James McFee (Danny Glover). After doing some further investigation, Book realizes that the boy’s information is reliable and informs a superior, Paul Schaeffer (Josef Sommer). It doesn’t take long for Book to get attacked by McFee, who’s supposed to be out of town, and he realizes after escaping the assassination attempt that Schaeffer must have told McFee…

Avoids some of Hollywood’s worst clichés
After impressing international audiences with Gallipoli (1981) and The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), Australian filmmaker Weir made his American debut with this thriller. What makes it special is not its action. It may be tense and exciting, no doubt about that. But the story of how a single cop learns that his colleagues are dirty and takes refuge somewhere with a boy who witnessed a murder, leading up to a climax where the bad guys finally find out where they are, would be OK at best if it didn’t have the Amish ingredients and if it didn’t have Weir’s skills.

At those times where the action dominates, the film delivers because of Weir’s direction, the performances and Thom Noble’s editing – and it should be added that the denouement avoids some of Hollywood’s worst clichés. But what makes the movie stand out then and now is its portrayal of Amish culture and how this deeply religious and rural way of life in Pennsylvania co-exists with the modern world, a secularized, urban culture. The film’s attitude is positive; Book may be attracted to the Lapp widow, but he also learns a thing or two about the good values of this community while he’s hiding among them. Cinematographer John Seale enjoys creating a beautiful landscape for the Amish that seems to belong to them, especially in a warm, almost spiritual barn-raising sequence.

Ford gives one of the best (and most endearing) performances of his career as the big-city cop who has to learn how to handle a cow’s teat; he’s ably assisted by McGillis in a somewhat underwritten part as the widow, and Haas who gives the titular role a lot of character and sweetness. Maurice Jarre’s electronic score is not terribly memorable on its own, but often adds pulses of tension.

There are negative things to say about the Amish culture, as every other religion. I wrote positively of how they are depicted here, but you might guess who are less impressed by the film – the Amish themselves. One reason is less interesting; the writers get a few details wrong. The other reason is more valid. There was a real fear of the film attracting more tourists to Amish country in Pennsylvania. The Amish should be left alone, but it’s interesting to see how Witness has become the defining portrait of them. 

Witness 1985-U.S. 112 min. Color. Produced by Edward S. Feldman. Directed by Peter Weir. Screenplay: Earl W. Wallace, William Kelley. Cinematography: John Seale. Music: Maurice Jarre. Editing: Thom Noble. Cast: Harrison Ford (John Book), Kelly McGillis (Rachel Lapp), Josef Sommer (Paul Schaeffer), Lukas Haas, Jan Rubes, Alexander Godunov… Danny Glover, Patti LuPone, Viggo Mortensen.

Trivia: Sylvester Stallone was allegedly considered for the lead. Mortensen’s first film.

Oscars: Best Original Screenplay, Film Editing. BAFTA: Best Score.

Last word: “The challenge was really to deal with the melodrama with as much grace and style as I could, but not drift too far from it. That’s where the producer and I were a good team. Ed Feldman is an old-time show-biz man, and when I started to become too Amish he would remind me that this was a Western we were making, and to get some more shotguns in there! But the visual look comes very much from Flemish and German paintings. A big Dutch exhibition called ‘Dutch Masters’ arrived in Philadelphia when we were on location, so we took the department heads down to see it. We were really sort of a funny group wandering about among those great paintings – and enjoying them.” (Weir, American Film)

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