Witness is an Example of Filmmaking at its Best
Witness stars Harrison Ford as John Book, a Philadelphia police detective protecting a young Amish boy, Samuel Lapp (Lukas Haas), the sole witness of the murder of an undercover cop. When it becomes clear his fellow officer James McFee (Danny Glover) and his lieutenant, Detective Schaeffer (Josef Sommer) are involved, John Book goes into hiding in an isolated Amish country to look after the boy and his widowed mother (Kelly McGillis), with whom he strikes up a dainty love affair.
A Bit of History
Witness began life as a pretty standard police thriller. It was written by screenwriters William Kelley and Pamela & Earl W. Wallace, two TV veterans with no major big-screen credits. The script made the rounds in Hollywood for years and was passed on by several studios, directors, and actors including Sylvester Stallone, Jack Nicholson, Richard Gere, and Clint Eastwood. It seemed nobody was interested in making a movie set in a Pennsylvania’s Amish community since it was a tough movie to market, and without any star power behind the film, they didn’t think it would sell. Luckily, Harrison Ford who was looking for an opportunity to try something different took notice and decided to sign up. All that was needed now was a director.
Producer Edward S. Feldman, who had a development deal with 20th Century Fox, was looking for someone he believed could direct both action and drama. His first choice was Peter Weir, one of the main figures of the Australian New Wave, and a man who had previously directed such films as the critically acclaimed Picnic at Hanging Rock; the renowned anti-war drama Gallipoli, and his visually striking and totally engrossing surrealist psychological thriller, The Last Wave. Weir was an excellent choice given his impressive resume and he was looking for a chance to bring his talents to Hollywood— the problem, however, was that he was already knee-deep in pre-production on The Mosquito Coast, and had to initially pass on the offer. Luckily for everyone involved, the production of The Mosquito Coast had been delayed due to financial difficulties and with the position still available, Weir decided to take Feldman up on the offer. The rest, as they say, is history.
Unlike his previous projects, on which he either wrote the screenplay or at best, wrote the story, Witness placed Weir in a rather peculiar spot since he joined the production after the screenplay was already finished. The script at the time featured a rather simple plot about a police detective who goes into hiding in order to protect a young boy after the child witnesses a murder perpetrated by corrupt cops. The premise was indeed intriguing but there wasn’t much else to it and so Weir looked for ways to punch up the script and take it in a more intellectual direction. He requested they re-write the script; make the detective the main character and not the widowed mother; and focus on the comparison of pacifism and violence, as seen through the eyes of the big-city cop. In doing so, Witness went from being a standard cop movie to blending elements of a crime thriller; a love story; an action film, and a fish-out-of-water tale— while also examining clashing cultures in a modern world.
It’s odd that a film that garnered so much praise and won so many awards is perhaps Peter Weir’s least talked about film, even amongst fans of his work. It was his first directorial foray outside of Australia; it brought Weir his first Oscar nomination for directing; it features arguably Harrison Ford’s best performance— and it’s a really good crime thriller.
In making Witness, Peter Weir insisted on focussing heavily on a love story between star-crossed lovers, providing the audience with more reason to care, not to mention adding an additional layer of suspense, so to speak: Would John and Rachel get together in the end? Would she betray her religion? Would she even survive? Witness sidesteps the usual tropes that have become commonplace in Hollywood dramas and Weir directs each scene with a remarkable level of restraint and patience. The romance between Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis is handled with subtlety and grace, and thanks to the excellent work from the two actors, their relationship feels absolutely genuine. It is truly amazing how Peter Weir is able to construct quiet and sometimes dialogue-free scenes to demonstrate the sexual attraction between the two. For example, when McGillis is shown topless; Peter Weir directs the scene so that there is no dialogue exchanged between the two actors yet Harrison Ford is able to display an array of emotions, from excitement to embarrassment to outright shame simply with his eyes, facial reactions, and physical mannerisms.
Harrison Ford and the Cast Truly Shine
Witness added a new edge to Harrison Ford’s persona and gave him an opportunity to try something new without wandering too far off the beaten path. The result is one of the most nuanced and competent performances of his career— some have even argued that Ford gives his best performance and it is so good, it earned him his only Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Instead of his usual laid-back approach, Ford communicates a lot through expressions and body language rather than dialogue. Of course, it helps him and Kelly McGillis share such great chemistry. Her Rachel is brave and capable and despite living most of her life in the Amish community, she overpowers the tough and rigid Harrison Ford in several scenes including when Ford reciprocates a gaze, at first through a mirror and then standing directly before a topless Rachel.
The rest of the cast is uniformly strong including Alexander Godunov, who stepped away from ballet long enough to make his feature debut; Canadian actor Jan Rubes as the strict but lovable Opa; Danny Glover who gives a compelling turn as a crooked cop; and finally, eight-year-old Lukas Haas who plays our inquisitive young witness and delivered a performance that shows his incredible range at such a young age.
The Dance Scene
In a classic moment of movie magic, Rachel goes to help Book who’s trying to fix his car; as he gets the engine working, the radio comes on, playing Greg Chapman’s cover of Sam Cooke’s “What a Wonderful World”. It’s the first time Rachel has heard pop music since such music is forbidden to the Amish, and so John takes advantage of the moment and leads her into a dance.
The dance scene works on a number of levels; for starters, it’s beautifully lit using only a couple of lanterns and the headlights of the car. More importantly, the scene serves as a significant transition in the romantic subplot, bringing them closer together while putting Rachel more at odds with her father who catches them in the act. It’s a beautifully written scene, superbly directed by a world-class director and features the absolute best shot in the entire film when Eli walks in and sees the couple standing in front of the car like deer caught in the headlights.
More Great Moments
The dance sequence is just one of many great scenes; in fact, the best moments all revolve around the excitement and danger of– wait for it— witnessing something for the first time. The murder itself is expertly directed because of how we see it from the point of view of a child and not just any child, but one who’s grown up in an entirely isolated and pacifist community. Even if we know the young boy won’t be caught by the criminals, Peter Weir still manages to add a touch of suspense as we watch Samuel out clever the perpetrators and avoid being seen.
In addition, Weir and his screenwriters wisely decided to make the Amish community, along with their traditions, customs, and way of life, an integral part of the movie. Because of this, many of the pivotal scenes tend to unfold in a quiet, steady pace. Peter Weir wasn’t interested in rushing the audience through the narrative; instead, he relied on the acting, the shot compositions, and the musical score to convey true emotion. I really can’t say enough about how well the director manages to slow things down, which is somewhat refreshing given how hectic and cluttered crime thrillers are nowadays. It helps the Amish community prides itself on living a simple life without the distractions of the modern world, but it also helps that Witness treats the Amish with respect and sympathy and prides itself on a realistic and respectful representation of their lifestyle. That’s no easy task when you’re trying to also make a big-budget crime thriller and have money-hungry studio execs to please.
Even during the movie’s mediocre stretches, Weir demonstrates his filmmaking talents. Take for instance the construction of the barn— a scene that highlights how the Amish community comes together to create something of beauty and how easily John Book has settled in with their lifestyle. It remains one of the film’s hallmark sequences and is often compared to the work of John Ford because of its masterful direction, gorgeous cinematography, and country setting.
It’s impressive how Peter Weir managed to make a Hollywood crime thriller advocating peace and harmony during the Regan-era when Cold War thrillers and over-the-top action heroes dominated the box office. This question of pacifism vs. violence becomes a key theme of the film, something of a rarity among American movies at the time— especially movies starring one of the biggest action heroes.
The climax which sees an unarmed Book go up against three of his ex-colleagues, all of whom are armed with shotguns, is another highlight since it features one of the most original and memorable onscreen deaths in the history of Hollywood. I’m, of course, referring to the corn silo sequence in which we witness John Book outsmart one of the three men as he chases him throughout the farm. If not for Samuel giving John on a tour of the farm earlier on and showing him the trap door and how things operate, John would not have the knowledge to survive those final moments. “What’s up there?” asks John Book. “Corn,” answers Samuel. In Witness, every action, and line of dialogue is used to help set up future scenes.
Witness ends with an unexpected decision to have the main villain simply give up, something I don’t ever recall seeing in any other movie. As the Amish villagers gather around and confront the corrupt cop, he lowers his weapon and chooses to avoid bloodshed. What makes this scene great is that the villagers don’t pose any threat since they are not armed. They simply stand there watching him, passively and peacefully forcing him to decide between right and wrong. Weir implies that sometimes violence isn’t needed to contend with violence; and more importantly, there is power in simply observing what is happening around you— thus explaining why the title of the film is Witness and not The Witness. In other words, the title is speaking directly to us, the viewers.
As much as I’d like to continue to praise the work of Peter Weir, I should set aside some time to discuss John Seale, best-known for his cinematography on such movies as The English Patient, Cold Mountain, and Mad Max: Fury Road. The opening, which focuses on Samuel making his first trip away from the Amish countryside of Pennsylvania to the big city, is wisely shot so that the camera is mostly placed at the boy’s height in order to enhance the grand proportions of the train station. If we are not seeing his point of view, we’re given other sorts of clever camera angles such as a birds-eye-view showing Samuel surrounded by hundreds of strangers swiftly passing him by in the station hall. Another moment sees the boy stop and stare at a statue of angels, with a low angle juxtaposed with a high angle to reflect the overwhelming feeling the boy is experiencing. And then there is the point of view of his mother who watches the world through his fresh gaze. Seale lights the entire film with supreme precision that there’s not a dull moment that goes by. Take for instance how he uses two very different styles of photography to capture a modern-day urban way of life and the 18th-century Amish lifestyle. The cold, busy, bustling and claustrophobic city streets of Philadelphia is characterized by an overall darker atmosphere that pervades not only the night-time sequences but also the interior sets; a clear contrast to the warm, open and peaceful life of the Pennsylvania countryside.
Witness became a huge hit, grossing just over 4.5 million in its opening weekend (in second place behind Beverly Hills Cop) and remained in second place at the box office for the next three weeks— eventually topping the charts in its fifth week (a rare accomplishment for any movie, ever). It eventually earned $68,706,993 in the United States and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning two, for Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing. It was also nominated for seven BAFTA Awards, winning one for Maurice Jarre’s incredible score, and was nominated for six Golden Globe Awards. William Kelley and Earl W. Wallace won the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Original Screenplay and the 1986 Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay presented by the Mystery Writers of America. After Witness, Weir would go on to have a successful career inside and outside of Hollywood, reteaming with Harrison Ford for The Mosquito Coast and directing several more critically acclaimed films such as Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, and Master and Commander.
For more on Witness, be sure to check out the latest episode of the Sordid Cinema Podcast embedded below.