Modern Classics: Witness

Witness (1985) Ė directed by Peter Weir. Written by William Kelley, Pamela Wallace, and Earl W. Wallace. Produced by Edward S. Feldman. Key Cast: Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis, Lukas Haas, Josef Sommer, Jan Rubes, Alexander Godunov, Danny Glover, Brent Jennings.

One could easily describe Witness as a story about a Philadelphia cop hiding out among the Amish to protect a young boy. The filmís advertisements largely sold it as a crime thriller. Both of these descriptions fall way short. Better to say that Witness is a clash both within and between two cultures. And add that itís also a tender love story with two conflicted adults and a boy that must grow up too soon.

In a DVD interview, Weir said that he did not develop Witness, but selected it from three ďgreen-lightedĒ scripts sent to him. Still, itís easy to see why Weir was drawn to this material. From Weirís first landmark film, Picnic at Hanging Rock, to The Year of Year of Living Dangerously, Weir had specialized in films about people in a serious struggle with their environment. He would continue this theme after Witness with films such as The Mosquito Coast (also with Harrison Ford), Dead Poets Society and the prescient satire The Truman Show.

Even though you would expect that a star such as Ford would be the audienceís entry point, Weir instead begins with Rachel Lapp (McGillis), a recently widowed Amish woman, and her young son Samuel (Haas). They travel to the train station in Philadelphia and plan to visit some relatives in Baltimore. In the train station, Weir shoots entirely from Samuelís vantage point as the boy explores. The station becomes a strange, exciting new world. We discover the people and sights with Samuel and quickly identify with him. So we are very frightened when he witnesses a murder in the station's menís room.

Even when Detective John Book (Ford) first appears, Weir initially keeps the story and the camera focused on Samuel. This focus culminates with a masterful sequence in a police station. John goes through countless mug shots with Samuel, hoping that one of them is the killer. No luck. Then John takes a phone call, while Samuel starts to wander. As he did in the train station scenes, Weir keeps the camera at Samuelís level as he floats from desk to desk. Some of the people he meets are friendly and some are scary. Either way, Samuel is disconnected from the ebb and flow of the other characters. Then a trophy case catches Samuelís eye. More specifically, itís a photo in the trophy case. John notices Samuel again, walks over and bends down next to him. The photo is of a police officer. Samuel points to it, wordlessly identifying the officer, Detective McFee (Glover) as the killer. John nods, while also pulling Samuelís hand back down. The case just grew much more complicated and dangerous. Itís only then that the story shifts to Johnís perspective. He tells his boss and mentor Schaeffer (Sommer) that McFee had committed murder as part of a drug ring operating from police storage. Hours later, McFee tries to kill him. Now wounded, John realizes that Schaeffer is part of the drug ring. He takes Rachel and Samuel and flees to their home in Amish country. John tries to leave, but is too hurt to continue and must hide out with Rachel, Samuel, and her father-in-law Eli.

The film changes from a crime story into a fish-out-of-water tale, as John tries to adjust to Amish life. Thereís some humor, but none of it at the expense of the Amish. Rather, the film plays with Fordís American everyman quality as he awkwardly tries to blend in with his new family. The love between Book and Rachel develops slowly, much of it through small gestures and glances.

Weir explained that he based the look of several scenes on 17thcentury Dutch paintings. These paintings often showed the bulk of the scene in low light, with a much brighter light coming in from the side. In Witness, this look evokes how both John and Rachel have been hurt: Book by betrayal and Rachel by her husbandís death. They are both slowly letting love and joy come into their hearts, albeit coming in somewhat sideways.

Slowly, rumors spread growing to the point where Eli warns Rachel that she might be shunned by the community. Of course Rachel is not the only one. Witness draws parallels between Johnís and Rachelís relations to their brethren. Schaeffer confronts Carter (Jennings), Johnís partner and the only cop who remains loyal to John. He states that the cops are like the Amish in that they have an internal code, and that John broke this code. Earlier, Rachel tells John that his sister told her that when John has a few beers he proclaims that his fellow cops donít know what theyíre doing. Together, those scenes illustrate one of the storyís lynchpins. John Book, in many ways, is just as out of place in the Philadelphia Police Department as he is with the Amish.

Weir films the Amish scenes lovingly, and has several beautiful scenes during magic hour. He stages another seminal scene, a barn raising, with respect bordering on awe and majesty. It also doesnít hurt that Ford drew on his real-life carpentry skills to show John pitching in and forming a bond with the community.

Of course the audience, and, in the end, the characters, knows that this bond cannot last. Eventually, Schaeffer and John must face off. But, unlike so many other films, this third act confrontation doesnít happen just because it has to happen. The screenplay brilliantly crafts a chain reaction, starting with Carterís death, which sets up the final act. Everything makes perfect sense.

The beauty of the final showdown is that itís not simply John triumphing over the bad guys. First, the sequence touches on a universal truth that children pay more attention to what adults do than what they say. When John sees Schaeffer and his men coming, he tells Samuel to run to the neighborsí farm. Samuel starts to do this, and then looks back. After all, John was not running away. Samuel goes back to his familyís house just in time to ring their bell to summon their friends. Itís the Lappís friends and neighbors arriving that saves the day. Schaeffer canít kill them all, and then he would be dealing with many witnesses, not just one. Greed and corruption are defeated not by force, but by the bonds of a close-knit community.

Witness does not work without stellar performances from the three leads. Going into the film, Ford was still best known for cocky adventurers such as Han Solo and Indiana Jones. Ford brings a grit and determination to John, but also shows vulnerability. Johnís strength comes less from sheer confidence and more from a stoic commitment to do what is right. Ford also adds an extra edge of anger and even desperation. He segued his skills into playing what Charlie Rose described as ďa just man in an unjust landĒ a persona he would inhabit again in films such as The Fugitive, Clear and Present Danger, and Air Force One. A modern day Errol Flynn became a modern day Gary Cooper.

Kelly McGillis and Lukas Haas had each only appeared in one film prior to Witness. McGillis reportedly spent much time in Amish communities doing background research, and it showed. We instantly accept her as an Amish woman. McGillis internalizes much of Rachel, who chooses her words very carefully, but shows so much going on underneath. Haas has an angelic face, but also imbues Samuel with a calmness and curiosity thatís key to the character.

Itís the strength of these actors, and Weirís faith in the audience, that make the final scenes so moving. After Schaeffer surrenders, Weir goes back to the Lappís vantage point, seeing John and the other cops through the window. Later, John and Samuel then sit together and we donít hear what they say until their final goodbyes. Then John approaches Rachel. Weir explained that this scene originally had two pages worth of dialogue where John and Rachel say how they feel. However Weir felt that if the movie had done its job up until then, the dialogue wouldnít be needed. He was right. Ford and McGillis convey more in their faces than any spoken words could. Weir had enough confidence that the audience could understand what these characters felt without the story having to spell it out for them. Thatís refreshing and all too rare.

As John gets into his car to leave for good, Eli yells to him, ďBe careful out there among the English!Ē When I first saw Witness, I laughed at that line. After all, itís virtually identical to what Eli told Rachel when she and Samuel left home at the beginning of the film. ďThe EnglishĒ is how Eli refers to outsiders, so him telling John that is a little funny. But thereís another take on the line. John does not fit in anywhere now. He couldnít stay with the Amish, but how will he fit in with his fellow cops? His partner is dead, and he just exposed other cops, including his boss. John stops the car to briefly say a few words to Daniel, a friend of Rachelís who is clearly interested in her. Rachel will likely end up with Daniel, or another Amish man. Hers and Samuelís path appears secure. Not so for John, who heads into an unknown and uncertain future as the credits roll. Like Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in The Searchers, John is a hero without a home.


Adam Spector
December 1, 2013


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