Remember when Harrison Ford used to make good movies? It’s scary to think that there is an entire generation that only knows him from forgettable fare like Morning Glory (2010) and Paranoia (2013). The 1980s and into the mid-1990s proved to be his most prolific period where, in between huge blockbuster franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, he successfully tackled challenging fare like Blade Runner (1982), Frantic (1988) and the two films he made with Peter Weir — Witness (1985) and The Mosquito Coast (1986). The former was a fascinating look at culture clash and a meditation on the cause and effect of violence.
Ford plays a gruff, Philadelphia homicide detective named John Book. He is investigating the murder of an undercover narcotics agent with a young Amish boy named Samuel (Lukas Haas) as the only witness. Book finds out that the man was killed by corrupt cops and is shot by one of them (Danny Glover) when he gets too close. Book takes the boy and his recently widowed mother, Rachel (Kelly McGillis), and flees the city, returning to their small Amish community. As Book is nursed back to health, he experiences first hand the simple, decent ways of the Amish people and how it is in stark contrast to his coarse, no-nonsense way of life.
Like many of his films, Weir creates a real sense of place by paying particular attention to the setting, which in this case is the Amish community in Pennsylvania. This is evident right from the opening credits, which feature a group of Amish emerging from a field of tall grass. He uses the opening credits sequence to not only give us a glimpse into their culture, but also to introduce us to Rachel and show her dealing with the loss of her husband. Right away, we are presented with a window into a world very few of us know much about.
Weir portrays the Amish with dignity and respect. They are a community that likes their privacy and live by modest means without the use of the modern technology that we take for granted. He opens the film with beautiful pastoral scenes of lush, green fields of tall grass gently swaying in the wind and then contrasts this serenity with the dirty, noisy and crowded city. The Amish scenes are leisurely paced, mirroring the laid-back vibe of these people while the Philly sequences are tense and jarring in their urgency; danger seemingly lurks around every corner and it is a relief once we leave there and return to the quiet, peaceful countryside.
Weir cleverly films the initial scenes in the city at low angles so that the camera is at eye level with Samuel. We are seeing the city through his eyes and therefore identify with him. Consequently, we also see the horror of the undercover agent’s death through his eyes. It is brutal and swift. We feel the boy’s fear and horror acutely. It’s not until we get to Amish country that Weir opens things up and shows everything from a more omniscient point-of-view.
In lesser hands, this fish out of water story could have exploited the Amish angle, but Weir avoids this by devoting significant screen-time depicting their customs and culture through Book’s eyes. This culminates in a fantastic sequence where the community comes together to help build a barn from scratch in a day. There is a wonderful sense of community and the simple joy of working with one’s hands, which results in a sense of accomplishment as everyone helps out, with the men raising the barn while the women provide food and refreshments for all to consume.
Harrison Ford has a natural, authoritative presence that suits the cop role he plays. The veteran actor brings the right amount of intensity and then has to turn it around once his character becomes immersed in the Amish community. He shows real warmth in his scenes with Kelly McGillis and Lukas Haas. There’s a nice scene early on where Book questions Samuel about what he saw and the interaction between the two characters is well-played as the gruff detective has to quickly gain the confidence of the frightened young boy. Over the course of the film, Rachel and Samuel humanize Book, especially when he goes back with them to their community. This also softens Ford’s sometimes gruff exterior, which he has relied on more and more in his later years. During the ‘80s, he had the choice of all the plum roles and took advantage of that clout by stretching himself as an actor, dabbling in several genres and working with auteurs like Ridley Scott, Weir and Mike Nichols. It’s a shame that into the late ‘90s and beyond the interesting roles either dried up or the commercial failure of some them caused Ford to retreat to safer material.
The mid to late ‘80s was a good time for Kelly McGillis with the one-two punch of Witness and Top Gun (1986), which launched her career into the stratosphere. At the time, she made Weir’s film McGillis was an unknown actress and brought a touching innocence to the role as a reserved, conservative Amish woman. The more time she spends with Book, the deeper the attraction between them grows. McGillis brings a warm earthiness to the role and does a nice job of conveying Rachel’s internal conflict – her growing attraction to Book and her beliefs that clash against his way of life. This causes friction between them early on, but soon they cannot deny the intense feelings they have for each other. Weir handles their growing attraction well; conveying it via the looks they exchange and this is typified most notably in the scene where Book serenades Rachel to “(What A) Wonderful World.” (It was Ford’s idea to use this song.) There’s a wonderfully loose vibe to this scene as we see the normally reserved Book cut loose and have fun with Rachel.
Weir gets a terrific, sensitive performance out of a young Lukas Haas who, with his big wide eyes, conveys not only the innocence of a little boy, but of an Amish person experiencing things like a train ride or a drink from a public water fountain for the first time. This wonderment changes to horror when Samuel witnesses a murder, which is brief, but brutal. The real fear comes when he hides from the killers and is almost caught. Weir cranks up the tension as Samuel comes close to being found. Haas makes his character’s fear almost tangible and you really get the feeling that his life is in grave danger.
Weir fashions the climactic showdown like a western with the bad guys arriving at dawn with an unarmed Book forced to use his wits and his surroundings to even the odds. As he did with the early act of violence, Weir ratchets up the tension to create the notion that Book is in real danger of getting killed and that his opponents are a serious threat even though we know it’s unlikely that a big-time movie star like Ford is going to get killed. He helps sells this vibe by expertly conveying the fear Book feels from three men he knows who have come to kill him.
Much like the romance in The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), the one in Witness is brief and intense due to extreme circumstances. Both Book and Rachel know that it can’t last because they come from very different worlds. Eventually, he has to return to his and she must stay in hers. The final scene between them is well done as Weir opts for no dialogue and instead relies on the meaningful looks they exchange, which says more than any words could. It’s an excellent choice that avoids a potentially cliché-ridden moment in favor of one that feels honest.
Producer Edward S. Feldman sent a screenplay entitled, Called Home (an Amish expression for death), which would later be changed to Witness, to Harrison Ford while he was filming Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Feldman envisioned someone like Gary Cooper playing John Book and felt that Ford had the same qualities. At the time, the actor did not want to be typecast as blockbuster action hero and was drawn to the story, but was only interested in doing it if the script could be reworked and “we could attract a really fine director.” Once he was on board, they began looking for a director and wanted someone outside of Hollywood that could bring a fresh perspective and avoid going for a “Dirty Harry Meets the Amish” approach.
Feldman offered the job to Peter Weir who, at the time, was coming off the commercial disappointment of The Year of Living Dangerously, and was trying to get The Mosquito Coast made. However, he was unable to secure financing and took the job directing Witness. The director was honest about his reasons for accepting the gig: “I took the assignment because I decided it was a good idea not just to make films which obsessed me. I wanted to be like those directors in the ‘40s who took assignments from their studios and got on with them.” Weir had concerns that Ford might not be able to convey the nuances of his character: “I was interested that Harrison wanted to extend his range. Then, it was a matter of whether we personally got on, which we did right off, because we had similar concerns for the film.” Ford and Weir reworked the script as the former initially found it to be “stupid, overly violent” and they placed an emphasis on the love story with the moral dilemma and the thriller aspect as secondary concerns.
When it came to casting the pivotal role of Rachel, Ford and Weir offered the part to Kelly McGillis who had her debut in Reuben, Reuben (1983), but whose film career had stalled and she was doing soap operas, movies-of-the-week and waitressing. To prepare for the role, she lived with an Amish family, but didn’t tell them she was an actress because they weren’t allowed to participate on the film due to their religious beliefs. She recorded conversations, which helped her perfect the dialect.
To prepare for his role, Ford rode along with actual Philadelphia cops on their night shifts and even hung out with them after work. The actor was surprised at how dangerous their job was because all he had known was what he’d seen in films and television. Once they had the script locked down, Weir recalled that Ford was open to improvising during filming. “Then it was like, ‘Let’s be loose about it. Let’s see what happens but not be uptight about it.’ So we’d ad-lib or invent scenes as we went along, knowing we had a solid structure to bounce off.”
To make sure that Amish culture was depicted accurately and respectfully, Weir hired John King, a former member of the Amish religion, as a technical adviser. To this end, no Amish people were used in the film and the production shot on location in Lancaster County using a Mennonite family farm. Trouble arouse when Temple University sociology professor John Hostetler, who came from an Amish family and wrote several books on them, complained to the Associated Press that the production was “a major intrusion into the Amish way of life.” He also claimed that the producers offered $200,000 for use of Amish farms in the film and that McGillis lived with an Amish family for several days and did not tell them she was researching for a role in a film. Not surprisingly, the production denied all of these allegations. Weir said that “on every film with a strong theme, you’re always going to find someone who comes out against the film.”
Witness was well-received by critics and audiences alike. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “It is a movie about adults, whose lives have dignity and whose choices matter to them. And it is also one hell of a thriller.” In her review for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote, “It must be said that Harrison Ford gives a fine, workmanlike performance, tempered with humor … he burrows into the role and gives it as much honesty as it can hold.” Finally, The New York Times’ Vincent Canby wrote, “The best things about the film are the actors who play in it. Mr. Ford is very attractive as John Book, a sort of toned-down urban Han Solo, and Miss McGillis, who was so special in Reuben, Reuben, is enchanting as the Amish widow.”
Life is regarded highly by the Amish and in Witness. Violence is portrayed as a painful and ugly experience. It’s not even glamorized in the film’s climactic showdown between Book and the dirty cops. This viewpoint must have come as quite a shock to Ford’s fans that were used to the gory violence in Blade Runner and the high body count in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Ultimately, Witness is about a clash of cultures: Book’s violent world colliding with the peaceful world of the Amish. Can they co-exist? For Book, violence is a necessary part of his job but not for the Amish, which makes any kind of romance between him and Rachel doomed from the get-go. Witness still retains the quiet dignity and humanity that made it a powerful film so many years ago.
Beale, Lewis. “Lancaster County Debate: Will Amish Survive Harrison Ford, Witness.” Chicago Tribune. February 10, 1985.
Mann, Roderick. “Peter Weir Plays Witness to the Amish.” Los Angeles Times. January 27, 1985.
Pfeiffer, Lee and Michael Lewis. The Films of Harrison Ford. Citadel. 2002.