Written by Earl W. Wallace, Pamela Wallace, and William Kelley
Directed by Peter Weir
Peter Weir was in the middle of pre-production work on The Mosquito Coast when backing fell through. He’d return to the project, but Paramount offered him the director’s chair for a picture they had trouble courting someone for. Witness, based on an episode of Gunsmoke, had been circulating in Hollywood for years. It was 182 pages (about 3 hours in movie time) and was critiqued by some executives for focusing too much on the Amish lifestyle rather than the thriller elements. Harrison Ford had already shown interest, so Weir’s first American film was a bit of a gamble but certainly helped by his star’s prominence in the industry.
Rachel (Kelly McGillis) is mourning the death of her husband in Pennsylvania’s Amish country. She takes a trip with her son, Samuel (Lukas Haas), to visit her sister in another community, but stops in Philadelphia for a connecting train. Samuel goes to use the restroom and witnesses a murder of an undercover cop. He is unseen, hiding in the stalls. Detective John Book (Ford) is assigned to the case and learns from Samuel’s positive identification that the culprit is a narcotics officer, McFee (Danny Glover). A department conspiracy surrounding seized amphetamine ingredients leads Book to flee the city with Rachel and Samuel. Unfortunately, he’s shot in the process and has to hole up in their reclusive community while he heals. During this time, Book begins to find a sense of peace in how the Amish live and grows more attracted to Rachel.
This was the first film where Weir hadn’t been involved in scriptwriting. He would always have co-writers, but this was a screenplay where he hadn’t had a hand at all in penning it. Weir did provide notes when he was hired but found his suggestions weren’t fully understood. That led to him sitting down and doing his own rewrite, which garnered some pretty negative criticism from the other writers. They told Weir that he should be worried he was destroying the story’s integrity. Instead, his focus was on lessening the moments of violence and centering the picture on human moments of connection.
There were so many ways this film could have gone wrong and ended up a tacky mess. There’s the “cop on the run from his own people” story which might have been a bloodbath, but Weir restrains himself. The love story between Book and Rachel could easily have slid into smutty pulp, but once again, the director finds the perfect groove to place his film, so it never overindulges. Unlike his missteps in The Year of Living Dangerously, here, the foreign culture our protagonist finds himself in is explored and made an integral part of the story. Book’s connection with the Amish traditions and his understanding of the barriers between himself and Rachel is critical to what happens throughout the movie.
In terms of the sex presented in the movie, there were few restraints in Hollywood at the time, and Weir could have been very explicit. In an interview, he said he reimposed the Hays Code on himself with both sex and violence, a reference to the restrictive censorship done by Hollywood from the 1930s to the 1960s. His goal was to find inventive ways to communicate these actions without showing the audience. This paid off as one of the most memorable deaths is a man drowning in a corn silo as it fills with dry kernels. Weir claims he was walking over the property while planning and kept thinking of how he could show someone being killed in a “beautiful” way. The result is a pretty harrowing moment, a reminder that for all their plotting and planning, nature, as is often the case in a Weir film, is always a much more powerful force.
It should also be noted what a change this was for Harrison Ford. The role is unlike anything he’d ever had before, a trend that would continue with The Mosquito Coast. I can’t say I am a fan of Ford’s acting. I think as a personality in film he can be very charismatic. In many ways, he’s similar to Humphrey Bogart in that they both show a degree of excellent emotional performance, but they don’t really play characters. Instead, they both would play versions of their public persona. Han Solo and Indiana Jones aren’t too much of a stretch for Ford; they possess the same essential elements. Book isn’t what I would call a revelation, but it does push the actor to stretch his acting muscles more than he was at the time.
Witness stands out in American cinema of the period. In the 1980s, it was far more common to see retaliation and violence used as a means of problem-solving in almost everything. Weir strongly leans into the pacifism of the Amish and has these ideals imprint on Book rather than vice versa. The film manages to make being witness to acts a powerful position. The third act resolves as one of the dirty cops crumples to the ground, the Amish gathering around him, casting judgment with their gaze, forcing him to turn inward and realize how far he’s fallen. The message is in the power of seeing what happens, being present during a crime or an atrocity. Evil often prefers to go unnoticed, operating in the shadows, so to cast light on it and stare straight down into its soul can devastate it.