Trevor Hogg continues his Peter Weir retrospective with a look at the director’s Academy Award-nominated US debut…
Directed by Peter Weir.
Starring Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis, Jan Rubes, Danny Glover, Lukas Haas, Viggo Mortensen and Angus MacInnes.
Internal Affairs Det. John Book’s perfectly defined world of right and wrong is turned dangerously upside down when a young Amish boy identifies a fellow police officer as the murderer of his undercover protégé.
What was originally conceived as an episode of Gunsmoke resulted in Harrison Ford’s only Oscar-nominated performance. And to make things even more interesting; the story revolves around a community of people who believe that modern conveniences are instruments of vanity – the Amish.
In his Hollywood film debut acclaimed Australian director Peter Weir teamed with an actor better known for flying spaceships, brandishing a bullwhip, and killing rogue androids than conveying a vast array of emotions. Their collaboration altered the public’s perception of Harrison Ford who was seamlessly able to shift through moments of drama, action, violence, romance, and humour.
Propelling the story forward in Witness is what screenwriting guru Syd Field refers to as the “contradiction of image”. The opening scene features wheat fields, farm houses, and Amish farmers creating the impression that we are visiting a time and place centuries since passed. That is until the tractor trailer appears behind the horse-drawn buggy along with the title 1984: Lancaster County.
The cultural gap is furthered emphasized when the recently widowed Rachel Lapp and her young son, Samuel, arrive in Philadelphia on a train stopover. The plain Amish attire of Rachel and Samuel glaringly clashes with the opulent grandeur of their newfound surroundings.
While in the train station bathroom Samuel witnesses a murder and is subsequently questioned by Internal Affairs Det. John Book. The victim turns out to be Book’s undercover protégé thereby placing the investigation in his jurisdiction.
Needless to say, the Lapps’ stopover becomes an extended stay as Samuel is a material witness to a homicide. When Rachel declares: “No, we don’t stay in hotels.” Book takes them to the home of his sister. This provides us with an opportunity to gather more insight into Book’s character, especially when he is indignant upon learning she has a lover staying over while her children are present.
The most dramatic scene occurs in the squad room when Book is distracted by a phone call. Samuel breaks free from him and decides to explore the strange environment, encountering a variety of characters, from criminals to police officers along the way. Samuel’s aimless path leads him to a glass trophy case. When he peers inside his big eyes become so wide that Book is drawn to him. Samuel points at a newspaper clipping with a picture of a much-lauded police division chief. The thunderstruck Book gently lowers the young boy’s finger.
The revelation of the murderer’s identity radically expands the movie’s theme of conflicting cultural differences to also include clashing moral codes. After informing his superior officer of the corruption breach, Book is shot in an underground parking garage by the identified killer. Book flees with the Lapps back to their farmland where he succumbs to his injuries only to have himself nurse back to health by Rachel.
“Basically, I perceived John Book as functioning in the Philadelphia police department as having all the impulses of an Amish man.” explained the film’s co-sceenwriter Earl Wallace to Fields in the latter’s book Selling a Screenplay. Wallace went on to add: “If you look at it that way, when he goes to the Amish it’s like he’s really come home; he doesn’t realize it, of course; everything’s strange, they milk cows, they don’t have phones or refrigerators but there’s something else there for him, something spiritual, an ethical environment he’s perfectly in tune with, even though it takes him a while to realize it.”
Book adjusts to the Amish lifestyle which pinnacles with him participating in a spectacular barn-raising. However, all is not well as the community threatens to shun Rachel due to her blossoming romance with the “Englishman”. As the antagonistic forces gather against them, Book realizes neither he nor Rachel will be able to survive in the other’s world.
The situation is finally settled when, upon learning of his partner’s death, Book recognizes that in order for justice to prevail he must return to Philadelphia. His crooked colleagues save Book the trip by paying him a visit, armed with shotguns. The violent ways of the “English” and the pacifist attitudes of the Amish reach a climatic confrontation when the whole community comes to Book’s aid.
“I always knew this should be a classic gunfighter love story.” stated Earl Wallace to Syd Field. “Picture Gary Cooper riding into a corrupt town, or Alan Ladd in Shane riding into a situation where everything’s going to hell, and he cleans up, but can’t stay. If you can make that work, that’s a good story.”
Academy Award members thought Witness was “a good story” too for the film was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture and went on to win Best Film Editing and Best Original Screenplay.
Peter Weir Blogathon
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.