Witness (1985)

Don’t Give This One Amish

Any public fascination with the Amish and their stark contrast with the modern, civilized world sadly translates more than often to the group being the butt of jokes in movies, sitcoms and oddly enough, many TV commercials (look it up). Regardless of how accurately Witness represents the Amish, it’s as serious and as comprehensibly researched as Hollywood has ever taken the subject matter (customs, language, dialect and all) – a human portrayal without any condescension. Witness is the story of an Amish community being forced to cooperate with the outside world after a young Amish boy is a material witness to a homicide. The expertly paced story neatly falls into the classic heroes’ journey, as police detective John Book (Harrison Ford) has to leave the world he knows to take refuge in the unfamiliar but eventually has to set things right in his world.

Witness was Harrison Ford’s opportunity to showcase his acting chops playing a contemporary, real-world character as John Book, the upstanding figure of morality in a world of police corruption. Ford projects much warmth with his interactions with the little Amish child Daniel (Lukas Haas), posing as a Freudian father figure, while Ford’s trademark dry wit never fails to amuse (“learning a lot about manure, very interesting”). Early in the film there is a scene in which Daniel mistakes a Rabbi for an Amish man, this is the reverse of a gag from another Harrison Ford movie, The Frisco Kid, in which Gene Wilder plays a Rabbi who mistakes an Amish man as being a fellow Rabbi. Kelly McGillis on other hand has that country girl look and conveys a sense of purity to the character of Rachael. The forbidden love she shares with Book builds up the sexual tension between the two, most memorably during the sequence as the pair dance by Book’s car to the song Wonderful World by Greg Chapman (I’ve never seen anyone drink lemonade more manly than Harrison Ford) – This repressed longing is far sexier than any sex scene could ever be.

Jew Ain’t Amish

The mid-1980’s was a period when real-world dramas featured futuristic, synth music scores. Maurice Jarre’s score for Witness wouldn’t feel out of place in Blade Runner but the odd combo of futuristic-sounding music over the rural landscapes of Pennsylvania is effective (likewise, that barn construction sequence may lack the dancing from Seven Brides For Seven Brothers but is no less splendid). It’s just ironic that this music is juxtaposed to a world in which modern technology is shunned.

One of the most interesting scenes in Witness is that in which an Amish elder speaks to Samuel about Book’s gun, tying in with the film’s broader theme of pacifism vs. conflict. In what could be seen as an anti-gun argument from the Amish perspective, the elder states “this gun of the hand is for the taking of human life” and that it is only for God to take life. Samuel however, who has witnessed a man being murdered, refutes this and states “I would only kill a bad man”. The film presents two sides of an issue without taking a side or being propagandistic, letting the viewer draw their own conclusion.