By Marc S. Sanders
Recently, I viewed The Last Emperor and one issue I had was that it was challenging to comprehend the in-depth culture of the people it depicted. I really wanted to learn and pass the final exam with flying colors. Sadly, this was an AP class that I just wasn’t qualified for.
Now that I have watched Witness for the first time in many moons, I can honestly say there is an approach where you can get absorbed in a thrilling crime drama while also appreciating the core values of the community the film focuses on, namely the Amish who reside in the state of Pennsylvania. It’s a much easier film to learn from. That’s for sure.
Peter Weir directed Harrison Ford to his only Oscar nomination to date. Ford plays police officer John Book, opposite Kelly McGillis as Rachel Lapp, a widowed Amish mother traveling by train from home to visit family. At a layover stop in Philadelphia, her young son Samuel (Lukas Haas, in one of the best child performances I’ve ever seen, so bright, observant and wide eyed) witnesses a murder committed by a decorated narcotics police officer (Danny Glover). When Book gets wind of who the cop is, all three of their lives are in danger and they are forced to flee and hide back at the Lapps’ home among the Amish community. Book, however, has taken a gun shot wound following an attempt on his life. The Amish see no choice but to heal him, especially at Rachel’s insistence.
Weir, with a marvelous script by Earl & Pamela Wallace and William Kelley, shows the intersection of two extremely different ways of life where an “Englishman’s” belief in aggressive tactics conflicts with the peaceful nature of people looking to never get involved with any other culture. A romance may seem inevitable between the two leads but it’s a difficult one to embrace. It’s truly forbidden, not simply by the elder Amish and their respective code, but both Book and Rachel know it can’t happen either.
Because we are aware of this forbidden romance that seems to break through anyway, there’s a terrific dance scene at night lit only by headlights within the barn. Ford and McGillis really shine through in this scene as it is the first escape from the fear they have for their lives and the code they honor and are reluctant to violate. It’s the best scene in the whole film. It presents possibilities for different people to interact despite the barriers that prevent such feelings and actions. They laugh and swing naturally. It’s a different kind of moment for Harrison Ford, unconventional when compared to a large majority of the action film roles he’s widely recognized for.
With a biting soundtrack of suspense from Maurice Jarre, Peter Weir also focuses on the theme of intrusion. When the climactic and certainly expected shootout sequence on the farm is to begin, it’s frightening and disturbing to actually see men in suits holding shotguns amid an unarmed society. There’s a masterful shot at dawn of the three men marching down the hill quickly approaching the farm. These aren’t cops being covert. These are cops storming a palace of peace and tranquility. It’s hard to watch because of the stain it leaves.
Josef Sommer is the lead dirty cop and he plays a great villain, truly an uncelebrated bad guy character, as the years have gone on. He’s a decorated officer who comes off with an intent that looks like it’s noble, until nobility will no longer work and intimidation has to set in. Weir shoots Sommer at a lower angle to give him an imposing height.
Ford is terrific. You see some of the Han Solo vibe in the character. He’s a tough cop after all, but then he transitions into an awakened man healed by the more primitive methods of the Amish and their drive to simply build and nurture. Another good moment occurs when Book contributes to building a barn with the other men. He shares lemonade with them. Assists with lifting the framework and hammering along. Two communities are no longer clashing. They are now blending.
McGillis is also very good in her role. She is determined to honor her background, but questions if she is capable of sin and defends her position later.
Witness gives an in depth look into the daily life of the Amish, literally how they farm, build and dress. Book wakes up with them before sunrise to milk the cow and he experiences what they endure from pesky tourists looking for photo ops. It makes for some funny moments as well as an opportunity to cheer for the stand he eventually takes.
Another funny moment is when Ford dons the Amish attire for the first time; it doesn’t exactly compliment him well at first. Book’s adaptability to his new community is awkward to grasp.
Witness presents a bird’s eye view into a very private way of living, and I saw a very large picture.
Beyond that, it’s also a crackling, good thriller.