Witness (1985 film)

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Witness
Witness movie.jpg
Original poster
Directed by Peter Weir
Produced by Edward S. Feldman
Screenplay by Earl W. Wallace
William Kelley
Story by William Kelley
Pamela Wallace
Earl W. Wallace
Starring Harrison Ford
Music by Maurice Jarre
Cinematography John Seale
Edited by Thom Noble
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date(s)
  • February 8, 1985 (1985-02-08)
Running time 112 minutes
Country United States
Language English, German
Budget $12 million
Box office $68,706,993 (US)[1]

Witness is a 1985 American thriller film directed by Peter Weir and starring Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis. The screenplay by William Kelley, Pamela Wallace, and Earl W. Wallace focuses on a detective protecting a young Amish boy who becomes a target after he witnesses a murder in Philadelphia.

The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two, for Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing. It was also nominated for seven BAFTA Awards, winning one for Maurice Jarre's score, and was also nominated for six Golden Globe Awards. William Kelley and Earl W. Wallace won the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Original Screenplay and the 1986 Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay presented by the Mystery Writers of America.

Plot[edit]

Rachel Lapp (McGillis), a young Amish widow, and her 8-year-old son Samuel (Haas) are traveling by train to visit Rachel's sister. Samuel is amazed by the sights in the outside world, but at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, he witnesses a murder. Detective John Book (Ford) is assigned to the case and he and his partner, Sergeant Elton Carter (Jennings), question Samuel. Samuel is unable to identify the perpetrator from mug shots or a police lineup, but notices a newspaper clipping with a picture of narcotics officer James McFee (Glover) and recognizes him as one of the killers. John remembers that McFee was previously responsible for a drug raid on expensive chemicals used to make amphetamines, but the evidence has mysteriously disappeared.

John confides his suspicions to his superior officer, Chief Paul Schaeffer (Sommer), who advises John to keep the case secret so they can work out how to move forward. While in a Parking Garage, John's ambushed by McFee and badly wounded before McFee escapes. Since only Schaeffer had been told, John realizes Schaeffer's also corrupt and warned McFee.

John calls Carter and orders him to remove the Lapp file from the records. He then hides his car and uses his sister's car to return Rachel and Samuel to Lancaster County. After the Lapps's safe arrival at home, John passes out in the vehicle in front of their farm.

Impressing upon them that hospitalization has records which will allow McFee and Schaeffer to find him and that the Lapps would be put in danger, Rachel's father-in-law Eli (Rubes) reluctantly agrees to shelter John for the sake of his daughter-in-law and grandson, and Amish healers use traditional remedies on John. As John heals, he begins to develop feelings for Rachel. The Lapps' neighbor, Daniel Hochleitner (Godunov) had hoped to court her and this becomes a cause of friction. Later Rachel and John are caught dancing, and Eli takes her aside and warns that if she continues she could be shunned by the community, even though Rachel knows she's done nothing wrong.

John's relationship with the Amish community grows as they learn he is skilled at carpentry. He is invited to participate in a barn raising for a newly married couple and gains the respect of Hochleitner. However, several times throughout the day the attraction between John and Rachel is evident and causes concern for Eli and others, especially when she serves him first at the meal. That night, John comes upon Rachel as she bathes, and she stands half-naked before him, but he walks away.

The next morning John tells Rachel that if they had made love the night before he would have to stay or she would have to leave. John goes into town with Eli to use the phone. John's informed via a call from a payphone that Carter has been killed and he correctly figures out that it was Schaeffer and McFee, who intensify their efforts to find him and are joined by a third corrupt officer, "Fergie" Ferguson (MacInnes) who helped McFee commit the murder at the Station. They also find the search difficult due to the low technology life style of the Amish, as well as their aversion to government registration. In town, Hochleitner and the other Amish men are harassed by locals. Breaking with the Amish tradition of nonviolence, John retaliates. The fight is reported to the local police, and the news reaches Schaeffer.

Because of the publicity the fight has gotten, John knows he must leave. Rachel is informed by Eli who says that they all know it is the right thing to do. Rachel is upset at the news. When she is alone she removes her bonnet and goes to John. Rachel and John embrace.

The next day, the corrupt officers arrive at the Lapp farm and search for Book. John orders Samuel to run to the neighbors for safety and tricks Fergie into the corn silo and suffocates him under tons of corn. He retrieves Fergie's shotgun and kills McFee. Schaeffer then forces Rachel and Eli out of the house at gunpoint; Eli signals to Samuel (who had returned unseen) to ring the warning bell. Although Schaeffer forces John to surrender, the loud clanging summons other Amish. With so many witnesses, Schaeffer realizes he can't escape, and gives up. The Lapp farm is covered by the local police, who arrest Schaeffer.

As John prepares to leave, he says goodbye to Samuel, Rachel, and Eli in turn, who wish him well "out there among the English." Driving away, he passes Hochleitner and exchanges a wave of farewell.

Cast[edit]

Production[edit]

Producer Edward S. Feldman, who was in a "first-look" development deal with 20th Century Fox at the time, first received the screenplay for Witness in 1983. Originally entitled Called Home (which is the Amish term for death), it ran 182 pages long, the equivalent of three hours of screen time. The script, which had been circulating in Hollywood for several years, had been inspired by an episode of Gunsmoke William Kelley and Earl W. Wallace had written in the 1970s.[2]

Feldman liked the concept, but felt too much of the script was devoted to Amish traditions, diluting the thriller aspects of the story. He offered Kelley and Wallace $25,000 for a one-year option and one rewrite, and an additional $225,000 if the film actually was made. They submitted the revised screenplay in less than six weeks, and Feldman delivered it to Fox. Joe Wizan, the studio's head of production, rejected it with the statement that Fox didn't make "rural movies".[2]

Feldman sent the screenplay to Harrison Ford's agent Phil Gersh, who contacted the producer four days later and advised him his client was willing to commit to the film. Certain the attachment of a major star would change Wizan's mind, Feldman approached him once again, but Wizan insisted that as much as the studio liked Ford, they still weren't interested in making a "rural movie."[2]

Feldman sent the screenplay to numerous studios and was rejected by all of them, until Paramount Pictures finally expressed interest. Feldman's first choice of director was Peter Weir, but he was involved in pre-production work for The Mosquito Coast and passed on the project. John Badham dismissed it as "just another cop movie", and others Feldman approached either were committed to other projects or had no interest. Then, as financial backing for The Mosquito Coast fell through, Weir became free to direct Witness, which was his first American film. It was imperative filming start immediately, because a Directors Guild of America strike was looming on the horizon.[2]

The film was shot on location in Philadelphia and the city and towns of Intercourse, Lancaster, Strasburg and Parkesburg. Local Amish were willing to work as carpenters and electricians, but declined to appear on film, so many of the extras actually were Mennonites. Halfway through filming, the title was changed from Called Home to Witness at the behest of Paramount's marketing department, which felt the original title posed too much of a promotional challenge. Principal photography was completed three days before the scheduled DGA strike, which ultimately failed to materialize.[2]

There are a few times the dialect of the Pennsylvania Germans, popularly known as Pennsylvania Dutch, is heard in the film. In one scene, during construction of the new barn, a man says to John Book, "Du huschd hott gschofft. Sell waar guud!," which means "You worked hard. That was good!" But more often the Amish characters are heard speaking High German, the standard language of most German-speaking Europeans, which actually is used rarely by the Amish in particular, or Pennsylvania Germans in general.

Reception[edit]

Critical response [edit]

Witness was generally well received by critics and earned eight Academy Award nominations (including Weir's first and Ford's sole nomination to date).

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times rated the film four out of four stars, calling it "first of all, an electrifying and poignant love story. Then it is a movie about the choices we make in life and the choices that other people make for us. Only then is it a thriller—one that Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud to make." He concluded, "We have lately been getting so many pallid, bloodless little movies—mostly recycled teenage exploitation films made by ambitious young stylists without a thought in their heads—that Witness arrives like a fresh new day. 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."[3]

Vincent Canby of the New York Times said of the film, "It's not really awful, but it's not much fun. It's pretty to look at and it contains a number of good performances, but there is something exhausting about its neat balancing of opposing manners and values ... One might be made to care about all this if the direction by the talented Australian film maker, Peter Weir ... were less perfunctory and if the screenplay ... did not seem so strangely familiar. One follows Witness as if touring one's old hometown, guided by an outsider who refuses to believe that one knows the territory better than he does. There's not a character, an event or a plot twist that one hasn't anticipated long before its arrival, which gives one the feeling of waiting around for people who are always late."[4]

Variety said the film was "at times a gentle, affecting story of star-crossed lovers limited within the fascinating Amish community. Too often, however, this fragile romance is crushed by a thoroughly absurd shoot-em-up, like ketchup poured over a delicate Pennsylvania Dutch dinner."[5]

Time Out New York observed, "Powerful, assured, full of beautiful imagery and thankfully devoid of easy moralising, it also offers a performance of surprising skill and sensitivity from Ford."[6]

Halliwell's Film Guide described the film as "one of those lucky movies which works out well on all counts and shows that there are still craftsmen lurking in Hollywood."[7]

Radio Times called the film "partly a love story and partly a thriller, but mainly a study of cultural collision – it's as if the world of Dirty Harry had suddenly stumbled into a canvas by Brueghel." It added, "[I]t's Weir's delicacy of touch that impresses the most. He ably juggles the various elements of the story and makes the violence seem even more shocking when it's played out on the fields of Amish denial."[8]

The film was screened out of competition at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival.[9]

Controversy[edit]

The film was not well received by the Amish communities where it was filmed. A statement released by a law firm associated with the Amish claimed that their portrayal in the movie was not accurate. The National Committee For Amish Religious Freedom called for a boycott of the movie soon after its release, citing fears that these communities were being "overrun by tourists" as a result of the popularity of the movie, and worried that "the crowding, souvenir-hunting, photographing and trespassing on Amish farmsteads will increase." After the movie was completed, Pennsylvania governor Dick Thornburgh agreed not to promote Amish communities as future film sites. Interestingly, a similar concern was voiced within the movie itself, where Rachel tells a recovering John that tourists often consider her fellow Amish something to stare at, with some even being so rude as to trespass on their private property.[10]

Box office[edit]

The film opened in 876 theaters in the United States on February 8, 1985 and grossed $4,539,990 in its opening weekend, ranking No. 2 behind Beverly Hills Cop. It remained at No. 2 for the next three weeks and finally topped the charts in its fifth week of release. It eventually earned $68,706,993 in the United States.[1]

Awards and nominations [edit]

American Film Institute[edit]

Home media [edit]

The film was released on Region 1 DVD on June 29, 1999. It is in letterboxed (non-anamorphic) widescreen format with audio tracks in English and French. The sole bonus feature is an interview with director Peter Weir.

The film was released on Region 2 DVD on October 2, 2000. As with the Region 1 release, it is in letterboxed non-anamorphic widescreen format. The audio tracks are in English, French, German, Italian, Czech, Spanish, and Polish and subtitles in English, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Turkish, Danish, Hungarian, Dutch, Finnish, and Croatian. Bonus features include an interview with Weir and the original trailer.

A Special Collector's Edition was released on Region 1 DVD on August 23, 2005. It is now in anamorphic widescreen format with audio tracks in English and French and subtitles in English and Spanish. Bonus features include the five-part documentary Between Two Worlds: The Making of Witness (63 mins), a deleted scene, the original theatrical trailer, and three television ads. The Special Collector's Edition was released on Region 2 DVD on February 19, 2007, with different cover art and more extensive language and audio/subtitle options for European countries.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b "Witness". Box Office Mojo. Amazon.com. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Feldman, Edward S. (2005). Tell Me How You Love the Picture. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 180–190. ISBN 0-312-34801-0. 
  3. ^ Roger Ebert (February 8, 1985). "Witness". Chicago Sun-Times. 
  4. ^ New York Times review (subscription required)
  5. ^ "Witness". Variety. December 31, 1984. 
  6. ^ "Witness Review". Time Out New York. 
  7. ^ Halliwell's Film Guide, 13th edition – ISBN 0-00-638868-X.
  8. ^ John Ferguson. "Witness review". Radio Times. 
  9. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Witness". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved July 8, 2009. 
  10. ^ "Amish ask boycott of movie 'Witness'". Pittsburgh Press. February 16, 1985. Retrieved 2013-01-04. 

External links[edit]