Witness (1985 film)

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Witness movie.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byPeter Weir
Screenplay by
Story by
Produced byEdward S. Feldman
StarringHarrison Ford
CinematographyJohn Seale
Edited byThom Noble
Music byMaurice Jarre
Edward S. Feldman Productions
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • February 8, 1985 (1985-02-08) (United States)
Running time
112 minutes
CountryUnited States
  • English
  • German
Budget$12 million
Box office$68.7 million[1]

Witness is a 1985 American neo-noir[2] crime drama film directed by Peter Weir and starring Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis, and Lukas Haas. Jan Rubeš, Danny Glover, Josef Sommer, Alexander Godunov, Patti LuPone, and Viggo Mortensen appear in supporting roles. 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.

At the 58th Academy Awards the film earned eight nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Ford, winning Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing. It was also nominated for seven BAFTA Awards, winning one for Maurice Jarre's score, and 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.


In 1984, an Amish community outside Lancaster, Pennsylvania attends the funeral of Jacob Lapp, who leaves behind his young wife Rachel and eight-year-old son Samuel. Rachel and Samuel travel by train to visit Rachel's sister, which takes them into Philadelphia. While at 30th Street Station waiting for a connecting train to Baltimore, Maryland, Samuel goes into the men's room and witnesses the brutal murder of an undercover police officer, but manages to evade detection by hiding in the stalls.

Detective John Book is assigned to the case, and his partner Sergeant Elton Carter and he question Samuel. Although Samuel is unable to identify the perpetrator from mugshots or a line-up, he later sees a newspaper clipping in a trophy case of Philadelphia Police Department Narcotics Division Officer James McFee receiving an award and points him out to Book. Book investigates and finds out that McFee was previously responsible for a seizure of expensive chemicals used to make black-market amphetamines, but the evidence has now disappeared. Book surmises that McFee sold the chemicals to drug dealers, and that the murdered detective had been investigating the theft. Book expresses his suspicions to Chief of Police Paul Schaeffer, who advises Book to keep the case secret so they can work out how to proceed. Book is later ambushed and shot in a parking garage by McFee and left badly wounded. Since only Schaeffer knew of Book's suspicions, he realizes Schaeffer is also corrupt and tipped off McFee.

Knowing Samuel and Rachel are now in grave danger, Book orders his partner to remove all traces of the Lapps from his files, and he drives the boy and his mother back to their community, but his loss of blood causes him to pass out in front of their farm. Book insists that going to a hospital would allow the corrupt police officers to find him and put Samuel in danger. Rachel's father-in-law Eli reluctantly agrees to shelter him despite his distrust of the outsider.

Book slowly recovers in their care and begins to develop feelings for Rachel, who likewise is drawn to him. The Lapps' neighbor Daniel Hochleitner had hoped to court her, and this becomes a cause of friction. During his convalescence, Book dresses in Jacob Lapp's clothing to avoid drawing attention to himself. His relationship with the Amish community deepens as they learn he is skilled at carpentry and seems like a decent, hard-working man. After accepting an invitation to a barn raising for a newly married couple, Book gains Hochleitner's respect.

Book goes into town with Eli to use a payphone, where he learns that Carter has been killed. He deduces that Schaeffer and McFee murdered Carter after discovering his role in the case to get closer to Book, with the aid of a third corrupt officer, Detective Sergeant Leon Ferguson. While in town, Hochleitner is harassed by tourists. Book retaliates, breaking with the Amish tradition of nonviolence. The fight between the bullies and the strange "Amish" man is reported to the local police and they inform Schaeffer, who had previously contacted the sheriff in his efforts to locate Book, Rachel, and Samuel.

The next day, Schaeffer, McFee, and Ferguson arrive at the Lapp farm, taking Rachel and Eli hostage as a way of luring Book and Samuel out. Book orders Samuel to run to Hochleitner's home for safety, tricks Ferguson into the corn silo, and suffocates him under tons of corn, then uses Ferguson's shotgun to kill McFee. Samuel, hearing the gunshots, heads back to the farm. Schaeffer forces Rachel and Eli out of the house at gunpoint; Eli signals to Samuel to ring the farm's bell. Book confronts Schaeffer, who threatens to kill Rachel, but the loud clanging from the bell summons the Amish, who resolutely gather near and silently watch him. With so many witnesses present, Schaeffer gives up and Book arrests him.

Book says goodbye to Samuel in the fields and Eli wishes him well "out there among them English", signifying his acceptance of Book as a member of their community. Exchanging a wave with Hochleitner on the road out, Book departs.



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 for 182 pages, 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.[3]

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 were 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 did not make "rural movies".[3]

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 were not interested in making a "rural movie."[3]

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 preproduction 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. Starting the film immediately was imperative, because a Directors Guild of America strike was looming.[3]


Lynne Littman had originally been in talks to direct the film, and though she ultimately did not, she recommended Lukas Haas for the part of Samuel because she had recently worked with him on her film Testament. The role of Rachel was the most difficult to cast, and after Weir grew frustrated with the auditions he had seen, he asked the casting director to look for actors in Italy because he thought they would be more "womanly". As they were reviewing audition tapes from Italy, Kelly McGillis came to audition, and the moment she put on the bonnet and spoke a few lines, Weir knew she was the one. The casting director recommended her old friend Alexander Godunov, who had never acted before, but she thought his personality would be right, and Weir agreed. Viggo Mortensen was cast because Weir thought he had the right face for the part of an Amish man. Mortensen had just started his acting career, so this was his first film acting role, and he had to turn down another role as a soldier in Shakespeare in the Park's production of Henry V. He credited that decision and the very positive experience on the film as the start of his film career.[4]


During the weeks before filming, Ford spent time with the homicide department of the Philadelphia Police Department, researching the important details of working as a homicide detective. McGillis did research by moving in with an Amish widow and her seven children, learning how to milk cows and practicing their accents. Weir and cinematographer John Seale went on a trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which was running an exhibition of 17th-century Dutch Masters. Weir drew attention to the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, which were used as inspiration for the lighting and composition of the film, especially in the scenes where John Book is recovering from a gunshot wound in Rachel's house.[4]


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 were actually 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.[3]

During the set-up and rehearsal of each scene, as well as during dailies, Weir would play music to set the mood, with the idea that it prevented the actors from thinking too much and let them listen to their other instincts. The barn-raising scene was only a short paragraph in the script, but Weir thought it was important to highlight that aspect of Amish community life. They shot the scene in a day and did, in fact, build a barn, albeit with the aid of cranes off-camera. To film the scene in the corn silo, corn was actually dropped onto the actor, while a scuba diving regulator with a compressed air tank was hidden on the floor so the actor would be able to breathe.[4]

Originally, the script ended with a scene of Book and Rachel each explaining their feelings for each other to the audience, but Weir felt the scene was unnecessary and decided not to shoot it. The studio executives were concerned that the audience would not understand the conclusion, and tried to convince him otherwise, but Weir insisted that the characters' emotions could be expressed only with visuals.[4]


Critical response[edit]

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 93% based on 41 reviews, with an average rating of 8.4/10. The site's critics consensus states: "A wonderfully entertaining thriller within an unusual setting, with Harrison Ford delivering a surprisingly emotive and sympathetic performance."[5] On Metacritic, it has a weighted average score of 76 out of 100 based on 14 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[6]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times rated the film four out of four stars, calling it:

[F]irst 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... 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.[7]

Ebert also praised Ford's work and claimed he had "never given a better performance in a movie." Vincent Canby of The New York Times:

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.[8]

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."[9]

Time Out New York observed, "Powerful, assured, full of beautiful imagery and thankfully devoid of easy moralizing, it also offers a performance of surprising skill and sensitivity from Ford."[10]

Halliwell's Film Guide chose Witness as one of only two films from 1985 to receive a four-star review, describing it as "one of those lucky movies which works out well on all counts and shows that there are still craftsmen lurking in Hollywood."[11]

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."[12]

Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa cited Witness as one of his favorite films.[13][14]

The film was screened out of competition at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival.[15]

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 number two behind Beverly Hills Cop. It remained there 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]


Negotiation expert William Ury summarised the film's climactic scene in a chapter titled "The Witness" in his 1999 book Getting to Peace (later republished with the alternative title The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop) and used the scene as a symbol of the power of ordinary citizens to resolve conflicts and stop violence.[16]

This scene from the popular movie Witness captures the power of ordinary community members to contain violence. The Amish farmers were present as the third side in perhaps its most elemental form, seemingly doing nothing, but in fact playing the critical role of Witness. Like the Amish, we are all potential Witnesses.

— William Ury, The Third Side[16]


The film was not well received by the Amish communities where it was filmed.[17] 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. A similar concern was voiced within the movie itself, where Rachel tells a recovering Book that tourists often consider her fellow Amish something to stare at, with some even being so rude as to trespass on their private property.[18]

Awards and nominations [edit]

Award Category Recipient Result
Academy Awards Best Picture Edward S. Feldman Nominated
Best Director Peter Weir Nominated
Best Actor Harrison Ford Nominated
Best Original Screenplay Earl W. Wallace, William Kelley and Pamela Wallace Won
Best Art Direction Stan Jolley and John H. Anderson Nominated
Best Cinematography John Seale Nominated
Best Film Editing Thom Noble Won
Best Original Score Maurice Jarre Nominated
BAFTA Awards Best Film Nominated
Best Original Screenplay Earl W. Wallace, William Kelley and Pamela Wallace Nominated
Best Actor Harrison Ford Nominated
Best Actress Kelly McGillis Nominated
Best Music Maurice Jarre Won
Best Cinematography John Seale Nominated
Best Editing Thom Noble Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Drama Nominated
Best Director Peter Weir Nominated
Best Screenplay Earl W. Wallace, William Kelley and Pamela Wallace Nominated
Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama Harrison Ford Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Kelly McGillis Nominated
Best Original Score Maurice Jarre Nominated
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Best Film Won
Best Actor Harrison Ford Won
Writers Guild of America Best Original Screenplay Earl W. Wallace, William Kelley and Pamela Wallace Won
Directors Guild of America Outstanding Directing Peter Weir Nominated
Grammy Awards Best Score Maurice Jarre Nominated
American Cinema Editors Best Edited Feature Film Thom Noble Won
Australian Cinematographers Society Cinematographer of the Year John Seale Won
British Society of Cinematographers Best Cinematography Nominated


  1. ^ a b "Witness". Box Office Mojo. Amazon.com.
  2. ^ Silver, Alain; Ward, Elizabeth; eds. (1992). Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (3rd ed.). Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press. ISBN 0-87951-479-5
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ a b c d Keith Clark and Jon Mefford (2005). "Between Two Worlds: The Making of Witness". Witness (DVD). Paramount Pictures. OCLC 949729643.
  5. ^ "Witness (1985)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved February 20, 2021.
  6. ^ "Witness Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved February 20, 2021.
  7. ^ Ebert, Roger (February 8, 1985). "Witness". RogerEbert.com. Ebert Digital LLC. Retrieved June 30, 2018.
  8. ^ Canby, Vincent (February 8, 1985). "FILM: 'WITNESS,' A TOUGH GUY AMONG THE AMISH". Retrieved June 30, 2018.
  9. ^ "Witness". Variety. December 31, 1984.
  10. ^ "Witness Review". Time Out New York. Archived from the original on February 4, 2013.
  11. ^ Halliwell's Film Guide, 13th edition – ISBN 0-00-638868-X.
  12. ^ John Ferguson. "Witness review". Radio Times.
  13. ^ Lee Thomas-Mason. "From Stanley Kubrick to Martin Scorsese: Akira Kurosawa once named his top 100 favourite films of all time". Far Out. Far Out Magazine. Retrieved June 10, 2021.
  14. ^ "Akira Kurosawa's Top 100 Movies!". Archived from the original on 27 March 2010.
  15. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Witness". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved July 8, 2009.
  16. ^ a b Ury, William (2000) [1999]. The third side: why we fight and how we can stop (Revised ed.). New York: Penguin Books. pp. 170–171. ISBN 0140296344. OCLC 45610553.
  17. ^ Hostetler, John A.; Kraybill, Donald B. (1988). "Hollywood markets the Amish". In Gross, Larry P.; Katz, John Stuart; Ruby, Jay (eds.). Image ethics: the moral rights of subjects in photographs, film, and television. Communication and society. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 220–235. ISBN 0195054334. OCLC 17676506.
  18. ^ "Amish ask boycott of movie 'Witness'". Pittsburgh Press. February 16, 1985. Retrieved January 4, 2013.

Further reading[edit]

  • Wahlbrinck, Bernd. WITNESS Revisited: An Appreciation of Peter Weir's Famous Film, Tumbleweed 2020, ISBN 978-3-9821463-5-5
  • Kelley, William and Earl W. Wallace (based on the screenplay by Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley). Witness, Pocket Books; Media Tie In, 1985 ISBN 978-0671545956

External links[edit]