Witness (1985 film)

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Witness movie.jpg
Original poster
Directed by Peter Weir
Produced by Edward S. Feldman
Screenplay by Earl W. Wallace
William Kelley
Story by Pamela Wallace
Earl W. Wallace
William Kelley
Starring Harrison Ford
Music by Maurice Jarre
Cinematography John Seale
Edited by Thom Noble
Edward S. Feldman Productions
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date
  • February 8, 1985 (1985-02-08)
Running time
112 minutes
Country United States
Language English, German
Budget $12 million
Box office $68.7 million (US/Can)[1]

Witness is a 1985 American crime 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.


In 1984, in a Pennsylvania countryside, an Amish community attends the funeral of Jacob Lapp, who leaves behind a widow Rachel (McGillis) and an eight-year-old son Samuel (Haas). In her grief, she and Samuel travel by train to visit Rachel's sister, which takes them into the city of Philadelphia. Samuel is amazed by the sights in the big city. While waiting for a connecting train at the 30th Street Station, Samuel goes into the men's room and witnesses two men attack and murder a third (Carhart), narrowly escaping detection as he hides in the bathroom stalls. Detective John Book (Ford) is assigned to the case and he and his partner, Sergeant Elton Carter (Jennings), question Samuel. It turns out the victim was an undercover police officer. Samuel is unable to identify the lone perpetrator whose face he saw in the bathroom from a number of mug shots or a police lineup. However, as Samuel walks around the police station, he notices a newspaper clipping in a display case in which narcotics officer James McFee (Glover) is honored for his exemplary service in the line of duty. Book sees Samuel point to the picture and quickly covers over his hand. John remembers that McFee was previously responsible for a drug raid on expensive chemicals used to make amphetamines, but the evidence had 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. But John is later ambushed in a parking garage and badly wounded by McFee. Since only Schaeffer knew of John's suspicions, John realizes Schaeffer must have tipped McFee off, and is also corrupt.

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. While attempting to return to the city, John passes out in the vehicle in front of their farm.

Rachel argues that taking John to a hospital would allow the corrupt police officers to find him while also putting Samuel in danger as well. Her father-in-law Eli (Rubes) reluctantly agrees to shelter him, despite his distrust for the gun-carrying outsider. John slowly recovers in their care, and begins to develop feelings for Rachel, who is likewise drawn to him. 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 she could be shunned by the community if she continues on this path.

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 Hochleitner's respect. However, the attraction between John and Rachel is evident and clearly concerns Eli and others, especially when she serves John first at a meal. That night, John comes upon Rachel as she bathes, and she stands half-naked before him, but he walks away, explaining the next morning 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 a payphone, and learns that Carter has been killed. He deduces that it was Schaeffer and McFee, who are intensifying 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. In town, Hochleitner and the other Amish men are harassed by locals. Breaking with the Amish tradition of nonviolence, John retaliates with a punch. The fight is reported to the local police. Thus far, Schaeffer had been unable to track down which 'Lapp' family John was hiding out with, but such an incident would surely tip off Schaeffer where to go.

His cover blown, John knows he must leave. Rachel is upset at the news. When she is alone she removes her bonnet and goes to John, and they passionately kiss.

The next day, the corrupt officers arrive at the Lapp farm and search for John and Samuel, taking Rachel and Eli hostage in the process, but not before Eli shouts a warning to John about the officers' presence. John orders Samuel to run to Hochleitner's home for safety, then 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 has returned unseen) to ring the farm's bell. John confronts Schaeffer, who forces him to give up his shotgun by threatening to kill Rachel. However, the loud clanging from the farm bell summons the Amish neighbors within earshot. With so many witnesses, Schaeffer realizes he can't escape, and gives up; the local police arrive and arrest him.

As John prepares to leave, he says goodbye to Samuel in the fields. He and Rachel share a long, speechless stare on the porch, as both realize their feelings for each other could not continue. Finally, Eli wishes him well "out there among the English." Book smiles, drives away in his now-fixed car, and exchanges a wave of farewell to Hochleitner along the road out.



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.


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]


The film was not well received by the Amish communities where it was filmed.[10] 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 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.[11]

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]


Negotiation expert William Ury summarized the film's climactic scene in a chapter titled "The Witness" in his 1999 book Getting to Peace (later republished with the alternate 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.[12]

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[12]

Awards and nominations [edit]

American Film Institute[edit]

Home media [edit]

"Witness" was released on VHS in October, 1985.

It was later 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. A Blu-ray copy of the film was released on October 13, 2015.


  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. ^ Hostetler, John A.; Kraybill, Donald B. (1988). "Hollywood markets the Amish". In Gross, Larry P.; Katz, John Stuart; Ruby, Jay. 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. 
  11. ^ "Amish ask boycott of movie 'Witness'". Pittsburgh Press. February 16, 1985. Retrieved 2013-01-04. 
  12. ^ 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. 

External links[edit]