On the surface, Witness looks like a mash-up of two tropes: the good cop protecting an eye-witness from danger, and a fish out of water flick about a man forced to assimilate with another culture. While those elements are inarguably in play, this is one of those movies that falls under the category covered by Roger Ebert’s quote, “It’s not what a movie’s about, it’s how it is about it.”
And as directed by the great Australian filmmaker, Peter Weir (Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, Fearless, Dead Poets Society, Master and Commander), Witness “is about it” in ways that few might expect from its basic description. I was recently surprised to learn that despite winning two Oscars (for original screenplay and film editing) being nominated for a total of eight (including Harrison Ford’s only Oscar nomination ever, for lead actor), and being a sizable sleeper hit, not all critics were taken with the film at the time of its release.
As I recently learned from Janet Maslin (the great former film critic for the New York Times) in a post of hers on social media, her predecessor as the main critic for the Times, Vincent Canby, dismissed the film as “pretty, but not much fun.” While Maslin didn’t name other negative reviewers in her post as she referred to the film’s initially mixed critical response, she did point out that Siskel and Ebert were two of the few to recognize Witness as an instant classic, which explains why my assumptions about the film’s reception were set in stone: back in 1985, the only two film critics who existed for me were Gene and Roger. It never occurred to me that if both of them loved a film that there would be any outliers.
I suppose the best way to start in talking about Witness is to go to the start. The opening ten minutes plus drops us right into the lives of an Amish community. A woman named Rachel (a luminous Kelly McGillis) has just been widowed and without any overt exposition, we meet her young son Samuel (Lukas Haas in one of the truly great child performances), her father Eli (Jan Rubes), and Daniel (Alexander Godunov) a man who wishes to comfort Rachel, but would also clearly like to be her next husband.
After the funeral, Rachel and Samuel go to the train station to visit family in Baltimore in the hopes the trip will stifle their grief. While you are told it’s Samuel’s first trip on a train, the wonder in the boy’s expression as he makes his way through the Philadelphia station makes that fact clear enough. Haas is quite marvelous here, never more so when his innocence is shattered when he sees a murder take place in a public restroom. Two men enter while one man stands in front of the mirror, the two men slit the throat of the man, and as his body drops to the floor, we see Samuel hiding in a stall, viewing the horror through the slit in the door. If the fear in the moment is palpable (and is it ever), it’s because it’s reflected in the eyes of Haas sans any sense of “acting.”
One of those murderers (McFee) is played by Danny Glover, in a rare villainous turn. As McFee’s anxious co-conspirator looks over as McFee casually walks over to the sink and turns on the water, his partner in crime asks with desperation in his voice, “What are you doing?” To which McFee replies with malevolent nonchalance, “I’m washing my hands, man.” If Glover ever delivered a line more icily, I haven’t heard it.
Among the film’s most wonderful attributes is its pacing of the film. It’s not until after the murder, a full 16 1/2 minutes into the film that Ford’s detective (the perfectly named John Book) arrives on the scene. You have to credit Weir’s confidence in the material here. It would have been very easy (and audience-friendly) to have introduced the film’s star early in the film, but Weir understood that getting a taste of the Amish culture and their traditions would be integral before immersing John Book into their community. In showing that restraint, Weir helps us understand that however strange it may be for Book to be among them, it is also strange for the Amish to let an outsider in.
You can palpably grasp how alien a police squad room is to Rachel and Samuel as they look through books of convicts and answer questions about the assailants—they are a very long way from home. While Samuel recognizes no one from those books or from the lineup of possible suspects he views, he does discover that McFee is a cop, and as Book carefully pulls down Samuel’s pointed finger from a framed article of McFee in the squad room, we quickly see in Book’s face that this is no ordinary case. The enemy is within.
After a shootout in the police parking garage leaves Book injured by McFee’s gun, Book whisks Rachel and Samuel away and back to their home. Book tries to leave them there and drive off, but he’s lost too much blood, and as you see his car wander off the road and take down a birdhouse, it’s clear Book will be staying for a while.
All of the crime-thriller aspects are a bit of a “MacGuffin” in Witness. The commercial trappings of the genre are just a lure to pull the viewer into the story Weir really wants to tell, that of an “English” hiding out in an Amish village, and, however briefly, becoming one of them.
As Book recovers in hiding (knowing he can’t trust his own chief), he slowly integrates with Rachel, Samuel, Eli and others in the community. Book’s efforts to fit in leads to multiple comic beats. Book dressed as an Amish man is funny on sight, and when Book struggles to milk a cow and Eli asks him, have ya never held a teat before?, Book’s response: “Not one this big,” is priceless enough to make Eli laugh at the outsider’s bawdy joke.
Book’s assimilation is not without its bumps though. When Samuel discovers Book’s “gun of the hand,” Book carefully takes it from the boy, removes the bullets, and then lets the boy handle it—something Rachel is disgusted by. When Book hands her the gun for safekeeping, Rachel holds it like something that came out of homemade fertilizer. It’s a subtle moment, but it’s also a reminder (however intentional or not), that our gun culture in this country is a filthy one.
That sequence is soon contrasted by what might be the most beautiful scene in the film: the barn raising. As the village comes together to raise a barn for a newlywed couple among them, Book’s skill at carpentry (a gift that Ford possesses in real life) is put to use. There’s not much audible dialogue during the sequence, just a group of men constructing a barn with nary a power tool at the ready over Maurice Jarre’s gorgeous lilting score. Women are seen quilting, bringing the men lemonade, a beverage Daniel shares with Book even though he’s picked up on the growing chemistry between John and Rachel.
Watching Witness again, I was struck by how much of the storytelling is purely visual. Weir expertly shows Book and the Amish interacting by doing, not so much by talking. This is incredibly graceful and romantic filmmaking. There’s a beautiful scene set in a barn as Book tries to get his wrecked car going, but all he can accomplish is to get the radio to play. Of course, if the radio is playing Sam Cooke, then compensations abound. As John and Rachel dance to “What A Wonderful World,” they are discovered by Eli who later warns Rachel of becoming too close to Book, lest she be shunned. While an Amish village out in the rural sticks with no phones and less than spectacular public records may be a great place for John Book to hide out, his presence brings great risk to Rachel’s standing in her community. Because, the fact is, they do want each other.
You know from the way they lock eyes when Book stumbles upon Rachel topless, washing herself in a sink. Book’s mouth hangs open at the sight of her, and Rachel lets the moment linger far longer than safety would seem willing to allow. So, it’s no surprise that when Book is finally ready to leave, Rachel tells Samuel to “go to bed” at a time that is clearly early, and she and Book whisk themselves away as if taking a brief time out from the expectations of their opposing worlds. Book has to return to his world and Rachel must stay in hers. This stolen moment is all they will ever have.
Before Book can leave on his own, he is discovered (largely due to letting a bully have it in a very un-Amish fashion in the middle of town) by his crooked Chief Schaffer (a desperate and despicable Josef Sommer), who along with McFee and another henchman head to Rachel’s village to kill John Book, and quite likely Samuel and Rachel too.
It’s to Weir’s great credit that the romantic aspects of the film live so comfortably beside its more noirish aspects. The film integrates the emotional so well even in the action-oriented climax of the film that you never forget what is at stake. The Amish took a grave risk when nursing John Book to health, and Book (who we learn early has no family of his own) lets down his guard enough to fall in love with a woman he cannot have. The risks the characters take in this “crime thriller” are as much emotional as they are physical.
None of this would be possible without the seemingly effortless chemistry between Ford (never better) and McGillis. As John Book tells Samuel goodbye, he then sees Rachel. They regard each other without a single word, because not one is needed. As Rachel allows herself a slight smile as Book turns to leave, it’s a moment that has to be among the most heart wrenching goodbyes ever captured on film.
The final line of the film is a real beaut too. Eli waves over at Book as he’s about to enter his car and drive off. The old man says, “You be careful out there among those English.” For a brief time Book was as much one of them as perhaps any outsider could ever be. He will take a part of that with him.
Book then pulls out and onto the road, passing the birdhouse he fixed after breaking it upon arrival. He stops to talk to Daniel, who is coming to squire Rachel. Daniel is a good man who will likely make Rachel a fine husband.
He’s just not John Book.