Witness (1985): Peter Weir’s Hollywood Directing Debut, Starring Harrison Ford

More effective as a chronicle of a little known subculture than as a thriller, “Witness,” Australian director Peter Weir’s first Hollywood film, examines the Amish community with its distinctive mores and way of life.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

The first scene depicts Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis), a young, attractive Amish widow, her father-in-law Eli (Jan Rubes), and her young son Samuel (Lukas Haas) grieving at the funeral of Jacob, Rachel’s husband. The drama proper begins, when Rachel is traveling to the big city with Samuel to visit her Mennonite sister. While they’re waiting for their train in the crowded Philadelphia station, Samuel wanders into the men’s room where he witnesses a murder.

After being questioned by the tough, cynical cop John Book (Harrison Ford), Samuel is taken by Book and his partner Sergeant Elden Carter (Brent Jennings) to identify suspects but he’s unable to offer helpful evidence. However, at the police station he sees a photo of police Lieutenant James McFee (Danny Glover) whom he identifies as the murderer. Book then recalls a drug raid under McFee’s command with a rumored police tipoff. Consulting his supervisor, Chief Paul Schaeffer (Josef Sommer), Book is unaware of the latter’s involvement in the crime, and in a gunfiught that follows McFee shoots and injured Book.

Suspecting a conspiracy and fearing for the safety of his witness, Book tries to get Samuel and Rachel back to the safer existence in rural Lancaster County, where they live amongst a peaceful community of Amish farmers. When Book blacks out from loss of blood, Eli reluctantly agrees to put up the “English” man (Amish term for outsiders) in their home, and arranges for the Amish to treat him, using their traditional methods, which seem strange to Book. To be less conspicuous, Book wears traditional dress and as amateur carpenter, he helps barn-raising, which offers one of the film’s exciting moments.

In the film’s most erotic scene, Book observes Rachel while she is bathing, but despite obvious physical attraction, he holds back. As time goes by, despite significant differences in personality and values, Rachel and Book begin a tenuous and tentative romance. But there are complications other than culture. Rachel’s father-in-law disapproves of their relationship, warning Rachel of possible sanctions. There’s also reival courthsip from a local man, Daniel Hochleitner (Alexander Godunov).

As the Amish are pacifists, Books defends them when they’re attacked, though by using physical force his cover is exposed. Preparing to leave the farm, he shares a passionate embrace with Rachel, when Schaeffer, McFee, and officer Fergie (Angus Macinnes) arrive at the farm. Unarmed, Book kills Fergie by smothering him with corn, then shoots McFee with Fergie’s shotgun. Samuel rings the farm bell, alerting the neighbors to the problem, and Schaeffer gives up.

As Book prepares to leave, he shares a quiet moment with Samuel, who relates to him as surrogate father, before exchanging a silent gaze with Rachel. The last word before Book leaves belongs to Eli, who cautions: “Be careful out there among the English”.

Shot on location in Phiadlephia, Strasburg, and the village of Intercourse in Lancaster County, the film benefits from good production values, particularly John Seale’s sharp cinematography and Maurice Jarre’s moody score.

This is the sole Best Actor Oscar nomination of Harrison Ford, who gives one of his best dramatic performances. One of the most reliable and bankable stars in Hollywood, Ford has appeared in many good and commercial, but not “Oscar-stuff” movies, such as Lucas’s “Star Wars” and Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones” franchises.

You can spot Viggo Mortensen in his feature debut and Russian dancer Alexander Godunov, who plays Hochleitner.

In 2005, a special collector’s edition was released to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the film’s release.


John Book (Harrison Ford)

Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis)

Schaeffer (Josef Sommer)

Samuel (Lukas Haas)

Eli Lapp (Jan Rubes)

Daniel Hochleitner (Alexander Godunov)

Elaine (Patti LuPone)

Dt. Lt. James McFee (Danny Glover)

Dt. Sgt. Elden Carter (Brent Jennings)

Fergie (Angus MacInnes)

Moses Hochleitner (Viggo Mortensen)

Oscar Nominations: 8

Picture, produced by Edward S. Feldman

Director: Peter Weir

Screenplay (Original): Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley; story by William Kelley, Pamela Wallace, and Earl W. Wallace

Actor: Harrison Ford

Cinematography: John Seale

Art direction-set decoration: Stan Joley; John Anderson

Film Editing: Thom Noble

Original Score: Maurice Jarre

Oscar Awards: 2


Original Score

Oscar Context:

Two films in 1985 were nominated for 11 Oscars: Sydney Pollack’s “Out of Africa,” which swept the awards, including Best Picture, and Spielberg’s “The Color Purple,” which lost in each of its 11 categories. The other three Best Picture nominees were of smaller-scale: Peter Weir’s “Witness,” with 8 nods, John Huston’s “Prizzi’s Honor,” also 8, and the indie “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” which brought Best Actor Oscar to William Hurt.