Harrison Ford showed his versatility in this marvelous 80’s film that is deep and rich in thematic elements. Whether you look at this as a fish-out-of-water story, or as a story about the clashing of cultures, or as a story about one honest cop in a world of corruption, or even as a story about alien worlds coming together for a common good, Witness is a compelling story with terrific acting that is also thoughtful and engaging. Witness introduces us to two very different and very extreme worlds. The first world that we’re introduced to is the quaint and plain world of the Pennsylvania Amish, with their horse drawn carriages and their lack of electric technology. The second world we’re introduced to is the gritty underworld of Philadelphia’s crime scene and its police department. These two worlds could not be more opposite of each other, and they are thrust together in a wonderful film that drips with drama and conflict.
Why it’s essential
Taking into account that Witness was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as Best Actor (Harrison Ford), Best Director (Peter Weir), Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Music, while taking home the Oscars for Best Original Screenplay and Best Editing, this is a film fan’s film. Witness is one of those films that was crafted. You can tell by the sparseness of the dialogue, and by the subtext in what dialogue there is. No one says anything in this film unless it is absolutely necessary, and where possible we are almost always shown rather than told. The screenplay, penned by Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley does a lot to carry the story without the audience really noticing that it’s happening. There are several long stretches in this film where no one says anything at all, and yet the narrative continues to move forward because Wallace and Kelley and Director Peter Weir trusted the audience to be able to follow a visual story.
Continuing with the quality of the screenplay, it has a very strong Hero’s Journey, but it has an interesting twist where the different stages of the journey don’t always happen in their traditional order. The hero that we’re following in this story is Detective John Book (Ford), but we don’t meet him until we’re 15 minutes into the story. By then we’ve met the Amish mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) and her young son, Samuel (Lucas Haas). We’ve been introduced to Rachel’s Ordinary World in the land of the Amish and we’ve learned that her husband recently passed away. She and Lucas are leaving by train to travel to Baltimore in order to see her sister, and Rachel’s father Eli says to her as she boards the train, “You be careful out among them English.” Rachel and Samuel Cross the First Threshold into the Special World of Philadelphia when they have to change trains, but their train is delayed, so they have to sit in the station.
It’s here where we have our inciting incident. We’re in Samuel’s second act, and we haven’t even met the Hero of the story yet. But it is here where Samuel witnesses the murder of a police officer at the hands of another corrupt cop, McFee (Danny Glover). Just as an aside, I wonder how it’s possible to have a more dramatic scenario than the one that unfolds in that men’s room. Having a boy that young witness a murder would be traumatic enough, but add to it that the boy is Amish with absolutely no concept or context with which to deal with this type of experience. Again, the film makers subtly created an extreme scenario. They took something that by itself (a boy witnessing a murder) should have sufficient trauma attached to it, and they took it to another level (they made him Amish). This type of a scenario should serve as a perfect example to any aspiring screenwriter or filmmaker who is trying to conjure up dramatic and/or suspenseful scenarios. Try to come up with the most dramatic scenario you can think of, and then add something to it to make it even more so. The filmmakers of Witness already had 10 out of 10 for this scenario on the drama scale, and then they turned it up to 11. It should serve as an example to any aspiring filmmaker to do the same.
This is where John Book enters the film. The gritty underworld of Philadelphia is Book’s Ordinary World. We see that he’s comfortable in this world and that he’s good at his job, and that he not only like it, but is passionate about it. As a quick aside, we actually get a lot of that information in a very funny and clever way through dialogue with Rachel telling Book all of his traits as related to her by Book’s sister. It was a clever way to get out some exposition that needed to get said, and made it happen in an entertaining way. Book lives a violent life and quite often has to come up with violent solutions to violent problems. When Samuel sees a picture of McFee at the police station and identifies him as the murderer, Book puts the pieces together and takes the evidence to his superior, Lt. Schaeffer (Josef Sommer), who Book believes he can trust. That trust is betrayed, however, when McFee shows up at Book’s apartment and a shootout occurs, resulting in Book getting shot in the side.
This leads Book to have to Cross the First Threshold by entering the world of the Amish when he takes Rachel and Samuel home in order to keep them hidden. He then tries to leave, but is overcome by his wounds, and nearly dies from his blood loss, but is nursed back to health by Rachel and Eli. Eli actually provides the archetypal Refusal of the Call by trying to convince Rachel not to take care of this outsider, but she tells him that if they turn Book away and the men who shot him find him, then they’re sure to find Samuel. So that’s a great example of providing the audience with stakes that couldn’t be higher. They have to take care of this man, because if they don’t not only will the man die, but the boy that they love will quite possibly be killed as well. When Book recovers, he is clearly out of his element in this world, but we watch as his character arc takes him to a place where peace can exist in his heart in a way that it never could have before.
On top of all of this, the writers added in a burgeoning love story between Book and Rachel. This is a forbidden love and we’re given high stakes again, especially when an Amish man in the community named Daniel Hochleitner (Alexander Godunov) has expressed interest in courting her. As rumors make their way around the community about what could be going on between Rachel and Book, Eli tells Rachel that she could be shunned if she gets too involved with Book. He then goes down the laundry list of the consequences of that happening, and so we know how bad it could be for Rachel if she chooses Book, and yet we still hold out some hope for them to get together.
I mentioned before how great a lot of the storytelling is in this story, and how well much of it is told without the help (or crutch?) of too much dialogue. Perhaps the most famous of these scenes is the raising of the barn sequence in which Book has to leave behind his lone wolf mentality that we’ve come to know has dominated his personality. He now must work as a part of a team in order to accomplish this goal of getting the barn raised. He has to work with his rival, Daniel, who earlier encouraged him to go home since he’s feeling better, and he has to work with the rest of the men in the community in order to help with the greater good. The sequence does a great job of showing that Book is no longer this fish out of water, but has assimilated to this way of life. Unfortunately, the outside world will catch up with him, and the climax of the film ultimately shows that, even though there is now mutual understanding, these two worlds cannot coexist. As Book gets into his car to leave, Eli repeats his earlier line to Rachel when he says to Book, “You be careful out among them English.”
While Witness may come across as dated to contemporary audiences (like many 80’s films, the soundtrack makes it easy to know when the film came out), it is still a textbook example on how to develop a story, how to build relationships between the characters, and how to juggle the various plots and subplots of the screenplay in order to craft a comprehensive and coherent story. This is a dramatic film that is filled with tension and conflict. It is also a wonderful film that should be essential viewing for any fan of film making.