Friday, 28 September 2012

Witness (1985)

Dir. Peter Weir
Starring: Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis, Josef Sommer, Lukas Haas 

Let’s get this out in the open: I love Harrison Ford. The man is far too cool for school. He just looks far too good as the rogue with the heart of gold. He really made his name playing those who skirt around the edges of the system but end up doing the right thing in the end: Han Solo in Star Wars, Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rick Deckard in Blade Runner. So it is interesting to see Witness where he plays a good guy who has to learn to act outside the system.

Ford is Philadelphia police detective John Book (I know: where do they come up with these names? It leaves me waiting for a follow up where he is partnered with Mike Bell and Alan Candle…). He is called to investigate the brutal murder of a fellow police officer in a train station rest room. There was a witness: an eight-year-old boy called Samuel (Lukas Haas) who identifies one of the killers as another cop. Book has to protect the boy and his recently widowed mother Rachel (Top Gun’s Kelly McGillis) when the killers come after them. 

There is an additional complication: Rachel and Samuel are Amish. They come from a rural community of devoutly religious folk who have turned their back on modernity. They plough the fields by hand, drive horse-drawn buggies, dress “plain” in severe black and white, and eschew telephones, violence and people outside their own community. Book has to hide out among these close-knit people until he can work out a way to take down the people who betrayed him.

It is a clash of two very different cultures. The Amish are traditional and clannish, keeping themselves separate from the “English” (their name for anyone who is not of their faith) and trying to avoid having to interact with mainstream American society at all. For them the worst possible fate is to be “shunned”: for the other members of the community to ignore them. Book, however, is the brash big-city cop. He carries a gun and goes around “whacking people. His boss, Schaeffer (Josef Sommer) says that the police department is like the Amish: it is a close community whose members all look out for one another. Their strength comes from their unity. Nowhere is the difference between the two sets of individuals more apparent than in their attitudes to violence. Book is aware of the necessity of violence: force has to be used to stop bad people doing bad things. The Amish put their trust in God. Murder is a sin, and no good can come out of committing a sin. Samuel’s stern grandfather Eli (Jan Rube) explains to him that “the gun of the hand is for the taking of human life. We believe it is wrong to take a life. That is only for God. Many times wars have come and people have said to us: you must fight, you must kill, it is the only way to preserve the good. But Samuel, there’s never only one way… What you take into your hand you take into your heart.” And at the film’s climax when Book has to take on the corrupt cops it becomes apparent that pacificism can have its day. Just as Book is bested the massed Amish turn up. They do not fight. They look. They stand as witnesses. Killing Book would mean killing them all too. Realising this, the villain surrenders. Despite what Hollywood would lead you to believe, there are very few bad guys who can stomach the cold-blooded slaughter of two dozen unarmed people.
ZZ Top suited up for the wake
While this is going on Book and Rachel struggle against an increasing attraction. Theirs is a forbidden passion. Surrendering to it would mean one of two outcomes: “If we’d made love last night”, Book tells Rachel, “I’d have to stay. Or you’d have to leave.” It is an attraction that can never work – as is shown in the final scene when Book drives away, greeting Rachel’s admirer Daniel (Alexander Godunov) as he goes. The Amish are torn in their views of Book. He is an outsider and does not understand their ways – yet he is a good man. Daniel is jealous of his relationship with Rachel, yet it is clear that he admires his carpentry skills (real ones – Ford worked as a carpenter before his big break) and he leads the other Amish to his rescue in the end. John is willing to help out with the farm chores and participate in community tasks such as raising a barn. And while the Amish abhor violence Book is unwilling to just stand by and see his hosts bullied by street punks. “It is not our way” Eli protests. John’s answer is simple: “It’s my way.” When he leaves at the film’s end Eli tells him “You be careful out among the English”: the same warning he had given Rachel earlier. Book has been accepted into the community. 

Witness is a straightforward police thriller. It is never going to win any prizes for originality of idea. The inclusion of the reclusive Amish is, however, unique and serves to contrast two very different moral codes and ways of life. It is almost as though Book has become a Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court as he is transported back in time. The opening scene shows the Amish at work in the fields with their broad-brimmed hats, their bonnets and aprons, and their sunflower-burst beards. The initial thought is that this must be a scene from the early 1800s. And then the heading comes up on screen: ‘Pennsylvania, 1984’. The traditional lifestyle of these people is timeless. Several times Kelly McGillis’s Rachel stands framed in a room or a doorway, and she looks like nothing quite so much as a study by Vermeer (not Weir). The use of the Pennsylvania Dutch language and accents doesn’t hurt either (although most of the Amish conversation heard in the film is actually anachronistic High German spoken by non-Amish actors; as shown in the film, the Amish do not like their photographs being taken, and so the slightly more modern Mennonites with their fridges and their telephones rounded out the cast as extras). Within this structure the performances are good. Harrison Ford is Harrison Ford, so I knew I was in safe hands before the film even started. Lukas Haas was wonderfully unaffected as Samuel. I enjoyed the supporting perforrmances from all the villagers, but for me Kelly McGillis was the revelation. I only knew her as the token love interest in Top Gun; here she handles the nuances of a strange lifestyle well, and displays the conflict her character feels torn between two different worlds. The only low point, personally, was the awful Vangelis-lite synth soundtrack by Maurice Jarre (whose score won the BAFTA that year, beating Harold Faltermeyer’s Beverly Hills Cop!). Other than this Witness is a fine film to watch. 

What have I leant about Pennsylvania?
The Philadelphia depicted in this film is a long way from the tourist brochures. It is a dangerous big city with police corruption, drug gangs and sleazy bars on sleazy streets. But a contrast can be found out in the countryside. Not too far away, in Lancaster County, we find idyllic farms with neat white-painted wooden houses situated amongst fields of rippling wheat. Sturdy, traditional folks clip-clop down the country roads in horse-drawn buggies. These are the Amish, who have turned their back on the modern world. They choose to keep themselves to themselves – and, thankfully, it seems that the local authorities are happy to give them the space they desire. Tour guides are not so considerate however, and these private people are looked on as a tourist attraction, like animals in a zoo. Tourists are bused in to marvel at their “quaint” ways and intrusively take photographs. As well as the Amish there are also Mennonites, whose lifestyle is not quite so strict.

Can we go there?
There are two main settings for Witness: Philadelphia and rural Lancaster County some fifty miles further west.

In Philly the main setting is the echoing concourse of 30th Street Station. I caught a train from there in the summer of 2010, and I can attest that the great bronze statue that Samuel admires (the Pennsylvania Railroad World War II Memorial) is still in place. The restroom murder was actually shot on a set created for the occasion in the (now-demolished) Harrisburg Pike Posey Iron Works. The grain silo scene was also shot here. Other ‘Philadelphia’ scenes were actually filmed in Lancaster, including the police station and its underground garage (both Lancaster County Courthouse). 

In Lancaster County the film was shot in the areas inhabited by the Amish and the Mennonites. The train station that Rachel and Samuel depart from is that in Parkesburg. The feedstore, where the tourists come to gawp at the Amish, is the W. L. Zimmerman & Sons store in the town of Intercourse (giggle! It always makes me laugh that such devoutly religious folk live near a town which shares a name with the sexual act. But then again, Eli did laugh at Book’s joke about teats, so maybe the Amish aren’t as prudish as we imagine them to be). The Lapp farm was located in the vicinity of Strasburg on Bunker Hill Road. Bizarrely, it is now open to the public for tours. Sadly both the waterwheel and the barn they raise were constructed purely for the movie and were taken down again afterwards. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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