Witness is an American drama/thriller film directed by Peter Weir, written by Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley, and produced by Edward S. Feldman with Paramount Pictures. The film stars Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis, Josef Sommer, Lukas Haas, Jan Rubes, Danny Glover, and a very young Viggo Mortensen. The story opens with the death of an Amish husband, whose wife decides to take her young son to visit her sister in Baltimore. Between trains in Philadelphia, the boy happens to witness the murder of a cop in a bathroom and is therefore a witness. When John Book (Ford) is assigned to the investigation, he learns he is deeper into the plot than he could imagine, so he seeks protection in their Amish community. (Running Time: 112 minutes)(Rated R)
This classic is keenly noted and studied in film and writing schools today for its clear structure and pacing–which is excellent! Hollywood has rarely tackled any movies dealing so heavily with the Amish culture, supposedly out of respect and appreciation of them, but, the amount of honor and ethics these people hold are very dear and admirable, I just see it as something that needs to be filmed and shared (even though in the end, the local Amish communities that were near filming refused to be on camera, their Mennonite friends were quick to agree)!
Harrison Ford signed on to the project before the screenplay was in its final stages–and I can see why! He was handed such a familiar role told from a rather realistic and different angle of the story. Originally, the script dealt completely with the Amish boy’s mother and her reaction to the violence and fragility of the community, but director Peter Weir thought it would be more accessible to audiences to have it from the perspective of a good cop. And Ford made sure his character was presentable to us by delivering perhaps one of his strongest performances on camera! To prepare for the film, he joined the Philadelphia Police Force for several weeks and even was apart of numerous raids. Harrison Ford remains one of my favorite actors. Maybe not a conventional method actor, but certainly a loyal one who seemed to always show great maturity and respect in all of his films.
The troupe that joined Ford on the big screen must be commended as well. They did a terrific job at supporting the story, but did not step on anyone’s toes–well, maybe Viggo Mortensen tried to use his ten seconds on screen as much as he possibly could, but we can forgive him for that, now can’t we…?
Peter Weir must be a clever director. He jumped into the project having no clue about the Amish culture, and claimed the movie was a “learning experience as you went along.” He gave Ford a ton of leeway in honing his scenes down to what he felt was appropriate, called “Action!”, and simply let the cameras roll. I love seeing that plan come together.
The film was received well by critics at the time, gaining eight Academy Award nominations and winning two for Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing, with Best Picture, Director, and Harrison Ford’s only ever Best Actor nomination. It did well at the box office as well, reaching nearly $70 million at the American theaters on a $12 million budget.
I dare say it is a bloody good movie. I hold it in high esteem. It will be one I will watch from time to time in the years to come. 5 out of 7 stars.