There is something fascinating about the Amish. From the way they fearlessly trot their horse drawn buggy down modern roads, the quaint clothes they wear, to their interesting chin beards. Sadly, I don’t think many people today show them the right respect. I remember summer vacations with Amish communities nearby and my parents slowing the car down alongside a buggy to take a picture. It was painfully obvious what we were doing and it always embarrassed me to look like such a redneck tourist. That was not Disney World and they were not actors. Anyway, besides hiding my face in shame as my family gawked at an innocent Amish family, I’ve never made a real connection with them.
Which brings me to 1985’s Witness, the story where a young Amish boy witnesses a murder. Since young Samuel (Lukas Haas) is the only witness, officer John Brook (Harrison Ford) must get the boy to identify who the murderer was. When it turns out to be a cop, John realizes the situation is too dangerous only too late. He drives Samuel and his mother, Rachel (Kelly McGillis) back to their Amish home while suffering from a gunshot wound. John is nursed back to health and has to stay undercover on the Amish community to protect Samuel and Rachel.
The culture clash between John and the Amish is intriguing, respectful and a smart. It’s sweet to see young Samuel showing John around to how the well works, where grain is stored and how to pet cats. But on the other side of the coin is when Samuel’s grandfather explains that a gun, like John’s, is never the answer. Yet, poor Samuel has seen murder and wonders if only taking a bad person’s life is okay.
One of the best portraits of Amish life is the barn raising scene. I also believe it is one of the reasons Witness won Best Editing. Watching the whole community work hard together, with no too more modern than a hand cranked drill is beautiful and amazing. John is right along side the men, no spectators allowed. Even the women and children help by keeping the men hydrated and preparing their well deserved meal. One of the best images of the whole film is seeing a barn frame, with men climbing all over it against a bright blue sky.
First of all, this film is a thriller. John is stuck in this culture to protect Rachel and Samuel, and with the climactic ending where the corrupt cops burst onto the community in search of John, it becomes a great work of suspense. That last main stretch of the film is packed with action and some intense moments that make this film much more than a cop on the farm film.
There is a touch of romance in the plot as well. John and Rachel (a widow) have an attraction, but how far can it really go? Perhaps Rachel is just attracted to a man protecting her and her son, and John does become very fond and protective of them as well. The relationship sort of becomes something for the audience to decide.
Though Witness is a great piece of film to learn a bit about Amish life, it is not for children. The film is rated R with a good amount of violence, profanity and even some nudity. But if you’re looking for a wonderfully well written film with some drama, respectful culture clash and a great execution of tension and suspense look no further.
“You be careful out among them English.”