Witness: Tense Neo-Noir Crime Drama With Harrison Ford

Withness the 1985 film starring Harrison Ford
Witness.

Here’s a neo-noir crime drama from 1985, starring Harrison Ford developing his post-Star Wars career with considerable heft.

Witness the 1985 Drama

Directed by Peter Weir, Witness features a unique setting in Pennsylvania with a devout Amish community.

Set in 1984, the story concerns detective John Book (Harrison Ford). He’s assigned to a case involving a young boy called Samuel Lapp (Lukas Haas).

The young lad, during a visit to Philadelphia, witnesses a brutal murder of an undercover cop. He evades capture and Book begins investigating the case.

He confused in his chief of police, Paul Schaeffer (Josef Sommer), who warns him to keep the murder quiet.

However, Book is soon ambushed and shot. Badly wounded, he realises Schaeffer is corrupt working in tandem with some drug lords.

Book realises Samuel Lapp, and his sister Rachel (Kelly McGillis), and now under serious threat.

Still bleeding profusely, he rushes to the Lapps to drive them out of Philadelphia.

Upon arriving at the Lapp family home, he collapses. But explains he can’t go to hospital as other corrupt police officers will kill him.

And so the head of the household, Eli Lapp, allows him to recover on their property.

As Book recovers, he integrates with the Amish community and starts to regard its peaceful ways as a noble way to live.

He also starts to fall for Rachel Lapp, who also clearly has the hots for him (it’s Harrison Ford, who wouldn’t… are we right!?) and they have a minor, respectful fling.

Including this rather pleasant waltz in an old barn.

Strangely, Ford also starred in another neo-noir crime film called Blade Runner (1982). His love interest in that film is also called Rachel.

However, Ford’s character this time is much less of a defeated alcoholic burning himself out.

In Witness, Book instead revels in a new lease of life. After his career dealing with insane criminals, Book really starts to get into the Amish way of life.

Although he respects their stoic and modest principles, he’s also angered that some of the more loudmouth American locals mock them.

Book further endears himself to the Amish community, helping the locals to construct a barn in one day (a famous tradition).

Two tangents here! You can spot a young Viggo Mortensen in this scene, before all his Lord of the Rings heroics kicked off.

Also, prior to his film career, Harrison Ford was actually a carpenter. So it’s a neat little nod back to his former working life.

Back in the film, trouble is still on the way. As Schaeffer and his cronies McFee and Ferguson discover Book’s whereabouts.

They descend on the farm packing some serious weapons (a shotgun etc.) with the plan to wipe out the Lapps and Book.

What follows is an expertly shot, tense, and realistic fight to the death. There’s no Hollywood glamour here, just a gritty battle for survival.

This section is arguably the most famous from the film. As Witness doesn’t include much violence, merely nods to its presence away from the camera.

On the whole, it mainly concerns Book’s discovery of a new culture that starts to bring him happiness.

This is something of a Hollywood trope these days, which we’ve nevertheless seen carried out to strong effect in Dances With Wolves (1990) and The Last Samurai (2003).

Ford is on top form throughout the film, showing a great range of emotive depth. Here he’s much more than the perpetually downbeat Deckard from Blade Runner.

This is helped significantly by his upbeat romance with Rachel, played rather magnificently by Kelly McGillis.

Almost 40 years after production wrapped, what’s left is something of an old-school classic Hollywood crime film.

It stands out thanks to its setting, and strong performances, with the overarching theme that you shouldn’t mess with Harrison Ford.

Witness’ Production and Critical Response

Off its $12 million budget, the film was a moderate hit. It went on to earn $68.7 million.

The concept for Witness was initially rejected by top Fox execs as they didn’t fund “rural movies”.

That followed a period of intensive script rewrites for Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley. So producer Edward Feldman sent the script to Harrison Ford’s agent.

Ford was happy to do the film, but even then Fox rejected the script for the same lame excuse (no “rural” movies).

Eventually, Paramount Pictures took up the film and the thing was finally made.

Peter Weird was added as director because the planned shoot for a film called The Mosquito Coast fell through. He ended up shooting that in 1986 with Harrison Ford as the lead.

Reviews were generally strong for the film, although quite a few critics were indifferent on it.

Meanwhile, the Amish community wasn’t at all impressed by Witness. In fact, the National Committee For Amish Religious Freedom demanded a boycott of the film.

Steps were taken in the aftermath of the film to protect Amish communities from invasive tourists. And a ban was placed on using Amish farmsteads as movie locations.

On the plus side, the film received many awards gongs.

It was nominated for eight Oscars and won for Best Film Editing and Best Original Screenplay.

Unfortunately for Ford, who provides one of his best-ever performances, he didn’t win for Best Actor. And never has done. For shame!

5 comments

  1. A fabulous review of Witness MrW. I am always amazed at how Harrison can go from a sullen wallflower to the likes of Deckard in Blade Runner.
    I saw Witness and found the plot rather implausible and not worthy of accolades but hats off to Ford’s acting ( transformation) in his films such as What Lies Beneath and Blade Runner. Enjoyed the critique.

    Liked by 1 person

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