WITNESS, A WORLDWIDE HIT
“A man of force, a woman of faith, worlds apart.”
After the 1955 Broadway musical PLAIN & FANCY, there were various local shows and musicals about the “plain people” produced in the Lancaster area for visitors. But nothing much happened on a national scale until 1985 and the movie WITNESS, which became a worldwide hit. Just last year, a columnist for the NEW YORK POST wrote that “everything I know about the Amish, I learned from the old Harrison Ford movie, WITNESS. ” While undoubtedly an exaggeration, this statement probably holds true for many people even today.
As an indicator of how Witness is part of our popular consciousness, let it be noted that Mad magazine did a parody of the movie Witness and called it “Witless.” And when director Rob Reiner made the disastrous 1994 film comedy NORTH, he cast Kelly McGillis and Alexander Godunov (her Amish suitor), as an Amish mom and dad. Obviously, nearly ten years later, he believed the audience would still remember them from their original roles.
WITNESS was, of course, a serious film, which contrasted a violent modern world with the peaceful Amish, and turned it into a romantic thriller… “A big city cop. A small country boy. They have nothing in common…but a murder.” Helping to add to the film’s success was actor Harrison Ford, fresh from starring roles in STAR WARS and INDIANA JONES, who played Philadelphia police detective, John Book. The movie is undeniably well made, acted, and directed (by Australian Peter Weir), and many Lancaster hotels have it available on video or DVD for their guests.
The film opens at an Amish funeral for the husband of Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis). Soon she and her little boy Samuel (Lukas Haas) are on a train trip to visit her sister. This is Samuel’s first big trip to the “outside world” and, at the Philadelphia train station, he mistakes a Hassidic Jewish man as Amish.
The drama begins when Samuel witnesses a murder and John Book (Ford) takes mother and son in for questioning. In a famous scene, Samuel is looking at newspaper clippings in a trophy case at the police station and points at one of the men in the picture. Book now knows the three men involved in the murder are fellow policemen. Wounded in an attack, Book flees the city, taking Rachel and Samuel to their farm in Lancaster County.
The Amish elders permit the injured Book to stay on the farm to recuperate, unaware that the murderers are looking for him. When Samuel discovers Book’s gun in a drawer, grandfather (Jan Rubes) gives the boy a lecture on violence and the value of life. He tells Samuel that when you take a gun in your hand, you bring violence into your heart.
Soon Book is helping to milk the cows and putting his carpentry skills to use during the spectacular barn-raising scene, now recognized as a classic blending of music and visual imagery. (Interestingly, Maurice Jarre, composer of large orchestral scores for movies like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, decided on “electronic” synthesizer music, since there was no Amish “folk music” that could be used.) Film critic Steven D. Greydanus summarized it…
“The barn-raising scene particularly is both a glowing celebration and an unanswerable challenge: This is no Hollywood fantasy, no idealized fiction, but how the Amish actually live. We can hardly imagine living that way ourselves, having that degree of commitment to our neighbor, to our community — but how reassuring it would be in this lonely world to be able to count on others in this way.”
As the story progresses, Book and the conveniently widowed Rachel discover a mutual romantic attraction, raising serious concern within the Amish community. But before too much can happen, the bad guys from the city trace him to Rachel’s home. While Book uses violence to defend himself from the thugs in the movie’s climatic showdown at the farm, it is the Amish who save the day by not fighting back. In a wonderful scene, the Amish, by their sheer numbers and presence, use non-violence to end the killing. As Book leaves the farm, grandfather offers this parting advice, “You be careful out among those English.”
The love story reminded director Weir of Madame Butterfly, two individuals who can’t stay together because of cultural reasons. As film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “The love that begins to grow between them is not made out of clichés; the cultural gulf that separates them, is at least as important to both of them as the feelings they have. When they finally kiss, it is a glorious sensuous moment because this kiss is a sharing of trust and passion.”
For those visitors who have seen the film, the local town sequences were filmed in the village of Intercourse, particularly on the porch of Zimmerman’s Store on Main Street. Just up Queen Street near the Best Western Inn, Ford (dressed in Amish clothes) gave an obnoxious punk a bloody nose while a local businessman complained, “This is not good for the tourist trade.”
The “WITNESS farm” itself, which was not Amish and owned by the Paul Krantz family Farm, was located out of view off a backroad west of Strasburg. It is not open to the public (except for special bus tours in 2005 in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the film), and looks quite different from the way it did in the film. Known as the “Willow Spring Farm,” it is now Amish-owned and being preserved for agricultural use through the preservation efforts of the Lancaster Farmland Trust because of its connection to the film.
Because of Harrison Ford’s popularity around the world, and the marketing of the film as a romantic thriller, millions of people from Europe to Japan saw Witness. For many, it was an “introduction” to Amish culture, and a visit to a locale and people that were foreign to most people’s perceptions of America. It remains a popular film, often shown on TV, and now to be re-released as a 20th anniversary “Collectors Edition” DVD by Paramount Pictures in August.
Following the film’s release, a reviewer for TIME magazine noted the movie taught a valuable lesson — that people of two different cultures could meet and be enriched by their friendship, but not have to destroy or radically change the other’s way of life. Regardless of what faults you may find with the movie, it definitely provides some food for thought. Published with permission from the Amish country news. Richard from Amish Stories.
Amish Chili : 1 pound hamburger 1 onion, diced 1 cup diced celery 1/2 cup carrots 1 can pork and beans 1 can kidney beans 1 can tomato soup 1/2 cup ketchup 1 can lima beans Corn, if desired 1 handful spaghetti Fry hamburger with onion in large pan. At same time, boil carrots, celery and spaghetti until vegetables are soft; drain. Add pork and beans, kidney beans, tomato soup, ketchup and limas; add to meat mixture. Season with salt and pepper. Heat through, then serve. If too thick, add tomato juice or water. Serves 6. Recipe from the recipe goldmine.