Paramount // 1985 // 112 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // November 6th, 2000
The dramatic version of Kingpin.
Harrison Ford, never one to pass up the chance to play the hero, joined up with director Peter Weir (The Truman Show) in 1985 to make Witness, the story of what happens when the Amish community takes in a stranger from the big city. A critical and box office hit, Paramount has released Witness on DVD, though I'm pretty sure the Amish are still using the VCR (if even that...they may still be stuck with Beta).
John Book (Ford) is a cop from Philadelphia trying to track down the killer(s) of a police officer at a train station. The only witness to the case (hence the name of the film...as if I needed to say that) is an Amish boy (Lukas Hass) on the way to a visit in the big city with his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis, part of the VH1 "where are they now?" club). Reluctant to partake in any ways of the English world, the boy and his mother hesitantly help out Book. Through a series of events, Book is forced to hide out among the Amish. In this time, he begins a (sort of) love affair with Rachel, learns how to build barns, and tries to figure out how to not swear or generally act like a normal person in front of the Amish community. But soon the forces of evil (no, NOT Storm Troopers or Nazis) find out where he is, and it's up to Book to protect the non-violent community of butter-churners.
Witness is a very enjoyable, thought provoking film. Roger Ebert is quoted on the back of the DVD case as saying "Harrison Ford has never given a better performance in a movie." I thoroughly agree with this statement. I think that by far this is one of Ford's best screen roles, and he gives the character a depth that might have otherwise been ignored by lesser actors. Ford's Oscar nomination was well deserved. I thought he should have won an Academy Award for Six Days, Seven Nights for pulling off a semi-decent love scene with Anne Heche, but hey, you get what you can take.
The script for Witness is one of the best scripts to come out of Hollywood, and was certainly one of the best from 1985. The characters are rich and textured (save for the villains, who seem to have only one purpose). Even minor characters, like the late Alexander Godunov as Daniel, plays well as a peaceful Amish suitor vying for Rachel's hand. Lukas Hass (so small and elfish that he looks like he should be delivering presents for Santa at the North Pole) does fine work with his role of Samuel, a boy entranced with Book's world, and the knowledge he brings with him. A scene where Samuel is shown a gun by Book is touching yet harsh, for much of what Book can share with Samuel is what the Amish shun.
The movie is a fascinating look at the Amish community. I know very little about the culture of the Amish, so I can't really say if this film is an accurate portrayal of their life or not. I can say that the script seems to stick to what I know of the Amish, and does a good job of keeping them human and dignified, not some cartoonish version of pathetic people in need of "20th century" redemption. Most all the characters are written well with well-placed humanity.
One aspect that I feel the need to point out is the music score by Maurice Jarre (composer of such films as Dead Poet's Society and Ghost). Nominated for an Academy Award, Jarre chose not to accomplish his wringing of emotions by using a 900-piece John Williams type of orchestration. Instead, he relies upon mainly a synthesizer to accomplish this feat. Although this seems like an unlikely choice, this tends to lift the film to an even higher plane. For whatever reason, the movie gods give this music score life, and it becomes a fitting theme for the simple life of the Amish.
Witness is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 widescreen, enhanced for 16x9 TVs (for those of you wondering, we got an anamorphic guy here!). Paramount has done a fine job with this transfer, making sure that grain is at a minimum and blacks are solid, colors bright. I have no real complaints on the picture quality, especially because this is a fine job all around (now, if only the same can be said for the non-anamorphic treatment of the new Planet Of The Apes box set Fox released...).
Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1, and is sufficiently well mixed. By no means a "shoot 'em up" action flick, Witness is instead a thought provoking drama, so huge speakers and bass are not needed (but don't hurt). Also included is a French language track, so all of France can also enjoy the splendor known as Witness. Those lucky French. First they get Jerry Lewis and now this...
For once, Paramount has put on something extra on a disc, instead of JUST a theatrical trailer. For Witness the trailer is still there (full frame and somewhat scratchy), but we ALSO get a seven-minute interview with director Peter Weir. He talks about his first meeting with Ford, about wanting to do a picture like the ones the studios did in the old times, and other tidbits and morsels about the film. It tends to play itself out more as a documentary, interspersing the interview with clips from the movie and some behind-the-scenes shots. Interesting, if basically a throwaway in the end.
There really isn't a lot of negative to say about Witness. The plot is well done, the acting first rate...an overall splendid picture. As stated, the villains are sometimes a bit over the top, but that is really an oversight that can be dealt with, as the bulk of the film tends to deal with Book's relationship with Rachel, Samuel, and the rest of the Amish community.
Paramount is commended for giving us a great transfer and nice audio mix, and is given a (small) pat on the back for putting on SOMETHING besides just the theatrical trailer. For the price (you can probably find this for around $24.99 at many stores) you won't go wrong, especially if you're a Harrison Ford fan.
Free to go and wander the farmlands and fields of America, making sweet cream and building barns.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer
* Interview with Peter Weir