Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade – during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded with his typically too-late attempt to go where Daniel Day-Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with Oscar-nominated results at bare minimum). That’s right, he did a disability turn – not quite “full retard” – in the much-derided Regarding Henry. And so, he retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, the point where his cachet began to crumble.
There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the ’80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic. Because director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debut, breathes a life-giving, transformative spirit into the material that largely raises it beyond its more run-of-the-mill elements.
In essence, Witness is playing with the same “white saviour” trope Dances with Wolves shamelessly rode with a few years later, but it would be more accurately characterised as “American saviour” here, since Ford’s Book is “English”, saving the traditional, pacifist, technophobe (German) Amish from themselves. Book learns simpler, more peaceful ways from the community, and doing a hard day’s honest work, recalling useful graft (Ford’s own carpentry skills) as well as taking the time for the romance that had always eluded him hitherto. In return, he beats up some obnoxious yobs and resists the urge to become Lukas Haas’ surrogate father (like Dances with Wolves, the worlds cannot, ultimately, meet, and Book must, finally, travel back to the twentieth century).
Interestingly, while Weir doesn’t reject the essential beats of the detective thriller in resolving the conflict, he is careful not to embrace the violence at the heart of that genre. When Book opens a can of whoop-ass on the youths, the director obliges a close up of the now-victim’s bloody face; Book’s justice is horrifying, even as it is momentarily cathartic (Hey, you stupid Amish, why don’t you stand up for yourselves? Oh…)
Later, when the picture invokes High Noon (or Outland) for a showdown with the three corrupt cops out to permanently silence Book and his young witness ward – Weir evokes the paranoid, haven-less world of ’70s conspiracy cinema very effectively, such that it’s only a matter of time, even off-grid, before the predators close in – Book’s response is typically messy. And in fairness to Ford, he’s generally quite keen to bring uncertainty and fear to traditionally macho altercations, even in its most comic book, Indy form.
Book manages to drown one in a grain silo, before blowing Danny Glover away in a manner that’s so brief, it avoids glorification. The following confrontation with Chief Schaeffer (Josef Sommer) is curious, though, because I don’t think you’d get the hero using the boy as a human shield now, even to make a point (“What are you going to do, kill all of us?”) If I have a more general criticism, in respect of the corrupt cops plot, it’s that Weir might have taken greater effort to avoid making it obvious Schaeffer’s dodgy from his very first scene with Book.
Weir can handle action with panache when he wants to (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World), but he’s much more interested in steeping Witness in atmosphere. From the first scene, in which a subtitle informs us these retro Amish are actually in the present day, he’s intent on inviting us to experience a different pace, of attitude, season, and understanding.
The yarn’s most obvious conflict derives from the framing thriller element, which ensures there’s an underlying tension even during the picture’s most leisurely intervals, but the clash of attitudes toward life is far more encompassing. The very presence of Book is, as Eli (Jan Rubes) recognises, not merely disruptive but dangerous, from his influence on Samuel, with all the part-and-parcel corruptive hero worship and weaponry that comes with him, to the response of Rachel (Kelly McGillis) to a real man, one with real fists. To them, Book represents deliverance from repression and stricture.
That said, and again, I think it’s evidence of Weir’s reluctance to go purely by the book of the screenplay, it’s gratifying that Rachel’s suitor Daniel (Alexander Godunov, the ex-ballet dancer best known for Die Hard, who sadly died quite young) isn’t remotely the repressed jealous louse you might expect. Indeed, he’s a much more winning, spritely fellow than Book, recognising his competition in a playful manner and observing Amish principles while clearly not always liking them.
You can readily imagine this movie with a less skilled director and a star more focussed on emphasising the heroic beats; John Badham passed on it as just another cop movie, and he knew a thing or two about them (they were his stock in trade). Stallone apparently cited turning down Witness as one of his great regrets, but what movie would it have been with him in it? Ford attracted Weir; Sly wouldn’t have. His version would have been just as memorable as his Beverly Hills Cop. Cobra in a wheat field.
It may just be that Ford, by being so unobtrusive and everyman about his performance, is doing everything necessary to let this story breathe; McGillis’ most famous moment here may be her topless scene, and the most memorable scene between them is undoubtedly their dancing to Wonderful World on the car radio – the tune’s resurgent popularity saw it subsequently included in a British Levi’s ad campaign, the rereleased Sam Cooke version then reaching Number 2 in the UK single charts – but she makes a subtle, witty and soulful presence throughout.
This is one of her best roles, and Weir depicts the love story in sensitively low-key fashion, making it all the more effective. Consequently, it’s unfortunate the flashy vacuity of Top Gun ultimately made more of an impact. Haas impresses too, as the wide-eyed and non-precocious titular character, while young Danny Glover (a fresh-faced 39) was on the cusp of playing a borderline geriatric in Lethal Weapon. Viggo Mortenson can also be seen, in his first movie role.
As with Year of Living Dangerously, Weir enlists an electronic score to invite painterly contrast; while the results aren’t as striking as Vangelis’ there, Maurice Jarre’s work proves effective. Again, I doubt very much you’d get that kind of choice, had this picture been made in any other era. It would be all classical strings. Instead, Weir further underlines the manner in which this community is, in its way, every bit as distant as a futuristic cityscape (on more than one occasion revisiting Witness this time, I thought of Vincent Ward’s later The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, in which the modern world is seen through the eyes of peasants from the Middle Ages).
Any director with artistic leanings tackling mainstream material naturally lends themselves to the middlebrow leanings of the Academy, so it probably wasn’t that much of a surprise when Witness mustered eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Score, Art Direction, Cinematography (Weir was inspired by Vermeer) and Editing (McGillis should have receved a nod too). If one were to be cynical, the barn building sequence alone, with its poetic montage, probably ensured such recognition; besides Screenplay, it took home Editing on the night.
I mentioned Dances with Wolves above, but the picture’s other relevant thematic aspect was also evident in the year’s biggest hit, Back to the Future: an escape from the shallow ’80s to a more nostalgic time, when values meant something, even if that time wasn’t attributed an entirety of positives. Critic Pauline Kael didn’t respond well to Witness’s yearnings, pronouncing it guilty of “a compendium of scenes I had hoped never to see again”, and accusing Weir of having “succumbed to blandness”.
She also suggested the film failed to address the repressiveness of Amish society, yet it’s patently obvious women there are subordinate; to underline this would be the kind of sledgehammer tactic she’d have usually berated. If Weir doesn’t deal with the subject head on, it’s because he credits the audience with sufficient intelligence to infer, just as he did by electing to exclude a final expository scene between John and Rachel, against the studio execs’ objections.
But then, my takeaway isn’t at all Kael’s view that “there’s the implicit argument that a religious community produces a higher order of human being than a secular society” (at the same time, she admitted “it has its allure, but you’re ready to leave when Book goes – you wouldn’t want to live there and get up at 4.30 A.M. and work like a plow horse”). Even Elli comes to see the usefulness of Book’s bloody approach (“You be careful out there among them English”). If anything, the director diligently emphasises the flaws all round.
Like Back to the Future, Weir’s greatest achievement may be the balancing of elements, such that no area feels short-changed. The thriller plot satisfies, as do the arcs of Book and those he meets, and the resolution, melancholy as it is, is all it could be. And, lest we forget, Witness was a big hit, the confirmation, some time coming, that Ford could lead a vehicle to success that wasn’t Han or Indy; he’d reteam with Weir for a more ambitious project, perhaps his biggest stretch as an actor, but unfortunately, its critical and commercial failure likely laid the seed for his retreat from troubling himself with experimentation outside his accustomed wheelhouse.