Film / Witness

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A 1985 film directed by Peter Weir and starring Harrison Ford, who also earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Also starring Kelly McGillis, Lukas Haas and Danny Glover.

Samuel Lapp, a young Amish boy journeying to Baltimore with his mother, the recently widowed Rachel, witnesses two men kill an undercover police officer in a Philadelphia train station bathroom. Detective John Book takes the boy into custody to protect him when it turns out that the killers are crooked narcotics cops. After a shootout, Book is wounded and hides with the Lapps on their farm, and ends up developing a relationship with Rachel as he recovers, adapting to the Amish lifestyle and being tentatively accepted by the community. But their idyllic lifestyle is soon shattered once the villains figure out where they went and descend upon the unsuspecting Amish town with their guns.


This film provides examples of:

  • Actually Pretty Funny:
    • After spending a night in Eleine's house, Rachel has a talk with John about him and his sister, working almost like a mouthpiece and a mediator for Eleine. Eventually both Rachel and John end up laughing about all the things she repeats to him.
    • During the milking scene, Eli asks Book, who is having trouble with it, "Come on man, have you never held a teat before?" to which Book deadpans "Not one this big." You expect the dour Eli to get indignant at this fairly sexual quip, but after taking a second to realize what Book means, he instead gives a roar of laughter and claps him on the back in a "You're all right, kid" manner.note 
  • Adult Fear: The film likes to slap a lot of it on you, especially when concerning Samuel's well being.
    • The most prominent being the Gun scene. You have Samuel who as an Amish person, let alone a child, has never seen or known how a handgun works. He sneaks into Book's room while he's in another room, still recovering from his own gunshot wound. Out of sheer curiosity he opens the drawer and takes Book's gun out. Book walking in and seeing Samuel, knowing the gun is loaded, yells at him not to move. You can tell by the tone of his voice, he's more worried that Samuel would get hurt rather than angry. Book gives Samuel a stern lecture about handling a loaded gun and even shows him how to properly disarm it. As if that wasn't bad enough Rachel walks in, not knowing the gun was unloaded, but still upset that her kid is handling a handgun. She justifiably chews Book out over it and rather than argue with her, he agrees and asks her to hide it in a safer place. Eli gets in on it too and gives a less stern, but reasonable lecture to Samuel on why it's not ok to use a gun and take human life.note  You can even tell by his voice, that he's seen his fair share of violence and that he just doesn't want to see his own grandson get hurt or hurt anyone else too.
    • Later, Rachel and Eli are reduced to prayers about Samuel's well-being as they don't know if he was killed or managed to escape from the corrupt cops. Eli is more than relieved when he notices Samuel hidden in the corridor of their own house, but before that he had a really hard time not to burst into tears, all while trying to put on a strong face and keep Rachel calm.
  • Actual Pacifist: Naturally. Though in a very humanizing moment, that doesn't mean Daniel can't enjoy the sight of some jerks who were harassing him getting their asses kicked.
  • An Aesop: The film depicts violence as never being the answer and depicts it unpleasantly and having negative consequences. As satisfying as it may be to the viewer, Book angrily punching the Jerkass tourist who was bullying Daniel is what allows Schaeffer to track him down. At the opposite end, the movie, by this same logic, avoids having Book kill Schaeffer in favor of a nonviolent conclusion.
  • Affably Evil: Police Chief Schaeffer remains calm, collected, cordial and keeps up a friendly attitude rather than trying to antagonise Book or Carter. He still is the mastermind behind a massive drug deal, but remains much more humane than his underlings.
  • Amish: The film is notable for being one of the first mainstream works of fiction centered on the Amish community and portrays it with great accuracy. It also uses Lancaster Amish, who are much more liberal than the rest of the congregations, allowing the film to be made in the first place.
  • Arcadia: Zig-Zagged. While the life of the Amish is portrayed as peaceful, calm and with a closely knit community that supports all members, it doesn't shy from also portraying all the hard work it takes to run a farm, especially one with only basic tools, while also showing the concept of shunning.
  • Bad-Guy Bar: John and Elton, his partner, raid one early on to get a suspect for Sam. The bar is called "Happy Valley".
  • The Bad Guys Are Cops: The reason Book has to hide among the Amish is because so many of his own fellow officers are corrupt drug dealers, including his superior, Schaeffer.
  • Barn Raising: Probably the film's most famous scene. Well, maybe second most famous (see Shower Scene below)
  • Big Damn Heroes: The entire Amish community shows up in the end.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Knowing German helps a lot with numerous scenes, as there is no translation provided. This even includes jokes told between the Amish.
  • Bilingual Dialogue: Samuel talks in this fashion, mixing words from English and German.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Elton Carter, John's partner, gets murdered by the corrupt cops. This turns the entire case into a very personal matter for Book.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Despite knowing the Lapp family and living in the Amish community for only a few days, Book is able to blend in pretty well and adopt their mannerisms. The only times he slips up are when he threatens a lady or gets into a fight with some tourists that harass Daniel.
  • But Now I Must Go: Book, at the end, goes back to his normal life.
  • The Cast Show Off: Harrison Ford is a skilled carpenter in real life, having worked as one prior to acting, and demonstrates carpentry skills several times in the film.
  • City Mouse: Averted. Book very quickly adapts to life on an Amish farm. However, early on he has problems with simply waking up early enough to milk the cows, as he is not used to getting up before sunrise.
  • The City vs. the Country: Naturally. The country wins on the moral side, but the film avoid portraying it as a Utopia.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
  • Chekhov's Lecture: Samuel shows John the entire farm, including the silo.
  • Cool Old Guy: Eli Lapp, who despite his strict demeanor is surprisingly cheerful and joking, while also showing deep affection and concern to his family rather than being the sort of tyrant his initial behavior toward Book might have indicated.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Death by grain silo drowning.
  • Culture Clash: Duh. It's prominent especially early on, when the film is told from Sam's perspective - it's his first time outside the Amish community. And he ends up witnessing a murder. The rest of the film heavily contrasts the relatively peaceful life of the Amish with the hectic, brutal and cynical modern world around them, instead making Book the person experiencing customs and things completely alien to him.
  • Dead Man's Trigger Finger: McFee dies this way. Instead of trying to hit anyone, he simply falls heavily on the ground, while shooting the roof of the barn.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Daniel. Notably, apart from a pointed question about when Book is going to leave, he doesn't create any problems for him and Rachel. Justified in that his patient courting is implied to win out in the end when Book leaves, while Book also earned a personal trust with Daniel.
  • The Dragon: McFee.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: This is how the Amish win through nonviolence. They passively witness Schaeffer doing evil, meaning he'd have to slaughter every man, woman and child in the village to keep his secret. He realizes that he cannot bring himself to go that far and gives up.
  • Florence Nightingale Effect: While taking care of the badly wounded Book, Rachel starts developing feelings toward him. Besides, she's already grateful for him taking care of her and Samuel up until that point.
  • Friend to All Children: As callous as he might appear, John actually does genuinely care about kids, both Samuel and his own nephews. Book is freaked when Sam almost started playing with his gun, hangs around with the boy and even builds him a wooden toy, utilizing his carpentry skills.
  • Full-Name Basis: Almost all Amish call John by his full name, with only few exceptions. In fact, the more people are intimate with him, the more they are likely to use his full name.
  • Good Is Not Soft: While Amish are Actual Pacifists, that doesn't mean they are naive and most certainly they are not stupid. Their true strength lies in their strong, tightly-knit community.
  • Gratuitous German: The Amish often speak their "Pennsylvania German" to each other. It is very distinct from the European version, but still can be understood on a basic level.
  • Greed: The drug deal done by the dirty cops was worth 22 million dollarsnote . Assuming it was a split for just three people, it really gives them a reason to be so vicious in keeping it secret.
  • Hawaiian-Shirted Tourist: The type of tourists visiting Intercourse, "the most Amish town in the world". And the locals exploit both their naivety and nearby Amish communities for their own gain.
  • Have You Told Anyone Else?: When Book finds out that the perpetrator of a recent cop murder is a narcotics detective, and upon further investigation realizes said detective was involved in the theft of confiscated drugs, he goes to Police Chief Schaeffer and, upon telling everything he knows, is asked whether he has told anyone else. When Book says no, Schaeffer tells him to keep it quiet. Justified by the fact that Book trusts Schaeffer and, as a police corruption case, it would make sense to keep as few officers in the loop as possible. It turns out Schaeffer was in on it though and he uses this.
  • He Knows Too Much: Both Book and Carter end up as targets for the corrupt cops, who eventually murder Carter. Also, Samuel is a witness to a drug-related murder, making a little boy another person they are willing to kill.
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.: Book has a couple. Notably, this is the reason he finally hauls off and punches out the tourist picking on Daniel: he'd just learned his partner Carter had been killed and the tourist picked then of all times to push Book's buttons.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: Justified. John tries to reach the top of the silo to get it open as a distraction, but can't move the hinge. Fergie, the corrupt cop after him, looks up, but since the ladder is inside a narrow, dark tunnel without any lights, he fails a spot check, while looking directly at Book's feet.
  • Home Sweet Home: Due to the events he went through, Samuel is traumatized by the modern world and big city life. The return to the farm makes the boy finally calm down and feel safe.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Book's reason for leaving. He knows Daniel will make a better husband for Rachel and father for Samuel. And before that, he made sure to stay as close as possible to Amish customs to spare Rachel from gossip and being shunned.
  • Insistent Terminology:
    • Amish call all the outsiders "English". Daniel even jokingly explains to John it doesn't make much difference if they are Yanks or English - they are simply not Amish.
    • Gun of the hand, aka a handgun.
  • Jerk Ass: Those redneck tourists in town who harass the Amish.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: While being a self-righteous hot head with a deadpan attitude, John still does the best he can for people around him in a genuine effort to help and show gratitude.
  • Just a Flesh Wound: Subverted. Book is badly hit and only barely survives getting shot in the side by McFee.
  • Limited Wardrobe:
    • Amish in general wear a very distinctive set of clothes and even when they do change them, they just change into an almost identical set.
    • John ends up wearing clothes of Jacob, Rachel's late husband. Hilarity Ensues, since Jacob was apparently a head shorter than Book, making all his clothes looking as though they were taken from a younger brother, until Rachel starts to re-fit them.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: Justified. In the thick of the fight John didn't notice McFee shot him in the side due to the adrenaline rush. He patches the wound the best he can by himself and gets Rachel and Samuel to their farm. Since he's barely moving for the whole time, the blood loss doesn't affect him as quickly as it would normally.
  • Married to the Job: Book. But unlike the typical example of a failed marriage or being a loner, he substitutes having a family on his own with being a regular guest for his sister and her kids, still playing the role of the overprotective older brother to her.
  • Mugging the Monster: A group of rednecks antagonize a group of Amish for no particular reason aside from "just because". Book doesn't take it lightly, especially since he just learned Carter was killed, but first tries to find a peaceful solution. When it fails and the redneck in question keeps pushing, John breaks his nose with a single swing. Just because he dresses like the Amish, it doesn't make him one.
    John Book: (in sincere, non-threatening tone) You are making a mistake...
  • Oh, Crap!: John realizing the Police Chief is part of the drug-dealing circle and he reported the entire case directly to him to keep things secret.
  • One-Word Title
  • Overly Narrow Superlative: Numerous Amish characters comment on how John "looks plain", as a way of complementing him. For them it means an actual praise, but it takes John a while to stop chuckling every time someone tells him that.
  • Papa Wolf: While neither being their son, father or husband, Book will do anything to protect Eli, Samuel and Rachel.
  • Perfect Pacifist People: The Amish. They still come to the rescue at the end, though, in their own way.
  • Power of Trust: John is more than aware how important it is to be able to trust people, especially after Chief Schaeffer turns out to be part of the police drug deal. He trusts his partner and his sister and knows they won't fail. After ending up among the Amish, he does his very best to gain their trust on different occasions. This greatly helps him, as the Amish don't antagonize him in any way nor pay it back on Rachel.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Schaeffer has a family and doesn't seem as vicious as his two overzealous henchmen.
  • Put Down Your Gun and Step Away: Done twice. First by Schaeffer to Book when he has Rachel hostage, and later by the Amish to Schaeffer. Surprisingly it works, and Schaeffer is shamed into surrendering after realizing he can't actually so many.
  • Reality Ensues:
    • Without access to modern medicine or a trained doctor, John spends two days just regaining consciousness after getting shot, barely living through the heavy blood loss and fever. It takes another few days for him to get back on his feet.
    • Revolvers hold a maximum of 6 bullets and usually one chamber is left empty as a safety measure. After going dry, both Book and McFee can't shoot anymore and are forced to flee from each other.
  • Reality Has No Subtitles: Not a single line is translated from the Pennsylvanian German. Most notable is the opening of the film, where it's more about the atmosphere of the situation than understanding the dialogue.
  • Really Gets Around: Eleine, John's sister, is apparently constantly having a new admirer. John even half-jokingly, half-scoldingly mentions he can't keep track of their names anymore. It's not made explicit if she's divorced or never married, making it very murky who is the father of her sons.
  • Reckless Gun Usage: Averted, if not outright defied. Out of pure curiosity, Samuel starts looking through John's things, including a revolver, when Book is not in the room. However, before he can even touch the gun, John shows up and stops him. Then he takes a long while to carefully explain the boy the dangers of handling a loaded weapon. He then tells Rachel and Eli about it, making it explicit to them it was his own fault and neglect, not Samuel's, all while being genuinely freaked by the sheer possibility of the boy handling the gun. Then Eli explains to Samuel why it's wrong to even touch a weapon. The entire sequence is handled with amazing grace, given the subject, and without any heavy-handed preaching, while also carefully explaining the Amish pacifistic stance.
  • Red Herring: The revolver hidden in the kitchen and the importance of bullets being stored separately? They are never used in any way. Book doesn't even get a chance to run to the house for it and is forced to improvise instead.
  • The Reveal:
    • It's an undercover cop getting shanked and not just a random guy killed by two mafioso types.
    • And said types are police officers themselves.
    • Paul Schaeffer was part of the scheme, a thing Book learns only when he's attacked by McFee and quickly makes a connection between the two.
  • Ridiculously Average Surname: A third of all Lancaster Amish are called Lapp.
  • Rube Goldberg Device: Downplayed. Book builds a toy version for Samuel as a gift of gratitude.
  • Searching the Stalls / Indy Hat Roll: The bathroom scene that sets up the plot. Hey, that's another Shout-Out!
  • Secretly Dying: At least from Rachel's perspective, since she didn't know Book was wounded.
  • Scary Black Man: McFee, especially when shown from Samuel's perspective.
  • Shout-Out: Book has some coffee, strikes a pose and says "Honey — that's great coffee!" He's clearly parodying a commercial, even if you've never seen it; of course the Lapps don't know what this is about. Early in his career, Ford had auditioned for a Folger's commercial, but couldn't say the line the way the director wanted it.
  • Shower Scene: A variant, as the Amish don't use showers, instead rubbing themselves down with a wet cloth. But Rachel and Book share a sexually charged moment where she's finished bathing and lets him get a good look at her.
  • So Much for Stealth: Samuel makes a noise just about when the villains decide to leave the bathroom. An Indy Hat Roll keeps him from being caught though.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Rachel and Book. Their relationship is pretty much doomed from the get-go. What's really important is how they are both aware of it. In fact Book does his best to stay away, as their relationship would put Rachel in danger of being shunned by other Amish, and that's the last thing he wants for her.
  • Take a Third Option: Part of the Amish reasoning for pacifism - locking the world in us-vs-them logic is simply wrong and harmful. Even if John wasn't present when Eli lectured Sam about it, he still uses a variation of the same logic to talk Schaeffer into surrendering.
  • Totally Radical: Played for Laughs. Rachel can't find a proper word to describe Book's aggressive behavior early on, ultimately settling for...
    John Book: ..."Whacking"?
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The trailer itself tells only the basic premise of the film, but it uses the scene from the very end, showing three dirty cops walking, armed, toward the Amish farm. While it makes the trailer suspenseful due to the way it's edited, it definitely spoils the fact John will be found, which isn't that obvious till it happens in the film.
  • Translation Convention: When Eli is explaining to Samuel all the complicated matters of taking life and staying away from weapons, he makes a quote from The Bible. Said quote is from the King James' version, which the Amish rarely use, but was much more accessible to Anglophone audiences.
  • Two Decades Behind: Forensic facial composition has been a thing since the early 70s. Instead of even trying to make one, which would greatly speed up the search for the killer, Samuel is put in front of an album full of mugshots to pick out the murderer.
  • Unperson: Being shunned means no member of the Amish community can share a meal or even talk to the shunned person, basically making them an outcast for the entire congregation.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Subverted. John always makes the important details explicit to his different allies, but at the same time keeps enough things secret to make it possible for everyone to pledge an honest Plausible Deniability in case they are captured and interrogated.
    • He tells his sister what she's supposed to say in case of being asked, but doesn't explain much more, so she can't give anything away.
    • Carter is told to get rid of the files of the case, but John doesn't tell him what he plans to do or where he's heading.
    • John explains to Rachel why he can't see a doctor due to his gunshot wound, which in turn makes it much easier for her to explain it to her father and the elders of their community.
  • Viewers Are Morons: The card reading "Pennsylvania, 1984" was added on executive demand in the opening scene, ruining an otherwise neat setup implying for a while that the film is set in an unspecified past.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Played with and subverted. Schaeffer initially seems hellbent on killing Samuel for witnessing the murder but he finds himself unable to actually do it when the time comes, and is shamed into giving up.
  • Wretched Hive: Philadelphia gets this treatment. It's portrayed as a massive city, where people get shanked in a public restroom, cops are corrupt or rabid, women indecent and everyone remains anonymous in their actions.
  • You Can Barely Stand: John took a bullet in his side. While he still drove from Philly to the Lapp farm in Lancaster county, it almost killed him.

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Film/Witness