Historical Circuit: Peter Weir Uses Film as His Canvas in 1985’s ‘Witness’

Lukas Haas in 1985's "Witness"
Paramount Pictures’ “Witness”

TITLE OF FILM: “Witness”
DIRECTOR: Peter Weir
WRITER: William Kelley, Pamela Wallace, Earl W. Wallace
STARRING: Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis, Josef Sommer, Lukas Haas, Jan Rubes, Brent Jennings, Alexander Godunov, Danny Glover, Patti LuPone


A group of Amish dressed in black gather to pay their respects to a man who has recently been “called home.” The man’s wife, Rachel (Kelly McGillis), and son, Samuel (Lukas Haas), are offered condolences from the community. There is a great sense of respect for each individual and for this simple and pious life.

Months after the funeral, when wounds have begun to heal, Rachel and her son travel to Baltimore to visit her sister. Their train is delayed so the two must wait at the downtown train station in Philadelphia. Samuel wanders around the station, mesmerized by what he sees. He soon discovers that not all is wonderment in this world. Traumatically, he finds himself the only witness to a horrific murder.

Philadelphia police officer John Book (Harrison Ford) is lead investigator of the crime and designated protector of the pair of “misfits.” When Samuel is finally able to identify the killer, Book must put the investigation and his own life aside to protect his witness.


“Witness” is a quiet film. Most of the pivotal scenes take place in silence. The film relies on the acting, the score and the frame of each shot to convey true emotion and silent conversation. This stillness feels real for the story’s setting. The Amish community prides itself on simple living and religious work without the distractions of the modern world. “Witness” prides itself on a realistic and respectful representation of this life in the midst of a murder mystery.

The production team is top notch. The score by three-time Academy Award winner Maurice Jarre breathes both calmness and intensity with each note. Cinematographer John Seale (Oscar winner for “The English Patient”) has lit the film with supreme precision, paying homage to the paintings of Johannes Vermeer. Every scene appears hazy and natural, as if each ray of light and shadow were of this world and not planned and placed. The art direction provides contrasting imagery of the modern and Amish worlds in order to bring them to life with equal weight and importance.

Peter Weir is one of the most underrated directors of our time. He has been nominated for six Academy Awards throughout his career. He has been the captain of films such as “Dead Poet Society” (1989), “The Truman Show” (1998) and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003). His filmography is an eclectic mix, but on closer inspection the films have a lot in common. Weir has the grand capacity to place his characters in aberrant situations that ultimately lead them to the discovery of their true colors.

“Witness” features a tremendous ensemble. Jan Rubes is a delight as the strict but lovable Opa. Danny Glover gives a compelling turn as a crooked cop, in stark contrast to his Detective Murtaugh from 1987’s “Lethal Weapon.” Lukas Haas plays our inquisitive young witness. The moment in which his character observes the crime is truly heart-pounding. This is due in great part to the range of emotions that fly across his face in a matter of seconds. At eight-years-old, Haas delivered a performance worthy of a veteran actor.

Kelly McGillis (who would star in “Top Gun” in 1986) is radiant as our female lead. Her Rachel is brave and capable. She walks a fine line as a woman torn between the life she has and the life she may desire. Harrison Ford may be best known for Han Solo and Indiana Jones, but it is this film (release two years after “The Return of the Jedi” and in the midst of the original Jones trilogy) that proves he has the range of a great actor. In “Witness,” he truly delivers his best screen performance. His John Book is gruff and steely, but filled with heart and a deep capacity for love.

Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis in a scene from “Witness”


“Witness” is part thriller and part love story. But it is at its strongest during its exploration of culture. Rachel and John meet under heartbreaking circumstances. They also have deep-seated preconceived notions of the other. Both of these story attributes have the potential to starve these two characters from uncovering their deep craving for a human connection. But love, once again, is the emotion that can bridge great divides.

As Rachel and John’s affections grow, they begin to look at each other’s lives with a deeper sense of respect. And as their respect grows, so does their love.

The film’s star-crossed lovers begin to question the very foundation of their own lives. Their differences and the horrific events that have brought them together begin to seem not so important. They ask themselves what they would be willing to give up in order to have one moment or one lifetime with each other.


In 1985, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “This is, first of all, an electrifying and poignant love story. Then it is a movie about the choices we make in life and the choices other people make for us. Only then is it a thriller- one that Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud to make.”

Reading through reviews, the critics that did not score the film highly (and most did) seemed to harp on how perfect the film was. They lamented that the subtle and exquisite details of the opposing worlds and the steadiness of the pace hinder the story’s drive. I suppose if criticism is necessary, to be labeled too perfect is not the worst thing.

“Witness” was nominated for a slew of awards. The Directors Guild, Writers Guild, Golden Globes and BAFTA recognized the achievements of this film with numerous nominations and several wins. On filmmaking’s most prestigious night, the academy recognized “Witness” with six nominations- Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Actor (the only Oscar nomination of Harrison Ford’s career), Best Director and Best Picture. The film would win two – Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing.

The famous barn raising scene from “Witness”


“Witness” is unique in its amalgamation of genre. Breaking down various aspects of the film can lead to a wide range of film discoveries.

PBS released a fantastic documentary in 2012 called “The Amish.” It looks at a culture sheltered from the modern world. This is an in-depth five-part series.

There have been several films released recently that focus on protecting witnesses of a crime. “Did You Hear About the Morgans?” (2012) or “The Family” (also 2012) are more recent examples. However, if you are looking for films worthy of your time, try going back a ways to “Bullitt,” starring Steve McQueen from 1968 or “Sister Act,” starring Whoopi Goldberg from 1992.

The ill-fated relationship makes for premier drama as well, and 2017 was a great year for this. Check out “The Shape of Water,” “Call Me By Your Name” or “Disobedience.” Each is a masterpiece.


“Witness” is an example of filmmaking at its best. It is essentially a master class in every aspect of this art form. Weir uses production to tell the story he wants. He is not interested rushing the audience through the narrative. He manages to slow things down, and he asks the the audience to do the same. In today’s hectic and often violent world, this request should be made from time to time.

“Witness” is available for streaming free on Kanopy.  It is available for rent/purchase on Amazon Prime, Apple, Microsoft, YouTube, Google Play.

What are your thoughts on “Witness”? Let us know in the comments below!