When Australian director Peter Weir (“Gallipoli”) began filming “Witness” in 1984, Harrison Ford was a major action-adventure star known for his roles as Han Solo in the “Star Wars” trilogy and Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” At the time, though, few moviegoers considered Ford as an actor capable of playing a romantic lead on the silver screen. (Ford starred in Peter Hyams’ 1979 World War II melodrama “Hanover Street,” but it failed to earn popular and critical acclaim.)
Happily for Ford and movie audiences everywhere, Weir’s film about John Book, a Philadelphia police captain who falls in love with a beautiful Amish widow (Kelly McGillis) while hiding out in the Pennsylvania countryside from a posse of corrupt cops changed that perception forever. “Witness” proved that Ford could play complex and down to Earth characters beyond the iconic heroes he is still best known for.
Written by Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley (and based on a story by Earl and Pamela Wallace with Kelley), “Witness” is an old-fashioned romance/thriller aimed at adult audiences. It’s a movie for those who seek a well-written love story blended with a suspenseful tale of a good man who tries to do the right thing when he uncovers a deadly drug-related cabal within his own police department. As the late Roger Ebert wrote in his contemporary review of “Witness,” Weir’s film is both a touching romance and “a thriller – one that Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud to make.”
Set in 1984, “Witness” begins in one of Pennsylvania’s rural Amish communities. Young Rachel Lapp (McGillis) has just lost her husband and is in mourning. She’s a beautiful and pious. She’s also caught the eye of her handsome neighbor Daniel Hochleitner (Alexander Godunov), a genial and respectful man who is willing to wait for the right time to court the pretty widow.
The story gets its true start when Rachel accepts an invitation from her sister to visit her in Baltimore. With her 9-year-old son Samuel (Lukas Haas) in tow, Rachel boards an Amtrak train to Maryland and leaves Lancaster County for the first time.
Everything seems to go well until Rachel and Samuel reach Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. While mother and son wait to change trains there, Samuel needs to “use the facilities” in a rest room. There, Samuel witnesses the murder of an undercover Philadelphia Police Department officer by two other men.
To Rachel’s chagrin, the two Amish are interviewed by the tough and earnest Captain Book and his partner, Sgt. Elton Carter (Brent Jennings). Book takes Rachel and Samuel to several places, including a bar in a rough part of Philadelphia and a police lineup room in hopes that Samuel can identify the dead man’s murderer.
At first, Book’s quest seems to be quixotic. That is, until Samuel glances at a police department trophy case and sees a newspaper clipping about narcotics officer James McFee (Daniel Glover) receiving a community service award.
Book reports this development to his friend and boss, Chief Paul Schaeffer (Josef Sommer). Unfortunately, Schaeffer is in league with McFee, and Book is ambushed in a parking lot on his way home. Badly wounded, Book drives to his sister Elaine’s (Patti Lupone) apartment, where Rachel and Samuel have been staying during the preliminary stages of Book’s investigation.
Knowing that Schaeffer and McFee are hot on their trail, Book takes Rachel and Samuel back to Lancaster County before going back to hide in Philadelphia. But the wounded cop has lost a lot of blood and he crashes his sister’s borrowed car into a birdhouse.
At first, the Amish are reluctant to help Book – the “English” outsider – but Rachel argues that sending him to a hospital will allow the killer cops to find him – and by extension, Rachel and Samuel, as well. Persuaded that helping the wounded cop is the right thing to do, the community elders agree to give Book medical treatment and shelter until he recovers from his injuries.
As John gains the respect of the Amish community – he is willing to help on the farm and has useful carpentry skills – the mutual attraction between Rachel and he grows stronger despite the wide cultural gulf that separates them. And even though Book is hiding in a remote corner of Pennsylvania, his erstwhile colleagues are looking for the three persons who can uncover their criminal conspiracy: Rachel, Samuel, and himself.
In the hands of a lesser team of writers and director, “Witness” could have been an uneasy blend of by-the-numbers police drama and hackneyed cross-cultural romance. Sure, the thriller part is somewhat predictable; audiences would have protested if Harrison Ford’s John Book had died at the end of the movie at the hands of the bad guys. The romance part, too, could have been typically Hollywood, with several scenes full of gratuitous nudity and sex and a happily-ever-after ending.
But with “Witness,” Weir, the Wallaces and Kelley give us a movie that is more complex and touching than the average romance/thrillers it takes its cues from. We vaguely suspect that Ford and McGillis will somehow give in to their mutual attraction even though his world and hers are totally incompatible. And even though “Witness” does give us a payoff scene where Rachel and John exchange a passionate kiss, it does so in a bittersweet fashion that goes against the grain of romance movie clichés.
DVD and Blu-ray Versions
Paramount Home Entertainment has released two editions of “Witness” on DVD since 1999. Paramount’s first DVD was a non-anamorphic (letterboxed) widescreen edition; its only extra feature is an interview with director Peter Weir. In 2005, a Special Collector’s Edition was introduced; this version presents “Witness” in anamorphic widescreen with audio tracks in English and French and subtitles in English and Spanish. This disc’s extra features include a five-part documentary, “Between Two Worlds: The Making of ‘Witness,’” a deleted scene, the original theatrical trailer, and three TV commercials.
Paramount Home Entertainment, in conjunction with Warner Home Video, released “Witness” on Blu-ray disc (BD) on October 13, 30 years after the film’s theatrical release. Though it has superior video and audio quality for high definition TVs and home theater systems (see specs below), this BD offers no riveting extras, not even the “Between Two Worlds” documentary from the 2005 DVD re-issue.
- Codec: MPEG-4 AVC (33.96 Mbps)
- Resolution: 1080p
- Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
- Original aspect ratio: 1.85:1
- English: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit)
- German: Dolby Digital 2.0
- Spanish: Dolby Digital 2.0
- Spanish: Dolby Digital 2.0
- French: Dolby Digital 2.0
- Italian: Dolby Digital 2.0
- Japanese: Dolby Digital 2.0
- Portuguese: Dolby Digital 2.0
- English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Japanese, German, Cantonese, Czech, Danish, Greek, Italian, Korean, Mandarin (Simplified), Mandarin (Traditional), Norwegian, Russian, Slovak, Swedish, Turkish
- 50GB Blu-ray Disc
- Single disc (1 BD)
- Region free
- Rated: R (Restricted)
- Studio: Warner Home Video/Paramount Catalog
- Blu-ray Release Date: October 13, 2015