Witness



An Essay by John Poyner



For my film study I would like to discuss Witness , directed by Peter Weir and starring Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis. As regards genre, the film can be classified as detective thriller, though it certainly does not slavishly follow the conventions, but rather uses them in an original way to explore issues which I will discuss when I come to consider representations. In some ways the main character, the detective played by Harrison Ford, conforms to our expectations of the genre. He is a hard man capable of looking after himself: we see this when he beats up the louts who were taunting the Amish, and when he defeats his enemies at the end even though he is outnumbered three to one and they are armed and he is not.

However, although he is tough there is never any doubt that he is on the side of law and order. He is a loner, and this also is a common genre feature: his sister suggests that his life as a policeman is a substitute for his inability to form a stable relationship with a woman.

We also have criminals who murder an undercover policeman who was presumably investigating their involvement in the drugs scene. Interestingly the criminals are themselves corrupt policemen, the ringleader being Ford's boss. The honest cop pitted against corrupt members of the force is a common feature in thrillers, e.g. Touch of Evil by Orson Welles. The main female character, played by Kelly McGillis, becomes involved in the murder investigation as her son is the only witness to the crime. Much of the interest in the film centres on the development of her relationship with Ford, and again this type of love interest frequently features in thrillers.

He receives a gunshot wound and she nurses him back to health: this aspect of the relationship has been treated in earlier thrillers, and probably more commonly in Westerns. The setting of the film is unusual and by and large does not correspond to our expectations. Most of the action takes place in the countryside, in Amish country around Strasbourg in Pennsylvania. The beauty of the landscape is emphasised in wide angle shots which the camera lingers over, e.g. the "artistic" shots of the fields of corn swaying in the wind. Thus Peter Weir is pointedly not using all the fast cutting techniques associated with the genre.

There is violence in the film, as we would expect, when we see the murder of the undercover detective near the start, when we see Harrison Ford looking for the murderers, when the killer tries to murder him, in the incident when Ford beats up the hooligans who are taunting the Amish and in the shoot-out at the end.

However, violence does not dominate the film: the lengthy central section shows the development of the relationship between McGillis and Ford and his insights into the way of life of the Amish. The film score also is untypical of the genre, since it tends to rely on understatement. Maurice Jarre, who composed the music, used synthesised music principally to help create a feeling of harmony, and thus the music is predominantly light in texture. Even in the murder scene near the start the music mimics the fast heartbeat of the boy, so that we empathise with his fear rather than experience a vicarious excitement at the violence of the action.

On the surface the narrative structure appears to conform to classical narrative. The start of the film portrays a normal situation, the funeral of Kelly McGillis's husband, after which she takes her son on a journey to a big city for the first time. In the railway station toilets he witnesses a murder, and thus we have the disruption of normality and a problem to be solved: the murderers have to be brought to justice and the boy protected from them. Ford uncovers the identity of the murderers, but as they are high ranking police officers (one is his superior officer) this puts his own life in danger.

At the end the killers come to get Ford, but he turns the tables on them, kills two of them and captures the third, and thus normality has been restored. There are also a number of sub-plots, which reflects the usual pattern in the genre. The main one is the development of the love affair between Ford and McGillis, and it is customary to have a love interest in thrillers. The film can also be seen as a journey in self-knowledge for Ford, as his contact with the Amish brings out aspects of his personality which have lain dormant because they do not fit into his role as a detective, e.g. his skill in carpentry. However, the pace of the narrative is quite different to what we might expect. This is particularly evident in the film's opening sequence. As we watch the credits, we see a field with the grass moving in the breeze, most of the foreground being out of focus.

This shot is held for some time until some figures move into shot, viewed from the waist upwards and wearing old-fashioned black clothes with formal black hats being worn by the men. The camera tracks from right to left with them as they move, then cuts to a horse and carriage moving in the opposite direction and then cuts to a head-on shot of the people once more as they slowly walk forward into shot. Then the title "Pennsylvania 1984" appears on screen. Thus a number of questions are posed: who are these people, what is happening, and why are they dressed in such a way in the 1980's? We soon learn that we are watching a funeral, that the language of the people is German, that the wife of the dead man is important since we see her in a medium shot on her own and her son and father will also play a part in the story. However, what we have been watching is uncharacteristic of a thriller, with its predominance of fast action, rapid cutting and close-ups: here we have many long and wide-angle shots held for comparatively long periods and the rural nature of the setting is thus emphasised. Most of the action, in fact, takes place in the Amish farm- lands around Strasbourg, and the long central section of the film is concerned with Harrison Ford's recovery from his wound, his developing relationship with McGillis and his initiation into the Amish way of life, with occasional reminders of the world of the city in the form of Ford's phone calls to his pal in the police force.

Thus Peter Weir appears to be using the film genre of detective thriller to explore the differences between the life of the city and that of the Amish, and it is this that I would like to discuss next. There is a clear contrast in the film between the way the city and country are represented. There is nothing pleasant about city life: the station in Philadelphia is seen as vast and impersonal, with high shots of the young boy suggesting his vulnerability. The man in the ticket office is abrupt and unhelpful. The toilets are dirty and shabby, a fitting site for the murder.

The city is sleazy, with violence or the threat of violence never far from the surface, as evidenced in the bars that Ford visits when searching for the killer. It is also corrupt, with high-ranking police officers involved in drugs. Harrison Ford's sister is divorced, with two kids to bring up, and has a boyfriend staying with her. The Amish way of life is a total rejection of what is described previously. Violence is frowned upon, and the Amish will not retaliate even when provoked by the insults of the louts who taunt them.

Peter Weir seems to approve of this, for when Ford beats up two of them, the camera lingers on their bloodied faces: thus we may feel that they get what they deserve, but the shots showing the mess that their faces are in prevents us reaching this simplistic conclusion; and indeed Ford's action can be seen as foolish since acting out of role led to his discovery by his superior officer. The Amish reject all modern inventions, e.g. T.V., telephone, cars etc. and try to maintain their purity by living as apart as they can from city life. The scene of the building of the barn epitomises their way of life: the joy of people working together towards a common goal is shown in the harmony of the music, the shots of smiling faces as everyone does his/her part, and in the communal singing.

These two worlds are brought into conflict by the fact that the young Amish boy witnessed the murder, and thus Harrison Ford has to protect him and also shelter among the Amish to hide from those who pursue him. As he recovers we see his love for Kelly McGillis develop, and hers for him. The crucial moment arrives when we see Ford watching her having a bath, and she turns round to face him as he stands in the doorway. It is evident that she wants him to make love to her, and he wants to, yet he does not. On the following day he tells her that had he done so either he would have had to marry her and stay with her, or she would have had to go with him to the city. Thus their ways of life are clearly shown to be incompatible, and Peter Weir avoids the easy romantic solution in the film. Policemen in the film are not represented in a very favourable light. Ford himself, though on the side of justice, has to be just as ruthless as the criminals.
The corrupting influence of the city affects the police also, who at a high level have become involved in the drugs scene and use their power for their own ends, murdering anyone whom they regard as a threat to them. Women are portrayed in a rather stereotypical fashion: they are submissive to men, they are there to be looked at, they are strong in their sense of moral duty. We see this clearly in the barn building, where the women are there to provide support for the men who are doing the actual physical labour.

Ford's sister is an obvious contrast to this, but her independence appears to have been gained at a cost to stability and contentment in her personal relations. The two main black characters are clearly contrasted in the film. One is a ruthless killer, who can calmly take his time to wash his hands after cutting the throat of his victim. The other black police officer, Ford's pal, is obviously not corrupt and supports him as best he can until he himself is murdered. Thus we have a fairly mature representation of blacks, in which they are seen as having a propensity for good or evil like anyone else. I found Witness a thought-provoking and interesting film largely because it challenged my assumptions about what to expect of the thriller genre and thus led me to reflect on the attitude towards life portrayed in the film.

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