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
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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