Witness (1985)

2018 #74
Peter Weir | 108 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R


Witness is, I think, one of those (many) films that used to be pretty well-known but hardly anyone seems to talk about anymore. I guess it falls into that bracket of being “very good, but not great”, and, devoid of the kind of cult appeal that can keep good-not-great movies popular for decades, it’s kind of slipped off the radar.

It’s the story of an 8-year-old Amish boy (Lukas Haas) who, while travelling with his mother (Kelly McGillis) through Philadelphia, happens to witness the murder of an undercover cop. The case is handed to Detective John Book (Harrison Ford), who manages to get the boy to ID the murderer, but that puts the trio in danger, so they hide out among the Amish community.

With such a storyline, the film could descend into a culture-clash comedy — the big city cop chafing against historical rural life — but, while that clash is certainly in play, it’s not milked for laughs. Rather, the film is about Book experiencing a way of life so different to his own, and it changing his perspective on the world. Indeed, with the focus it gives to Amish ways, the film almost seems like it wanted to be a documentary about that community as much as a story. Certainly, the crime plot is a little rote, though it builds to a thrilling climax, with a definite touch of “modern Western” about the film’s style and structure. Additionally, the burgeoning romance between Book and the boy’s mother is touchingly and believably handled.

Witness protection

Ford gives a good performance, though I didn’t think it was that far outside his usual wheelhouse, actually. Sure, this is a drama where he plays a real-world cop rather than an adventure flick where he’s a dashing space smuggler or a swashbuckling matinee idol, but he’s still a bit of a charming rogue who eventually reveals his good heart. Or maybe Ford is just so effortlessly good that he makes it look easy. Among the rest of the cast, look out for a baby-faced Viggo Mortensen, popping up briefly with no lines.

The film’s only significant downside is a horrible synth score by Maurice Jarre. Maybe it’d be fine in itself, if ever so ’80s, but it’s an ill fit with the film’s theme about the appeal of traditional ways of life.

Otherwise, Witness is, as I said, a good-but-not-great kind of drama; a more-than-solid effort from all involved, but not so remarkable that it’s endured among Great Movies. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, mind. Certainly, in our present era of Western cinema where that sort of dramatic movie is falling by the wayside as studios focus solely on mega-budgeted effects spectacles, this kind of film feels all the more wanted.

4 out of 5

2 thoughts on “Witness (1985)

  1. I still regard Witness very highly – I saw it back in 1985, and alongside Peter Weir’s Mosquito Coast it felt like I was leaving Lucas/Spielberg stuff behind and finding more serious films at the cinema. It was thoughtful, serious, wit something to say and felt very ‘real world’ to me, far removed from Bespin and Hoth etc.

    This relates to a serious point regards Ford, who was leaving the comfort-zone of Lucas and Spielberg behind and into a long career beyond them. His performance in Witness was well-praised at the time, and he is good (he is one of those actors that do themselves a disservice in making it look so easy), but I recall at the time being annoyed at this, thinking he was much better in Blade Runner, which in 1985 had been totally forgotten and was the very definition of ‘cult’. I think Witness was a big step to establishing himself beyond the Lucasberger.

    The soundtrack, well, my mate Andy had the album on vinyl and the Building the Barn cue just seemed magnificent, we used to play it all the time, and the synth stuff, well, every film seemed to be going that way in the 1980s. But again, it served as a reminder to me just how special/unique Vangelis’ Blade Runner score was, which never dated, whereas Jarre’s scores for this, Mosquito Coast and Enemy Mine sound pretty jarring and dated now.

    I do find it odd how Witness faded away into some obscurity (it’s one claim to fame which endured for a while was its link (via Kelly McGillis) with Top Gun- you know, people would say, “its her from Top Gun!” as that Tom Cruise hit was a bit of an ‘event’ film). I think McGillis was very, very good in this and deserved better roles afterwards.

    What service is the film streaming over? I had it on DVD years ago but I seem to recall it was R1 so I couldn’t play it even if I found it, and I’d be curious to rewatch the film again after such a long time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s on Sky Cinema / Now TV at the minute. No UK Blu-ray either it seems, and imports are bare bones and poorly reviewed for PQ, which again speaks to how it’s regarded nowadays. It’s unfair and a bit of a shame, really — it (and films like it) deserve better.


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