It’s a story about brutal murder and police corruption, and at the same time it’s one of the most beautifully-photographed movies I’ve reviewed. It came out in 1985, and it’s Witness, starring Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis. It’s currently available to watch on Hulu, where I obtained these screen shots. Details are from Wikipedia.
I was here, over 50 years ago. It’s Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and thereabouts, the traditional home of America’s Amish community. The movie opens with scenes evoking their simple way of life. Here, members of a local community tread among waves of ripe wheat. They are in mourning, but you can’t guess it from the way they dress. They are going to the funeral of Jacob Lapp, a farmer.
Eschewing modern methods, many arrive by horse-drawn carriage.
The view of an empty field erupts with people, as though rising from the very Earth, walking solemnly to the house of Jacob Lapp.
Women sit with the grieving Rachel Lapp (McGillis). Another farmer, Daniel Hochleitner (Alexander Godunov) comes to pay condolences. He is unmarried, and his attention turns to Rachel, now available.
The Amish are of Swiss German origin, and speak a form of German at home. When they speak of outsiders they call them The English.
Following the funeral, Rachel and her young son Samuel board a train for a visit to her sister in Baltimore. Daniel is there to see them off.
Forced by a train delay to lay over for hours in the Philadelphia station, young Samuel witnesses a brutal murder in the station restroom. An undercover police detective is killed by two men. Daniel skillfully avoids being seen by the men and reports the crime. He is a witness. Hence the title, but with a double meaning.
Police Captain John Book (Ford) scoops up Daniel and his mother as material witnesses in hopes of identifying the killer. While lingering at the police station, Samuel spies a photo of Police Lieutenant James McFee (Danny Glover). He is the killer.
Book figures the Lapp family needs protection, and he hustles them out of the police station. He only tells his boss, Chief Paul Schaeffer (Josef Sommer). It is a near fatal mistake, as Schaeffer is part of the police corruption and informs McFee. Book and McFee engage in a gun battle when McFee attempts to kill him. Book, wounded, escapes and borrows his sister’s car. He takes Rachel and Samuel back to the Lapp farm, and collapses from his wound.
Book is taken in by the Lapps, including patriarch Eli Lapp (Jan Rubeš). He must remain hidden. If the crooks find him, they will find the witness.
Rachel tends the wounded Book. An attachment grows.
The attachment is strained when Hochleitner sees competition. However, the two men experience a common ground as they team up in a barn raising fest.
In town, some smart ass tourists taunt Hochleitner, who they know will not fight back. Not so for Book, wearing his Amish disguise. He punches out the interloper. This draws attention from the world outside.
Shortly the headlights of a car from Philadelphia appear over a crest on the road to the Lapp farm. It contains three crooked cops, including McFee and Schaeffer. They have come to silence the witness.
Book defeats the attackers, killing McFee and another. Samuel rings the large alarm bell outside the farmhouse, and Amish neighbors from nearby farms appear to confront the surviving Schaeffer. It’s the end of the road for Schaeffer. There are now too many witnesses.
Book leaves the Lapp farm to return to his life outside, and Hochleitner gives him a short wave as he comes to pay a visit on Rachel.
It’s a well-crafted story, masterfully directed and photographed. Worth a see anytime. The Pennsylvania Amish setting ensures its timelessness.