Monday, 28 March 2011

Witness (1985)

Peter Weir’s 1985 thriller "Witness", while in many ways a conventional Hollywood thriller, was notable for introducing to the outside world the insular culture of the Pennsylvania-based Christian Mennonite sect known as the Amish. While the major plot elements of the film are familiar, it is the contrast between the homeostatic, rural culture of the Amish, who voluntarily arrested their social development in the late 19th Century, and the violent, unstable world of the "English" (the Amish term for all other Americans) that provides the crux of the film.

When young Amish boy Samuel Lapp witnesses the murder of a police officer in Philadelphia station, while in transit to his aunt in Baltimore with his recently widowed mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis), he identifies the killer to investigating detective John Book (Harrison Ford) as being fellow police officer John McFee (Danny Glover). After Book is betrayed by his corrupt boss, the predictably silver-haired WASP Schaeffer, and shot and wounded by McFee, he flees with the Lapps to their farm in the Amish heartland of Lancaster County.

The wounded English with a gun (the Amish are resolutely non-violent) causes deep concern among the be-whiskered Amish elders who, realising the danger to the Lapp family, allow him to stay and be cared for by both Rachel and her father-in-law, the irascible but decent Eli. Weir attempts to portray the Amish life as a kind of Rembrandt-esque dreamworld of muted browns and yellows, as oil lamps highlight the Amish characters in their traditional hats and bonnets against the bare walls of their dwellings. Maurice Jarre’s tentative score, that seems to suggest an awakening that will never materialise, highlights the dreamlike ambiance, as though Book can live in, but never quite "get", the foreign-yet-familiar world that surrounds him.

At the time of the film’s creation, with the New Morning in America, the Amish really could seem a curio, a fossilised culture whose resistance to change was both quaint and ultimately hopeless. Nowadays, this assumption seems far less secure. Indeed their decision in the 1860’s to favour tradition over progress, and homeostasis over metastasis, seems rather prescient and shrewd. After all, there are few communities in the Western world more thoroughly prepared for peak oil and the collapse of credit-based Capitalism than the Amish. The values that the Amish cherish, such as fellowship, honesty, stability and humility, are among the ones that our own moronic culture most despises, which is no doubt why they’re subject to the occasional missile and mocking documentary. Nevertheless, the barn-raising scene in "Witness" shows the awesome potential of collective human organisation, and demonstrates why anyone still hanging on to the cult of individualism when the energy subsidy of fossil fuels is withdrawn will only be hastening their own extinction.

Book recovers and volunteers for work on the farm, allowing Ford to demonstrate his real-life carpentry skills. Book’s continuing presence is a source of tension within the Amish world, his hand gun a metaphor for the violent potency of Anglo-Saxon America, and the sexual potency that draws Rachel ever closer to him. Eventually he gives himself away when, joining his Amish fellows on a trip to the local town, he engages in a fist fight with abusive local yahoos who don’t expect an Amish to hit back. When the local sheriff hears of it, it is not long before Schaeffer and his accomplices arrive to silence Book for good.

Rachel fails to consummate her love for Book, and so loses her only chance to leave the narrow Amish world for the expanding consumer realm of fad diets, granite counter tops and Wal-Mart salad shooters. Alas, that realm is disappearing before our very eyes now. We will have much to learn from people like the Amish in the harsh decades ahead. We had better hope that they are willing to teach us.


W. Kasper said...

Brought to mind this, where competitive consumer society is irredeemably rotten and cruel:

One of the best films of the 90s BTW

Greyhoos said...

Not having much experience on the East Coast, I don't know much about the Amish in any firsthand fashion.

But there are a number of Mennonite communities scattered throughout the U.S. midwest. They had a few churches and gathering places tucked away in certain neighborhoods in Chicago. And when I briefly spent some time living in downstate Illinois, I'd occasionally see a few of them going to certain megastores of the Wal-Mart variety. I was a little surprised, to say the least...

carl said...

must see witness again.....i remember finding it surprisingly slow, sombre and unresolved when i was a teen, expecting some Indiana Jones style action...

agree about kingpin...certainly the farrely brothers' best

W. Kasper said...

I've always found Peter Weir a bit over-ponderous and portentious - like a PG rated Werner Herzog. He's engaging to watch, but for some reason I can barely remember any of his films.

Phil Knight said...


From what I can glean there's quite a few different strands within the Mennonite churches, from the "old order" Amish of the kind portrayed in Witness, to the more "progressive" (this is now a joke word) ones that live what we would think of as conventional lives.

The Amish are incredibly easy to take the piss out of, but we must remember that in world-historical terms, they're the "normal" ones (i.e. they're in harmony with 99% of human history), and we're the ones who are weird.