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WitnessIn the 1985 film witness director peter weir explores the sharp cultural conflictsbetween the old Amish society of western Pennsylvania and the modern American worldof crime and violence. The main character, Philadelphia police detective John Book(played by Harrison Ford), is forced into hiding by a group of corrupt fellow officerslooking for a little Amish boy (played by Lukas Haas). The boy witnesses a brutal killingand identifies the policeman who did it from a photograph on the wall at headquarters.John Book and his witness hide in the house of the boys's mother Rachel (played byKelly McGillis) on a farm in the Amish country. The detective and the Amish widowgradually enter into a frustrated love affair, over objections of her father and neighboringyouth (Alexander Godunuv) who sees Rachel as a potential wife. The Characters of witness are strong drawn images of people from two differentworlds. Book is very blunt and aggressive, but he is honest and decent enough to earn therespect of the Amish people. Rachel is very simple and sweet, But also very intelligentand independent enough to fight for her freedom to love an outsider.
Her son Samuel isquiet and observant, but he plays a key role in going to the rescue after the three corruptcops come to the farm to kill Book and the boy and eliminate the only witness to theircrime. But it is really John Book who is the hero of the story. He escapes and then battleshis would-be killers in an unlikely manner, and only leaves Rachel and her family afterthey are safe and secure from all harm. The cultural contrasts portrayed in witness are perhaps the most obvious elementof the story. Book and his world are full of violence, guns corruption, but the Amishworld of Rachel and her family is quiet, gentle and deeply religious. Her son Samuel isfascinated with this strong, friendly policeman from the big city, but Rachel and herfather are alarmed at the idea of having a gun in their house. This violates everything thattheir pacificism represents. John Book is forceful and strong enough to overcome theirobjections, and he shows that not only he is a good cop but is also a good man in theAmish sense.
Now the director just doesn't tell you that he is a good man in the Amishsense, but actually takes on some of the Amish mannerisms. He fixes a nice woodenbirdhouse and proves himself a good farmhand, and also assists the Amish neighbors in avery dramatic barn raising scene. The use of camera angles and continuity editing furtherenhanced the sequence. We see the whole community work in a collective project that israrely found outside there society. The corruption and violence of modern America are not entirely a product ofurban society. In the most direct cultural confrontation of the film, Book goes to thenearby small town disguised as an Amish farmer. When a local though taunts the gentleDaniel for refusing to fight, Book administers a severe beating to the bully. Book'spoorly-fitted clothes and his aggression startle the townspeople, who ever imagined thatone of the pacifists would fight back. In the end, it is Amish culture which triumphs.Although Book defeats and kills tow of his attackers in combat, is only when a full crownof Amish farmers surrounds the last armed killer that the battle ends in surrender.
Witness is also rich in symbolism, and incorporates interactive elements whichsupport the main theme and plot of the story. The boy Samuel is wide-eyed and innocent,but his keen sight and good memory provide the key to solving the crime. Book's world isthe opposite of innocent, but we soon learn that he is incorruptible, hardworking andclean in his morals. His handgun becomes a major symbol of violence and a force that hebrings from the big city to the quiet Amish world. But he adapts to the new way of lifeand learns other ways of dealing with enemies, an example of character evolution. In thelast sequence of the movie Book actually kills his attackers by using the mechanisms ofthe grain silo, rather then shooting them with a .38 pistol. Many other symbols of the interaction between old and new, such as peaceful andviolent, corrupt and innocent are the be found in this film. Book's carpentry birdhouserepresents his determination to earn respect and love from Rachel and her family, which Ithough was great film communication. There was many other ways to convey thismessage but the way this was used was very profound.
The way a hammer replaces hispistol at his side, he proves his manly abilities to everyone's satisfaction. The socialrelations between Book and the Amish are symbolized by his change of clothing. Bookadopts the plain Amish dress oh his sanctuary, and the emotional weight of being herpotential lover and husband as well. But the clothes fit him very poorly, making him looksomething like a scarecrow and amusing even put back on the grey suit and tie of thePhiladelphia police detective. Form a cognitive perspective, Witness is a more complex and difficult film then itappears on the surface. The story is not seen through any single pair of eyes. It opens atthe funeral of Rachel's husband, and the reaction of Rachel and Samuel to the big city isseen strictly from there perceptive, making great use of subjective camera at certainpoints. But after Book enters the picture and takes charge of the case, the cognitiveviewpoint shifts quickly to his perspective; the view of a hard working detectivefollowing the clues which reveal a pattern of corruption and murder within his owndepartment. The fear and tensions of the threat are felt equally by book and Rachel'sfamily, but basic mental perception of their condition is now his.
He is strong andcompassionate, but willing to use violence against evil. The cognitive 'dissonance'; that enters into the film is the result of the clash ofcultures. The most important conflict, of course is that between Book and Rachel. Theyare overwhelmed with physical and emotional desire for each other. We see their mutualattraction from two different viewpoints. Books perspective concern is mixed with naturalsexual urge, while Rachel's passion is mixed with a different protective drive. She seesthat Book is the one man who can protect her and her son from the violent world outside.Book's perspective on Amish society shifts gradually. Although he is never drawn intotheir religion and pacificism, his mental outlook adapts readily to rural life, Amish folkways and the honest simplicity of their world.
The great achievement of the film is todraw the view into this cognitive shift. Witness is one of those rare films that works on so many levels without becomingto confusing or complex without boring you. One the cultural level, it is the story of aconflict between a society that still lives in the 20th century, and a brutal violent societythat for no good reason intrudes into that world. The Amish culture is entirely selfcontained and wants nothing to do with modern day cars, guns and materialism. Book'sworld is violent and cruel but it is more open to change, and his job moves him betweencultures.On the symbolic level, Witness examines that meaning of dress, food, work, love relationships and shows how they operate very differently in two cultures.Ultimately, Book's crude disguise as an Amish farmer cannot work and he is forced toleave this dream world., but while he is there he adopts the dress, tools and in some waysthe ideals of the Amish. He is honest enough to realize that he cannot take Rachel fromthat world, and finally gives way to a more suitable marriage partner for her, the Amishboy played by Godunov.
Witness is a love story and a morality play seen threw the eyes of three differentpeople. A little boy witness, a policeman, and a beautiful widow. After seeing this moviefor the first time I was moved by its well thought out plot, character shifts, editing, motif,and shot selection. Being told the story by 3 different people gave you an overall sense ofbeing informed on every account and not missing a thing. Witness combines all thesethings without being to flashy or over bearing, I can plainly see why it is on the top 100films of all time..
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