Peter Weir’s first American film was the Harrison Ford vehicle Witness, released to commercial and critical acclaim in 1985. The Australian director was originally set to make his stateside debut with The Mosquito Coast, but a last-minute loss of financing would leave time for Weir to make a very different kind of picture first.
As a “Harrison Ford movie” — a label which immediately evokes Raiders and Blade Runner — Witness probably falls flat. John Book ain’t an adventurer, an action hero, or a possible cyborg (or is he?) and Witness ain’t a popcorn blockbuster. You can imagine the studio executives wincing as they reluctantly finance something that, frankly, looks excruciatingly boring as an abstract. Man goes to Amish country. Protects small boy. Woohoo.
Thankfully Ford can actually do things besides outrun massive boulders and look cool in a trenchcoat in the futuristic rain, and one of those things happens to be acting. Within standards set by the usual Ford characters, John Book is quiet and unassuming and — most importantly — caring. He’s a sensitive guy, and not every action hero of Ford’s era can pull off a sensitive guy. Picture Bruce Willis as John Book in what would have to be rebranded Witness Hard or A Good Day to Be a Small Amish Boy and Witness Someone Dying Hard and you’ll appreciate Ford’s Book all the more. Yeah, yeah, Willis gets emotional in The Kid. We digress.
The plot of Witness is really that simple: young Samuel Lapp (played by little Lukas Haas, who is now forever recognized in whatever he does as the the little kid from Witness) accidentally sees two cops murder someone in a bathroom at Grand Central, thus making him a target. Book gets the case and essentially goes into hiding to watch over the boy and ensure his safety. On the surface, the “thriller” aspect of this may be the most apparent – and indeed that’s probably what Weir and Co. had to play up to get anyone to finance this thing.
But the scenes that are really memorable are the ones between the action sequences, the heartfelt dialogue that seems at first glance only present to carry us from one set piece to the next. It’s evident that Weir and Ford care as much — if not more — about getting these scenes across, and so Witness is only really a thriller if you’re standing far away from it. It’s a love story, too, built up over a framework of cultural clashes that are immediately recognizable once Book ditches his suit and tie and dons the straw hat and overalls, and it’s the care taken with this aspect of the film – on Weir’s part, on Ford’s part, and on John Book’s part – that makes Witness stand out.
Is Witness exciting, gripping, must-see cinema? Maybe not. Is it one of Weir’s best films, or Ford’s? Nope. But it plays like it’s here to stay. It would go on to be nominated for a whole bunch of awards, and Weir and Ford famously missed the Oscars because they were off scouting and filming The Mosquito Coast in South America. The movie was awarded Best Original Screenplay despite their absence, which is another testament to the calmer scenes of the film and the way they’re juxtaposed against the action. It’s not the finest achievement of Weir or Ford or even one of the best films of the 1980s, but Witness is likely one of the most dignified thrillers of that decade.