Skip to main content

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness
(1985)

(SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “full retard” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry. He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debut, breathes a life-giving, transformative spirit into the material that largely raises it beyond its more run-of-the-mill elements.

In essence, Witness is playing with the same “white saviour” trope Dances with Wolves shamelessly flaunted a few years later, but it would be more accurately characterised as “American saviour” here, since Ford’s Book is “English”, saving the traditional, pacifist, technophobe (German) Amish from themselves. Book learns simpler, more peaceful ways from the community, and doing a hard day’s honest work, recalling useful graft (Ford’s own carpentry skills) as well as taking the time for the romance that had always eluded him hitherto. In return, he beats up some obnoxious yobs and resists the urge to become Lukas Haas’ surrogate father (like Dances with Wolves, the worlds cannot, ultimately, meet, and Book must, finally, travel back to the twentieth century).

Interestingly, while Weir doesn’t reject the essential beats of the detective thriller in resolving the conflict, he is careful not to embrace the violence at the heart of that genre. When Book opens a can of whoop-ass on the youths, the director obliges a close up of the now-victim’s bloody face; what Book has done is horrifying, even as it is momentarily cathartic (Hey, you stupid Amish, why don’t you stand up for yourselves? Oh…)

Later, when the picture invokes High Noon (or Outland) for a showdown with the three corrupt cops out to permanently silence Book and his young witness ward – Weir evokes the paranoid, haven-less world of ‘70s conspiracy cinema very effectively, such that even off the map it’s only a matter of time before the predators close in – Book’s response is typically messy (in fairness to Ford, he’s generally quite keen to bring uncertainty and fear to traditionally macho altercations, even in its most comic book, Indy form). Book manages to drown one in a grain silo, before blowing Danny Glover away in a manner that’s so brief, it avoids glorification. The following confrontation with Josef Sommer – if I have a criticism here, it's that Weir might have taken more effort to avoid making it obvious that he’s dodgy in his first scene with Book – is curious, though, because I don’t think you’d get the hero using the boy as a human shield now, even to make a point (“What are you going to do, kill all of us?”)

Weir can handle action with panache when he wants to (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World), but he’s much more interested in steeping Witness in atmosphere. From the first scene, in which a subtitle informs us that these retro Amish are actually in the present day, he’s intent on inviting us to experience a different pace, of attitude, season, and understanding. The most obvious conflict of the yarn derives from the framing thriller element, which ensures there’s an underlying tension even during the picture’s most leisurely intervals, but the clash of attitudes toward life is far more prevalent and encompassing. The very presence of Book is, as Eli (Jan Rubes) recognises, not merely disruptive but dangerous, from his influence on Samuel, with all the part-and-parcel corruptive hero worship and weaponry that comes with him, to the response of Rachel (Kelly McGillis) to a real man, one with real fists. Book represents deliverance from repression and stricture.

That said, and again, I think it’s evidence of Weir’s reluctance to go purely by the book of the screenplay, it’s gratifying that Rachel’s suitor Daniel (Alexander Godunov, the ex-ballet dancer best known for Die Hard, who sadly died quite young) isn’t remotely the repressed jealous louse you might expect. Indeed, he’s a much more winning, spritely fellow than Book, recognising his competition in a playful manner and observing Amish principles while clearly not always liking them. You can readily imagine this movie with a less skilled director and a star more focussed on emphasising the heroic beats; John Badham passed on it as just another cop movie, and he knew a thing or two about them (they were his stock in trade). Stallone apparently cited turning down Witness as one of his great regrets, but what movie would it have been with him in it? Ford attracted Weir; Sly wouldn’t have. His version would have been just as memorable as his Beverly Hills Cop. Cobra in a wheat field.

It may just be that Ford, by being so unobtrusive and everyman about his performance, is doing everything necessary to let this story breathe; McGillis’ most famous moment here may be her topless scene, and the most memorable scene between them is undoubtedly their dancing to Wonderful World on the car radio – the tune’s resurgent popularity saw it subsequently included in a British Levi’s ad campaign, the rereleased Sam Cooke version then reaching Number 2 in the UK single charts – but she makes a subtle, witty and soulful presence throughout. This is one of her best roles; Weir depicts the love story in sensitively low-key fashion, making it all the more effective, so it’s unfortunate that the flashy vacuity of Top Gun ultimately made more of an impact. Haas impresses too as the wide-eyed and non-precocious titular character, while young Danny Glover (a fresh-faced 39) was on the cusp of playing a borderline geriatric in Lethal Weapon. Viggo Mortenson can also be seen, in his first movie role.

As with Year of Living Dangerously, Weir enlists an electronic score to invite painterly contrast; while the results aren’t as striking as Vangelis’ there, Maurice Jarre’s work proves effective. Again, I doubt very much you’d get that kind of choice if this picture had been made in any other era. It would be all classical strings. Instead, Weir further underlines the manner in which this community is, in its way, every bit as distant as a futuristic cityscape (on more than one occasion revisiting Witness this time, I thought of Vincent Ward’s later The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, in which the modern world is seen through the eyes of peasants from the Middle Ages).

A director with artistic leanings tackling mainstream material naturally lends themselves to the middlebrow leanings of the Academy, so it probably wasn’t that much of a surprise when Witness mustered eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Score, Art Direction, Cinematography (Weir was inspired by Vermeer) and Editing (McGillis should have got a nod too). If one were to be cynical, the barn building sequence alone, with its poetic montage, probably ensured such recognition; besides Screenplay, it took home Editing on the night.

I mentioned Dances with Wolves above, but the picture’s other relevant thematic aspect was also evident in the year’s biggest hit, Back to the Future; an escape from the shallow 80s to a more nostalgic time, when values meant something, even if that time wasn’t attributed an entirety of positives. Critic Pauline Kael didn’t respond well to Witness’s yearnings, pronouncing it guilty of “a compendium of scenes I had hoped never to see again”, and accusing Weir of having “succumbed to blandness”.

She also accused the film of failing to address the repressiveness of Amish society, yet it’s patently obvious women there are subordinate, and to underline this would be the kind of sledgehammer tactic she’d have usually berated; if Weir doesn’t deal with the subject head on, it’s because he credits the audience with sufficient intelligence, just as he did by electing to exclude a final expository scene between John and Rachel, against the studio execs’ objections. But then, my takeaway isn’t at all Kael’s view that “there’s the implicit argument that a religious community produces a higher order of human being than a secular society” (at the same time, she admitted “it has its allure, but you’re ready to leave when Book goes – you wouldn’t want to live there and get up at 4.30 A.M. and work like a plow horse”). Even Elli comes to see the usefulness of Book’s bloody approach (“You be careful out there among them English”). If anything, the director diligently emphasises the flaws all round.

Like Back to the Future, Weir’s greatest achievement may be the balancing of elements such that no area feels short-changed. The thriller plot satisfies, as do the arcs of Book and those he meets, and the resolution, melancholy as it is, is all it could be. And lest we forget, Witness was a big hit, the confirmation, some time coming, that Ford could lead a vehicle to success that wasn’t Han or Indy; he’d reteam with Weir for a more ambitious project, perhaps his biggest stretch as an actor, but unfortunately, its critical and commercial failure likely laid the seed for his retreat from troubling himself with much experimentation outside his accustomed wheelhouse.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

I’m just the balloon man.

Copshop (2021) (SPOILERS) A consistent problem with Joe Carnahan’s oeuvre is that, no matter how confidently his movies begin, or how strong his premise, or how adept his direction or compelling the performances he extracts, he ends up blowing it. He blows it with Copshop , a ’70s-inspired variant on Assault on Precinct 13 that is pretty damn good during the first hour, before devolving into his standard mode of sado-nihilistic mayhem.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

When we have been subtle, then can I kill him?

The Avengers 6.16. Legacy of Death There’s scarcely any crediting the Terry Nation of Noon-Doomsday as the same Terry Nation that wrote this, let alone the Terry Nation churning out a no-frills Dalek story a season for the latter stages of the Jon Pertwee era. Of course, Nation had started out as a comedy writer (for Hancock), and it may be that the kick Brian Clemens gave him up the pants in reaction to the quality of Noon-Doomsday loosened a whole load of gags. Admittedly, a lot of them are well worn, but they come so thick and fast in Legacy of Death , accompanied by an assuredly giddy pace from director Don Chaffey (of Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts ) and a fine ensemble of supporting players, that it would be churlish to complain.

Tippy-toe! Tippy-toe!

Seinfeld 2.7: The Phone Message The Premise George and Jerry both have dates on the same night. Neither goes quite as planned, and in George’s case it results in him leaving an abusive message on his girlfriend’s answerphone. The only solution is to steal the tape before she plays it. Observational Further evidence of the gaping chasm between George and Jerry’s approaches to the world. George neurotically attacks his problems and makes them worse, while Jerry shrugs and lets them go. It’s nice to see the latter’s anal qualities announcing themselves, however; he’s so bothered that his girlfriend likes a terrible TV advert that he’s mostly relieved when she breaks things off (“ To me the dialogue rings true ”). Neither Gretchen German (as Donna, Jerry’s date) nor Tory Polone (as Carol, George’s) make a huge impression, but German has more screen time and better dialogue. The main attraction is Jerry’s reactions, which include trying to impress her with hi