‘Witness’ – Peter Weir

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The 1985 film witness, directed by Peter Weir is a crime/drama that develops the theme of conflict on a social, cultural and personal level.

These areas of conflict are highlighted through the use of film techniques such as; camera shots, camera angles, lighting and costume. The film outlines the contrast between mainstream American society and the Amish community in regional Pennsylvania. While American society is seen as a violent and arrogant group of people, whereas the Amish are seen to be a peaceful, religious group of people. In this film the Amish perceive the mainstream American society to be called the ‘English’.

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The reason for this is the Amish originated in England so they believe that anyone else outside their culture is called the ‘English’, who if come into contact with Amish culture, will bring fear, violence and terror. The opening scene depicts the peaceful, calm surroundings of the Amish while the funeral of Rachel’s husband is being conducted. This is most apparent in the scene where a slow panning shot is used to portray the wheat as being of a soft velvety appearance as it is blown in the wind, which highlights the world of harmony of the Amish.The funeral allows for the relationship between John Book and Rachel to develop which later creates the personal conflicts, because of Book’s mainstream American culture clashing with Rachel’s Amish religious beliefs and customs.

The journey of Rachel and Samuel Lapp to Boston to visit Rachel’s sister becomes quite an experience because Samuel is yet to witness the outside world and events that may occur. The low angle shot of the train roaring over us suggests the excitement and action that awaits in the city.The director introduces Samuel’s naivety as we see a close-up shot of Samuel waving at a balloon in the distance which shows his innocent nature. The director adds the idea of the modern American train travelling at fast speeds in comparison to the hot air balloon that is moving slowly which is in association with the Amish culture and way of life.

They arrive at the train station where Samuel explores the new world and sees a bubbler to which he asks Rachel what it is, which hyperbolises his innocence and naivety.Samuel walks over to a Jewish man and mistakes him for an Amish one which the director uses to provide some comedic relief. Samuel then enters the bathroom where he witnesses the murder. During the murder the camera focuses on Samuel’s eyes using a close up shot, showing the shock and disbelief on Samuels face.

The killer is about to leave when he hears someone breathe in one of the stalls and the director creates a suspense where we see the killer kicking open the cubicle doors. The killer finally reaches the stall Samuel is in and Samuel quick wittedly slides under to the previous stall.There is a target on the wall behind Samuel which perceives us to think that Samuel should have been killed but was lucky to escape. Then John Book enters the spotlight showing his authority and power.

Book walks over to Samuel and Rachel where he asks questions, which develops the cultural conflict of guns, violence and ‘whacking’ between the former and the later. Book, Carter, Samuel and Rachel make a journey to the ‘Happy Valley’ nightclub. Book and Carter enter the club and immediately pull out a large black man whom they slam up against the car window right in front of Samuel eyes.Samuel shakes his head and Book lets the man go and says it was an ‘honest mistake’ which was not taken to kindly by the black man.

The irony is quite apparent in this scene because of the name, ‘Happy Valley’ which is actually a violent, dirty nightclub. The name ‘Happy Valley’ symbolises the harmonic world of the Amish people but in mainstream American society it reinforces the Amish’s outlook of the ‘English’. The director gives us this scene to suggest our stereotypical perception of African Americans and their own social conflict with white society.There are clear contrasts that can be made between the two main black characters in the film.

One is a ruthless killer and the other, Books mate is obviously supporting Book and free from a corrupt lifestyle. There is a fair representation of blacks in the film because they can be good or evil just like anyone else. This scene highlights the cultural conflict between Book and Rachel, because of the violence and ‘whacking’ aspects that are present. At the police station Book begins showing Samuel photos of mug shots where Samuel shakes his head and walks around the office area.

The director slows down the camera shot, creating suspense as Samuel walks over to the trophy cabinet and points at a newspaper article which draws Books attention. All we can hear is this peaceful Amish music and everything else is blocked out. Samuel is pointing at McPhee, a fellow colleague of Book which develops the personal conflict between Book and McPhee and other colleagues as we find out of their corruption. John Book then takes a visit to Deputy Commissioner Paul Schaeffer’s house to notify him of the news.

In his house we can see the wealth of Schaeffer because of all the leather and timber furnishings as well as an array of expensive looking statues and ornaments. We can make contrasts between Schaeffer’s house and Elaine’s messy, mediocre house which provides for the idea of separation of wealth in society and the corruption that is required to reach this high status of wealth. In the film Schaeffer’s wealth was achieved by the involvement of drug trading with McPhee. Then we see the social conflict between Book and McPhee erupt in the car park where a violent gun fight takes place.

The director portrays this like an old western shoot-out, because Book is walking away then holsters his pistol in a shoot-out type fashion. We see rapid mid-range shots between Book and McPhee which gives us the feeling of a fast paced action movie. This leaves Book wounded and in a state of shock. Book then flees to the Amish hideout with Rachel and Samuel because it is no longer safe in Boston.

Book is cared for by the Amish by using traditional herbal teas and remedies. One morning, Book awakes to find Samuel holding his gun and yells ‘don’t move’ with an outburst of anger.Book removes the bullets and allows for Samuel to hold it. Rachel walks in and sees that Samuel is in possession of the gun and sends him downstairs.

Book now creates a personal conflict because he knows that he should not have let Samuel get his hands on the gun because violence is against their beliefs, and morally no children of any culture should be in contact with guns. Book also knows that he is the protector and he needs to nurture Samuel but not expose him to the ways of the ‘English’. As the plot progresses we see the growing love interest between Book and Rachel develop.In particular where Book is trying to start the car in the barn and Rachel joins him.

The car starts, the radio fires up and the DJ announces ‘What A Wonderful World’ to the excitement of Book. Book invites Rachel to dance where they sing and have a great time until Eli walks in. Here we see the cultural conflict between the former and the later, because the Amish are not supposed to dance according to their beliefs. Mainstream American society views this as a strange act of life, but in Books case he creates a personal conflict because he knows what he did is wrong and against Amish culture.

Eli takes Rachel outside where he castigates her in their Dutch/German dialogue which hyperbolises the strong beliefs and traditions by speaking in this language. Eli warns Rachel that this man Book is bringing the fear of guns, the ‘English’ and the ‘outside’ into the Amish community which builds on cultural conflicts that Book has already established with the Amish. The director knowingly positions Rachel on the porch where she is standing higher up than Eli showing her position of power. Then Rachel says to Eli, “you have shamed yourself” and begins to contradict her own beliefs.

The Amish travel to town, now including John Book who is dressed in plain Amish clothes which are somewhat small because they belonged to Rachel’s husband. Book walks up the steps to use the public phone when a woman asks if she can take a photo of him, where Book refuses and says ‘I will rip your brassiere off and strangle you with it’. This is another great moment of comedic relief used by the director, because Book’s egotistical actions represent a mainstream American citizen, but he is dressed in Amish clothes.John Book and the Amish travel back to the Lapp’s house but are intervened by some local outlaw group.

Here we see the violent nature of John Book as he lashes out and punches one of the guys after he had smeared ice-cream on Daniels face. This incident reveals John Books location to Schaeffer because a local man reports it to police. At the end of the film we see that the social conflicts between Book, McPhee and Schaeffer are resolved but not without a bit of violence and ‘whacking’. True to Amish culture, the cavalry of Amish men march down the wheat fields s a united team to help their fellow brothers and sisters.

Books mainstream actions have influenced the Amish community greatly, especially when Samuel asks, “Are you going to shoot him? ” This shows that the cultural conflicts between the former and the later has resulted in the mainstream society merging in some aspects of Amish culture. The contrasts between the former and the later have remained right throughout the film and at the end we see the two world’s part ways and go back to their original ways of life.

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‘Witness’ – Peter Weir. (2017, May 13). Retrieved from


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