The Harrison Ford Movie That Led to an Amish Boycott

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The Big Picture

  • Harrison Ford’s film Witness showcased his star power, with an impressive box office run and critical acclaim.
  • The Amish community criticized the film for its portrayal of their culture and the presence it brought to their private lifestyle.
  • Witness explores the contrast between the rough city environment and the peaceful Amish community, ultimately leading to a positive moral transformation for the protagonist.

Harrison Ford had one of the most prolific runs of films in the action genre, from his iconic performances as Han Solo and Indiana Jones to his thrilling turns in The Fugitive and Air Force One. When you have played so many different varieties of ass-kickers on screen, you are bound to find yourself in some unusual places. In between discovering ancient artifacts, participating in intergalactic warfare, and thwarting airplane hijackings, Ford landed in Pennsylvania’s Dutch countryside. The film, Witness, directed by Peter Weir and released in 1985, follows Ford as John Book, a detective immersing himself in the Amish community while investigating the murder of an undercover cop in front of a young Amish boy. Weir, a few years before his massive hits directing Dead Poet’s Society and The Truman Show, caught Ford in his movie star prime for a sharp, powerful thriller that made waves commercially and critically. Witness touts an impressive cast led by Ford and supported by Danny Glover, Kelly McGillis, a young Lukas Haas, and Viggo Mortensen in a brief appearance.

The film proved Harrison Ford’s star power with an impressive box office run. Witness opened at number two, and maintained this position before reaching the number one spot at the domestic weekly box office in its fifth week of release. A movie remaining steady on the charts is not incredibly common. This speaks to the draw of a genuine movie star, and the importance of good word of mouth. Witness was a critical success as well, and went on to garner eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and, surprisingly, what remains Harrison Ford’s only Oscar nomination. While audiences and critics seemed taken by this crime thriller set in the Amish countryside, there was one group of people who were not too excited about the film: the Amish themselves.

Witness

While protecting an Amish boy – who is the sole witness to a brutal murder – and his mother, a detective is forced to seek refuge within their community when his own life is threatened.

Release Date
February 8, 1985
Runtime
112 minutes
Writers
William Kelley , Pamela Wallace , Earl W. Wallace

The Amish are a sect of Christians in the United States. They adhere to traditions rooted in an aversion to worldliness, which is why the Amish dress in plain clothes, tend to avoid modern technology such as cars and do not engage with media and pop culture. Witness drew criticism from some Amish leaders for a few different reasons. The National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom released a statement the week of the film’s release calling for a boycott of the movie.

They cited concerns of undue attention drawn to their community, saying “the crowding, souvenir-hunting, photographing, and trespassing on Amish farmsteads will increase.” This is something the film itself is aware of, as McGillis’ character mentions to Book during a scene out in town that it is common for Amish people in public to be approached as something of a tourist attraction. This plays out in Witness as a group of locals harasses the Amish during a trip to a neighboring town, and Book retaliates by beating them up, which goes against their code of non-violence.

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The group noted that the violence in the movie was at odds with their cultural practices. It should be noted that they did not feel the film depicted them in bad faith. The committee expressed that the film was “not hostile” in its portrayal of the Amish people, but they still took issue with the behaviors depicted on screen by other characters in association with their community. Considering Witness involves a climactic standoff on Amish land, it is understandable why they might have been put off by the film.

While the filmmakers certainly did not intend to offend, as was reported in the New York Times during production, the concerns are sensible as the Amish lead a private lifestyle. They abstain from seeing movies but felt the production and the film’s release was a looming presence in the community.

What Is Harrison Ford’s ‘Witness’ About?

John Book comes from a rough city environment in Witness, spending his days chasing criminals and working with crooked cops. The non-Amish characters hail from Philadelphia, a drastically different environment to the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside. On top of that, they are all engaged in lifestyles and professions that involve violence, crime, and corruption. This puts them ideologically and behaviorally at odds with the Amish community that is unintentionally roped into a police murder investigation. The crime stories of the 1980s were often set against the backdrop of a grimy cityscape. Cruising, Thief, and 48 Hrs. take you into the seedy underworld of crime in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco respectively. These sprawling, busy environments are where people like Book tend to operate. Placing him in a rather desolate, rural landscape leads to a welcome change of pace and scenery, making Witness stand out among the pantheon of ’80s crime films.

When the young boy witnesses Danny Glover murdering a police officer, and identifies Glover to Book early in the investigation, Book knows that the child’s life is in danger if any word gets out about the identity of the witness. This leads Book to travel with them back to their home, and briefly live among them. He is taught Amish customs, and develops a relationship with McGillis, before having to arm up when the corrupt police officers eventually close in on their location.

The final action set piece crystallizes the movie’s thematic interest in the contrast between Book’s way of life and the Amish approach. While Book does kill a few of Glover’s corrupt cop lackeys, including one excessively disturbing death by grain engulfment, he does not resolve the conflict in the end. The Amish are ultimately the ones who put a stop to the violence through their roles as witnesses. Right as Glover is about to make a final move in this climactic standoff, the Amish community bands together in a passive observation of his actions. Glover realizes he cannot get away with all of those eyes on him, and finally surrenders.

As Book makes his final arrest before heading back to the city, he seems to have a new lease on life after the unexpected, deadly encounter that led him to be among the Amish. The film’s resolution makes it clear that Book has been made a better man by his association with the Amish. Some of his rough edges have been sanded down. The cultural clash of a rough city cop in a quaint, traditionalist environment ultimately brings humanity out of John Book, who is no longer as cynical or prone to anger. Despite the hesitation of the Amish people regarding Witness, the film goes to great lengths to humanize the community, depicting them as a positive moral influence on the rough, bitter protagonist.

‘Witness’ Blurred Lines Between Exploitation and Depiction

There is an unfortunate risk that is taken with any film depicting a real-world event or a real culture on screen. You may end up offending or upsetting people who feel they have been misrepresented for the sake of your art. There is a genuine debate to be had about what the line is between depiction and exploitation. This is a conversation that has come up many times in recent years, an example of which is the cultural discourse surrounding Martin Scorsese telling a story of Indigenous American suffering with Killers of the Flower Moon. To engage in these conversations respectfully should involve listening to the intent of the artists, and listening to the feedback of those who have personal ties to the subject. These kinds of criticism can be valid without being destructive; without asserting that the film or those who enjoy it are inherently bad.

Witness was a popular, very profitable film, so it is clear that the boycott endorsed by those Amish groups ultimately did not work. The movie remains one of Ford’s most successful and critically acclaimed, but it was not a complete loss for the Amish. Dick Thornburgh, then-governor of Pennsylvania, agreed after Witness was released that the state government would not promote Amish country as a location for future film sets. If there is a lesson to be learned here, perhaps it is simply that any medium of art is a powerful tool that can have unexpected effects. No filmmaker or audience member should presume to know the answer to what it means to exploit vs. depict for the sake of storytelling, but it is a question we should not be afraid of discussing as part of the process of engaging with a film.

Harrison Ford and Peter Weir set out to simply make an entertaining, compelling crime thriller. They were ultimately successful in that goal, and Witness remains a notable example of the height of Ford’s power as a movie star. Having an original film of this kind, a thriller packaged as a star vehicle, be such a crossover hit commercially, critically, and with the major awards ceremonies, is the kind of thing we do not see often today. Witness is a collaboration between a movie star and a director at their peaks, one which gives us a refreshing take on the typical 1980s crime thriller formula.

Witness is available to stream on Paramount+ in the U.S.

Watch on Paramount+

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