Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Witness (1985)


     Where I live in Ohio, Amish Country isn’t too far away. Every once in a while, my family goes down there to see the villages, have lunch at the local restaurants, and shop at the general stores. It’s hard not to judge the Amish—without electricity, cars, or even modern clothes, a lot of people, myself included, almost look down upon them. Today’s film, “Witness”, is the only film I’ve ever seen that goes into detail into the lives of the Amish. And it’s probably the only film ever made that puts the average American into their lives to learn from what they live.

     And the man put into their lives is John Book, played by Harrison Ford (who was nominated for his only Academy Award for this role). Book is a police officer in Philadelphia, and he is sent to a local train station to start investigating the murder of another policeman. The murder was done by two men in the bathroom of the station, and the only witness was a young Amish boy named Samuel (Lukas Haas, who I personally know as the engineer killed off in the first few minutes of “Inception”). Samuel and his mother Rachel (Kelly McGinniss) were on their way to Baltimore to visit her sister after the death of her husband Daniel when the murder occurred. Samuel identifies one of the murderers as a fellow police officer, McFee (Danny Glover), and Book reports this to an authority. But soon, McFee finds Book in a parking garage and shoots him, so Book has to go to the Amish village not only to be healed but also to protect Samuel, the sole witness of the murder.
     Most of the rest of the movie feels less like a crime drama than I expected “Witness” to be. The rest of the movie, Book is cared for by the Amish people, learning more of their customs, working for Rachel’s father Eli (Jan Rubes), and helping the neighbors build a farm. He and Rachel even start falling in love—much to Eli’s concern. But the biggest concern of all to everyone is Book’s use of his gun. One day, he finds Samuel holding it, scolds him, and tells him that he can handle it as long as it isn’t loaded and Book is there with him. Rachel is not pleased. She takes the gun from him and keeps it hidden until Book needs it.

     Then one day, Book finds out that his partner policeman has been killed. He realizes that the officer he went to before, Schaeffer (Josef Sommer), who he told that McFee was one of the murderers was working with McFee and his partner all along. Schaeffer, McFee, and the other murderer head to the Amish village, armed and loaded to find and kill Book. In the end, McFee and his partner are killed, and Samuel, who has kept himself safe while the three crooked cops hunt through the village, rings a bell in a tower to send for the rest of the Amish. Once Schaeffer finally finds Book, Book leads him outside, where Samuel, Rachel, Eli, and dozens of other Amish residents are watching. Schaeffer knows he can’t kill Book and get away with it. He is taken into custody, and Book finally is able to leave the village.

     “Witness” is at times a very violent movie, but in the film, violence seems to be condemned. After Samuel finds Book’s gun, there is a scene where Eli sits Samuel down at the kitchen table, with the gun on the table, and he asks Samuel:

ELI: We believe it is wrong to take a life. That is only for God. …Would you kill another man?

SAMUEL: I would only kill the bad man.

ELI: Only the bad man, I see. And you know these bad men by sight? You are able to look into their hearts and see this badness?

SAMUEL: I can see what they do. I have seen it.

ELI: And having seen, you become one of them! Don't you understand? What you take into your hands, you take into your heart.

     Two passages came to mind after watching this scene. The first is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he talks about murder. Jesus says, “‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.’” (Matthew 5:21-22a) Jesus says that if you hate your neighbor, your friend, or anyone, you have killed them in your heart. This is similar to what Eli is telling Samuel: by wanting to kill a “bad man”, he has murdered in his heart and become one of them!

     This leads to the other passage I want to share with you. This semester, I did a Bible study on James with some of the guys on my residence hall, and one of the passages that stuck out to me was James 2:10-11. It says, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery’, also said, ‘Do not murder’. If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.” This passage is saying that each person’s sins may be different, and each may have different consequences, but since we all have broken God’s commandments in one way or another, we are all sinners. Samuel may hate McFee, and McFee may have murdered a fellow police officer; but both men are sinners.

     And by the end of the film, Book realizes that he cannot defeat Schaeffer with violence. His path to redemption has begun. My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will find redemption, no matter how great your sin, in the loving arms of God. 

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