WITNESS After 39 Years

WITNESS was an Oscar-winning masterpiece of American cinema when it hit the big screen in 1985.  The film (a crime-drama starring Harrison Ford set in Lancaster’s Amish Country) went on to gross 116 million worldwide on a 12 million budget, and became a bit of a cultural icon, spurring spoofs and the pre-internet version of “memes” in MAD magazine among other places.  It also had the unintended effect of reigniting tourism to Amish locales, such as Lancaster County.  Following the film’s release through at least 1990, tourism numbers swelled in Amish Country, reversing a downward trend that had been rearing since the late 70’s.  The tourism malaise here reached an unfortunate crescendo with the 1979 partial meltdown of Lancaster County’s nuclear power plant, Three Mile Island.

While the film put Amish Country back on the map, and worldwide audiences saw rekindled interest in who the Amish are, and why they live the way they do, the film today would have some completely out of place moments.  WITNESS in 2024 simply doesn’t make sense anymore. 

That’s because the Amish have changed.  The Amish have always changed, just slowly, and at a far less frenetic pace than mainstream society.  Still, the community today is different than it was only 40 years ago. 

Here are three things that don’t make sense anymore about WITNESS:

1 – Little Samuel (played by a young Lukas Haas) is fascinated by a public drinking fountain.  The insinuation of course is that the Amish don’t have running water at home, and so a modern convenience like instant cold water from a fountain would be a wonder to an Amish kid.  But, today’s Amish in Lancaster County don’t need to play with water at a train station – they’ve got hot and cold running water at home.  This also explains away the famous scene where actor Kelly McGillis is taking a sponge bath and turns quizzically, with an unsure yet seductive turn, to reveal herself to Harrison Ford in one of the scenes that ensured the film had an R rating.  In an Amish home today, that scene would be much more akin to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, as the Amish in Lancaster County today have modern in-home showers. 

2 – Harrison Ford’s character, John Book, tricks the bad guys into entering a corn silo, and Book pulls open a door and all the corn drops down on the bad guys, killing them.  Ok so this one actually has some validity, while still being absolutely bogus.  First, the premise is that the Amish are peaceful, non-resistant, and won’t otherwise attack another person.  This is a tenet of the Amish belief, but essentially every Amish home in Lancaster County has firearms in it.  The Amish are by and large gun owners – deer hunting, waterfowl hunting, small game, etc. Book didn’t need to develop a tricky corn-silo defense.  He could have grabbed one of the guns in the house and defended himself with the family’s hunting paraphernalia, even though the Amish won’t use a gun against a person.  Silos also fill from the bottom up.  Meaning, there’s no way you’d be able to enter the bottom of the silo, with corn suspended above.  So the tactic of opening a chute, and burying someone in corn is not possible.  However, there are silo deaths every year in Lancaster County.  This happens when someone falls on top of the corn, not the other way around.  Corn silos have a build up of gasses in them, and when someone falls down into a silo from the top, the gasses (and lack of oxygen) will asphyxiate them.  So, Book absolutely could have killed his attackers in the corn silo, but he would have had to drop them down in the top, not the other way around. 

3 – Ring the Bell to draw your neighbors in for the big defense.  This scene in the film, where the Amish family rings a big bell on the farm, signaling to the neighboring Amish to come to their aid would look out of place today.  The gist is that the Amish, not having phones, would need to use an old-fashioned bell to summon help.  I can’t think of one Amish farm today that has a “liberty bell” sized feature in the barnyard, whether for calling friends or just for fun.  It is safe to say that virtually all Amish people in Lancaster County today have phones.  So if they need to call for help, they’ll dial 911 like anyone else, or if it isn’t an emergency in that sense, they’ll summon their friends and neighbors with a simple phone call.  The type of phone, whether cellular or land line, or even “Amish black box” varies among the Amish here, with some Amish keeping the phone tied into the “grid,” sitting isolated in a phone booth out of the way at the edge of their property, whereas other Amish have the latest smartphone, and still others have something in between the two extremes.  But suffice it to say, the Amish have phones.