Home > English > Standard > Module B: Close Study of Text > Witness


by Peter Weir

This unit was prepared by Peter Yorke, St Marys Senior High School.

About the film and director
Film genre
Story and plot
Issues and themes
Film techniques in Witness
Camera placement
Close study of two important sequences
Other techniques
Writing tasks

About the film and director

Witness is an American film made in 1985 by Australian film maker Peter Weir. He is also well known for such films as Picnic at Hanging Rock (1973);Gallipolli (1981); Dead Poets’ Society (1989); Fearless (1994);The Truman Show (1998) and others. It was a financially successful film that was popular with audiences. Summing it up for potential audiences, reviewers described it as both a ‘crime film’ and as a ‘romance’. It might be said to fit into both these genres.
For a short summary of Peter Weir's films look at The Internet Movie (external website) Database (external website) .This site also contains a complete set of credits for all Peter Weir's films, including Witness.

Film genre

A film of the same genre refers to a film of the same kind or category. By describing Witness to audiences as 'a crime film' or a 'romantic film’, critics inform potential audiences of what to expect when they go to see the film. Some of the best films are often difficult to fit into any particular genre, but nevertheless, this term genre is useful as a starting point for anyone analysing or evaluating a particular film. For examples of different genres click onto the Internet movie data base mentioned above.


Having viewed the film at least once, you should consider the following:

  1. Identify some examples of crime films.
  2. If Witness is a crime film, what sort of characters, actions or events does it have in common with any of these other films?
  3. Where are crime films usually set, or in what sort of environment does the crime occur?
  4. Is there anything different about Witness as an example of a crime film?
  5. What do audiences expect to see in a "romance"?
  6. Love stories or romances always have obstacles that stand in the way of the lovers getting together. What obstacles are there in Witness ?
  7. How does the romance end and are the obstacles overcome?
  8. How is the crime story in the film resolved or worked out?

In answering the above, you may now have some understanding of the rules or conventions that belong to particular film genres. Yet, to keep audiences interested, films of the same genre must each have something different or unique about them if they are not to seem all the same.

Writing Task

Write a critical response to the statement: "As a film, Witness, is no different from other crime films of the same type". Describe your reaction to this statement.

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Story and plot

As you are studying Witness in Module B: Close study of text, some detailed knowledge of the plot and story will be necessary. You will need it to discuss the characters and issues successfully.
Here are twelve questions related to the film's story that you may find useful as background information for critical discussion of the film.

  1. In the film's opening, what is the purpose of the gathering of the Amish?
  2. Explain how the boy Samuel becomes a 'witness' to a murder.
  3. What upsets Rachel most about John Book's way of questioning suspects?
  4. Under what circumstances does Samuel identify the killer?
  5. How and why does John Book become wounded?
  6. Why is it necessary for Book to hide out with the Lapp family and the other Amish?
  7. Why is Book so difficult for his corrupt colleagues to trace?
  8. Why is Book so angry about Samuel finding his gun?
  9. What complication does John Book's falling in love with Rachel cause for himself?
  10. What will Rachel have to sacrifice for a relationship with Book?
  11. How do Book's enemies manage to discover where he is?
  12. How does Samuel help to capture Book's enemies?

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To write about this text, you need to be able to identify the characters and show some understanding of their behaviour. Know the names of the characters in the film rather than the names of the actors who play them.
Use the cast list at end of the film to identify as many of the minor characters as you can.

Major characters

John Book, detective, Philadephia Police, played by Harrison Ford.

  1. Describe your first impressions of John Book.
  2. View the scene where John Book leaves Rachel and Samuel in the care of Book's sister Elaine. What does the audience learn about Book from the conversation with his sister in this scene?
  3. In the scene where he eats hot dogs with Rachel and Samuel, Book shows himself to be awkward and uncomfortable with the Amish? Why? Where else in the film does he show this?
  4. Which scenes later in the film show that a change in John’s attitude has occurred?
  5. Why does he leave Rachel at the end?

Rachel Lapp, Amish woman and mother of Samuel,

  1. Describe Rachel's situation at the start of the film.
  2. Why is Rachel originally so resentful of Book?
  3. What conflict does Rachel have the rest of the Amish community?
  4. What alternative to Book does she have at the end of the film?

Samuel Lapp, Amish boy, witness to murder, played by Lukas Haas

  1. How is Samuel shown to be naive and innocent at the start of the film?
  2. How does his relationship with Book change throughout the course of the film?
  3. With what other male character does Samuel seem to have a strong relationship? How is he different to Book?
  4. Where in the film does Samuel show initative and intelligence?

Other characters: Daniel Hochletter, Eli Lapp, Elaine, Schaeffer and McFee

  1. Identify the roles each of them plays in the film.
  2. In what ways are Eli and Daniel different to Book as men?
  3. Compare the different lifestyles of Elaine and Rachel.
  4. In what ways are the two corrupt police, Schaeffer and Mcfee shown to be different to each other?


The film gives the audience a chance to compare two different levels of American society, the culture and world of the modem city and the culture and world of the Amish. In writing about Witness, Marie Saeli states that the film shows that the 'two cultures meet, but never merge.' It is this contrast of the two worlds, conveyed to the audience mainly in visual terms, that is the one of the most important and memorable aspects for the spectator.
Now view again the opening five minutes of the film. These are mainly devoted to allowing the audience to feel what life is like living in an Amish community.

  1. List the things about the Amish that you see that would make them different from mainstream American or Australian society.
  2. Why do you think Weir felt it was necessary to put a title on the screen PENNSYLVANIA 1984 at the end of this sequence?
  1. On the Amish Heartland (external website) web site check the accuracy of Weir's view of the Amish.
  2. What items on the "question and answer " web page do you see mentioned in the film?

  3. Compare the world of the Amish the world of the city. The strong contrast between the two different lifestyles comes across in the way both different worlds are filmed by the director of photography or cinematographer. Like the director, Weir, he too makes an important contribution to the film making process.
  4. The scenes involving the Amish, often show blue skies, and open landscapes. How do these images of Amish life make you feel about their life style?
  5. In contrast, notice the view of city life shown to us in the early part of the film. View the scene where Book questions a suspect and asks Samuel to identify him.
  6. What aspects of the photography of this scene suggest the harshness and brutality of modern city life?

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Issues and themes

The following issues and ideas are some that arise from the drama that Weir shows us on the screen.

Violence versus non violence or pacifism versus direct action

  1. What is a pacifist? Are the Amish shown as pacifists? Describe a scene where their point of view is clearly demonstrated.
  2. How does the Amish seem to settle conflicts or disputes? How is this different to the way John Book does things?
  3. What role does the Amish play in helping Book capture Shaeffer at the end?

Conformity and nonconformity

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Making choices

  1. Which characters have important choices to make throughout the film?
  2. What do they decide? How are their lives affected?

Cultural identity and cultural isolation. Cultural identity is what makes the society you belong to different from other societies or ways of life.

  1. List the strengths of Amish culture.
  2. List the weaknesses.
  3. Do the Amish have to make compromises with the world around them to survive?
  4. "The Amish could not survive in a modem American city".
    Is that the message that Weir is trying to convey to us? Discuss.

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Film techniques in Witness

To a writer, the choice of words is most important in expressing meaning. To a film maker or director, the choice of images and where the camera is placed, are often more important than the words the characters say, in expressing meaning. Also like the writer, the film maker must edit his material, in this case images and sounds, not words on the page.

Camera Placement

A film maker can choose to film his scene from different angles, in long shot or in close up. Both these ways of filming a scene can convey different meanings to an audience.
Long shot means the camera is a long way from the filmed subject.These often give an audience an overall impression of a landscape or scene and are often used at the beginning and end of a film.
Close up means that something is filmed extremely close, usually a face or an object.

The beginning of Witness

  1. Describe the long shot used by Weir in the first few seconds of Witness. What information is conveyed in this long shot that would not be obvious if a close up was used?

The end of Witness

  1. A long shot is often used to signal the end of a film to an audience. The main character is often shown with back to the camera leaving the scene. For example, the old style westerns often show the hero riding off into the distant sunset.
    At the end of Witness. Weir uses a variation on this old device. Discuss.
  2. What does Book do at the end of the film? Consider, by having Book move away from the camera in this way, what is implied to the audience about Book's future relationship with Rachel and the Amish?
    Also, although his identity is not clear, who is the likely person moving in the opposite direction past Book towards Rachel and the camera?
  3. What is implied to the audience about Rachel's future in this closing shot?
  4. Close ups of both John and Rachel are also used by Weir just before John leaves the farm in this last sequence. What do these close ups mean for the audience?
  5. Thinking carefully about what has happened between them earlier in the film, can you explain why John and Rachel do not speak more to each other in saying goodbye?


Editing is an important part of the film making process, as the editor, under the guidance of the director, must decide on how to join the pieces of film together, whether to use close ups or long shots in particular sequences. He or she must also decide how long each shot must remain on the screen, affecting the running time of the film.

Consider the two most important action sequences in the film - the wounding of Book by McFee in the car park and the attack on the Amish farm near the end of the film.

  1. How does the editor of these scenes make the events seem fast moving?
  2. Summarise the details of both these scenes. Is this difficult or easy to do, using words? Comment.

Close study of two important sequences

Consider these two significant sequences from the middle of the film. In both these sequences, the use of the camera, editing music and actions of the characters are more important than words in communicating important aspects of the film to an audience.

Sequence one

The barn at the Lappsfarm, John and Rachel are in John's car attempting to start it. John is successful and is excited when the car radio suddenly comes on. Both John and Rachel dance together to the music. The mood is broken when they are interrupted by Eli, who warns Rachel about the consequences of her behaviour.
View this sequence again and answer the following:

  1. What happens to the relationship between John and Rachel that is not directly stated in words in this scene?
  2. What is the function of the song, "What a wonderful world it would be" in this scene? How does it affect John and Rachel? What is its effect on the audience?
  3. What other actions in this scene suggest a change in relationships? What camera angles does Weir use to highlight the change?
  4. What does Eli's interruption prevent from happening?

Sequence two

Building the barn. Book, Eli, Daniel Rachel and Samuel attend a picnic and barn building with the other Amish. While the men construct the walls of a barn, the women prepare the picnic. We see them all participate in the building and the picnic and go home at the end of the day. (Note, there is no dialogue in this scene at all.)

  1. What mood is created by the music played throughout this scene?
  2. There is a feeling of harmony, cooperation and joy in this sequence. What images and other techniques are used by Weir to express this?
  3. Which characters are shown in close up in this sequence? Why? What new emotions do these close ups add to the scene?
  4. Describe the images you see on the screen as this sequence ends.
  5. Summing up

    1. Both these sequences are important for John and Rachel, and significant for the story of the film. Explain why.
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    Other techniques

    Slow motion is another photographic device used by Weir in the film, particularly when Samuel identifies Mcfee in the police station.

    1. Why do you think Weir uses it here? Where else is it used briefly in the film?
    2. Are there any other photographic devices Weir uses?

    Writing tasks

    1. "Witness as a crime film has nothing new or fresh to offer to an audience that has not been said or done before in other crime films."
      Does Peter Weir offer anything new in the film to the audience? Discuss.
    2. "The film Witness shows the audience a clash of different cultures, that come together briefly but cannot mix."
      Discuss the truth of this statement.
    3. John Book and Rachel Lapp could never have a successful permanent relationship. Do you agree? Describe the images, ideas and techniques Peter Weir uses to express his views on their relationship.
    4. The characters in Witness learn and grow throughout the film and the audience learns something too.
      Discuss this statement, using any two of the following characters: John Book, Rachel Lapp, Samuel Lapp, Eli Lapp.
    5. The film Witness deals with characters in conflict with the world around them. Discuss the methods Weir uses to convey this idea.
    6. After Book's departure, Rachel sums up her feelings in a diary. Write her diary entry on this occasion.
    7. Write a newspaper report of the murder at the station.
    8. Peter Weir gives a speech to HSC students about how and why he made the film Witness. Write his speech.
    9. A newspaper headline reads: "Witness - another huge hit for Peter Weir".
      Write the review of the film that goes with the headline.


    There are a range of web sites and pages with references to Peter Weir himself and they can be accessed by typing "Peter Weir director" in a search engine.
    Many of them have little relevance to Witness, but keen students may like to find out more about Peter Weir.
    Some useful sites are:
    The Internet Movie Database (external website) which lists the credits of the film, some very brief notes and material on all his other films.
    Crazy Dave's Peter Weir Cave (external website). In spite of his name, "Dave" does have some interesting material about Peter Weir's films.
    The State Library catalogue lists several books related to Peter Weir They are likely to be hard to obtain for a majority of students. Some are likely to be found in large public or university libraries.
    A useful reference book is International Dictionary of Film and Filmmakers. edited by Nicholas Thomas, St James Press London (1990).This contains a readable and useful analysis of the film by Marie Saeli ,quoted in the text above.

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