Home > English > Standard > Module B: Close Study of Text > Witness
by Peter Weir
This unit was prepared by Peter Yorke, St Marys Senior High
About the film and
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
Movie Database .This site also contains a complete set
of credits for all Peter Weir's films, including
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
- Identify some examples of crime films.
- If Witness is a crime film, what sort of
characters, actions or events does it have in common with any
of these other films?
- Where are crime films usually set, or in what sort of
environment does the crime occur?
- Is there anything different about Witness as an
example of a crime film?
- What do audiences expect to see in a
- Love stories or romances always have obstacles that stand
in the way of the lovers getting together. What obstacles are
there in Witness ?
- How does the romance end and are the obstacles
- How is the crime story in the film resolved or worked
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.
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.
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
Here are twelve questions related to the film's story that
you may find useful as background information for critical
discussion of the film.
- In the film's opening, what is the purpose of the
gathering of the Amish?
- Explain how the boy Samuel becomes a 'witness' to
- What upsets Rachel most about John Book's way of
- Under what circumstances does Samuel identify the
- How and why does John Book become wounded?
- Why is it necessary for Book to hide out with the Lapp
family and the other Amish?
- Why is Book so difficult for his corrupt colleagues to
- Why is Book so angry about Samuel finding his gun?
- What complication does John Book's falling in love
with Rachel cause for himself?
- What will Rachel have to sacrifice for a relationship
- How do Book's enemies manage to discover where he
- How does Samuel help to capture Book's enemies?
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.
John Book, detective, Philadephia Police, played by Harrison
- Describe your first impressions of John Book.
- 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?
- 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
- Which scenes later in the film show that a change in
John’s attitude has occurred?
- Why does he leave Rachel at the end?
Rachel Lapp, Amish woman and mother of Samuel,
- Describe Rachel's situation at the start of the
- Why is Rachel originally so resentful of Book?
- What conflict does Rachel have the rest of the Amish
- What alternative to Book does she have at the end of the
Samuel Lapp, Amish boy, witness to murder, played by Lukas
- How is Samuel shown to be naive and innocent at the start
of the film?
- How does his relationship with Book change throughout the
course of the film?
- With what other male character does Samuel seem to have a
strong relationship? How is he different to Book?
- Where in the film does Samuel show initative and
Other characters: Daniel Hochletter, Eli Lapp, Elaine,
Schaeffer and McFee
- Identify the roles each of them plays in the film.
- In what ways are Eli and Daniel different to Book as
- Compare the different lifestyles of Elaine and
- 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.
- List the things about the Amish that you see that would
make them different from mainstream American or Australian
- Why do you think Weir felt it was necessary to put a
title on the screen PENNSYLVANIA 1984 at the end of this
- On the
Heartland web site check the accuracy of Weir's
view of the Amish.
- What items on the "question and answer " web
page do you see mentioned in the film?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- What aspects of the photography of this scene suggest the
harshness and brutality of modern city life?
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
- What is a pacifist? Are the Amish shown as pacifists?
Describe a scene where their point of view is clearly
- How does the Amish seem to settle conflicts or disputes?
How is this different to the way John Book does things?
- What role does the Amish play in helping Book capture
Shaeffer at the end?
Conformity and nonconformity
- A conformist goes along with what the majority of society
wants The Amish expect everyone in their society to conform
to their beliefs.
- How do they criticise John Book's behaviour?
- In what way are they critical of Rachel's
- In what ways would a traditional Amish have trouble
conforming to life in the city outside their own
- In what ways does Book stand out in Amish society?
- Which characters have important choices to make
throughout the film?
- 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.
- List the strengths of Amish culture.
- List the weaknesses.
- Do the Amish have to make compromises with the world
around them to survive?
- "The Amish could not survive in a modem American
Is that the message that Weir is trying to convey to us?
Film techniques in
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.
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
- 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
- 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
At the end of Witness. Weir uses a variation on this
old device. Discuss.
- 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?
- What is implied to the audience about Rachel's future
in this closing shot?
- 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?
- 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.
- How does the editor of these scenes make the events seem
- Summarise the details of both these scenes. Is this
difficult or easy to do, using words? Comment.
Close study of two important
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
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
View this sequence again and answer the following:
- What happens to the relationship between John and Rachel
that is not directly stated in words in this scene?
- 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?
- What other actions in this scene suggest a change in
relationships? What camera angles does Weir use to highlight
- What does Eli's interruption prevent from
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.)
- What mood is created by the music played throughout this
- There is a feeling of harmony, cooperation and joy in
this sequence. What images and other techniques are used by
Weir to express this?
- Which characters are shown in close up in this sequence?
Why? What new emotions do these close ups add to the
- Describe the images you see on the screen as this
- Both these sequences are important for John and
Rachel, and significant for the story of the film.
Slow motion is another photographic
device used by Weir in the film, particularly when Samuel
identifies Mcfee in the police station.
- Why do you think Weir uses it here? Where else is it
used briefly in the film?
- Are there any other photographic devices Weir
- "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
- "The film Witness shows the audience a
clash of different cultures, that come together briefly
but cannot mix."
Discuss the truth of this statement.
- 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.
- The characters in Witness learn and grow
throughout the film and the audience learns something
Discuss this statement, using any two of the following
characters: John Book, Rachel Lapp, Samuel Lapp, Eli
- The film Witness deals with characters in
conflict with the world around them. Discuss the methods
Weir uses to convey this idea.
- After Book's departure, Rachel sums up her
feelings in a diary. Write her diary entry on this
- Write a newspaper report of the murder at the
- Peter Weir gives a speech to HSC students about how
and why he made the film Witness. Write his
- A newspaper headline reads: "Witness -
another huge hit for Peter Weir".
Write the review of the film that goes with the
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.
Back to Module B
Many of them have little relevance to Witness, but
keen students may like to find out more about Peter
Some useful sites are:
The Internet Movie Database which lists the
credits of the film, some very brief notes and material on
all his other films.
Crazy Dave's Peter Weir Cave . 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