How does the film Witness show the clash between Amish culture and modern American culture?

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Tom Foot


English Lang. Coursework

How does the film Witness show the clash between Amish culture and modern American culture?

Peter Weir used directorial devices to produce a piece of theatrical prominence and importance. This spiritual and social journey of a New York policeman, John Book (Harrison Ford) conveys a strong message of morality, corruption and requests understanding of the often misunderstood Amish lifestyle. From the offset this film is a significant study of the Amish and modern, urban American cultures’ co-existence.

The intricate plot exposes the effect of corruption on the life of an Amish child named Samuel Lapp and his mother Rachel. They leave the Amish community in Baltimore and proceed to Philadelphia in order to visit relatives. Whilst awaiting their delayed train Samuel witnesses a significant and vicious murder of a drugs officer, disclosing the corruption of two manipulative police officers (McFee and Paul) with much influence within the system. As the plot develops Samuel and his assigned detective John Book’s knowledge finds them submerged in life threatening circumstances. John Book returns to the Amish community suffering ill-health due to a shoot-out with McFee. He is detained as a consequential member of the Amish. The main theme of the film is the progression of John Book’s attitude and position amongst the community’s citizens.

The Amish sect was founded in 1512 by Swiss reformist Ulrich Zwingli who devised separation from the established church over disagreements concerning such issues as infant baptism and war participation. The Amish faith established itself from 1730-1770, the communities residing in North America. The Amish speak their inherent tongue of German as a method of respect and a reminder of their roots.

The Amish live a very distinctive and idyllic lifestyle. Historically the Amish culture is agriculturally based. All food and drink is produced organically and farmed personally on their land. Their lifestyle is self-sufficient, with few modern conveniences available. They live very much in accordance with nature. To show as little arrogance and image obsession as possible they wear no garish clothes. They like to believe that they are “plain people”. Males wear only dark suits, pastel coloured shirts, a straw or black broad-brimmed hat and dark footwear. Women of the community wear uncomplimentary full length dresses with long sleeves and high necks. They wear white caps and aprons in appropriate pastel colours.  Any embellishment which appears to be distinctive is seen as vanity. They must not style their hair or use manipulative substances such as make-up, this is seen as an alteration of God’s intention. To show mutual respect, members of the community refer to one another using only their surnames in speech.

A member of the community who doesn’t conform to the religion will be shunned because the Amish are a strictly non-violent sect. The film depicts a group of “English” intentionally terrorising the travelling Amish. They simply allow the outsiders to intimidate them without resistance. They believe that modern culture forms a threat towards their preserved seventeenth century style rural culture and their tranquillity. For this reason they do not allow marriage outside their culture- the collection of Amish communities. Formal education above grade eight is strongly discouraged by community elders as it is thought to corrupt the child’s mind; instead they teach curriculum which the community believes will be useful for them during their child’s life. Most members of the religion are christened between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one. At sixteen the child is sent to explore the outside world if they so choose to. During this time they cannot be shunned from the community.

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Peter Weir has selected New York to situate the film because it is an appropriate example of modern America and urban lifestyle. Some areas contain elements of obvious corruption which are important to the film's moral. The use of Harrison Ford to portray the lead role is important; Ford is a very established actor who has been famed for playing masculine roles of the stereotypical hero. He is idolized as a film star and is an obvious representative to symbolize the typical modern American man.  

Whilst situated at Grand Central Station, New York (a typical bustling metropolitan ...

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