Once upon a time, I worked with Harrison Ford’s future daughter-in-law at a TV station on the Paramount Studios lot in Hollywood.
Now I’m boarding a tourist van to find out how Paramount made the box-office smash Witness, which cemented Ford’s stardom and put Pennsylvania Dutch Country even more on the map.
More than a quarter-century after its release, people are still flocking to Lancaster County, PA, about an hour from Philadelphia, to see the farm where the movie took place.
My fellow tourists were psyched to be there. One woman from New Jersey told me she’d seen the movie six times. If you haven’t, here’s the basics:
An Amish boy witnesses a murder in Philadelphia. A cop played by Ford investigates, resulting in a huge culture clash, forbidden love between the boy’s Amish mom (McGillis) and Englisher (Amish term for non-Amish) Ford; and good (in the form of the Amish) versus evil (corrupt, big-city police). With Lancaster County as a gorgeous backdrop.
The Amish disapproved of the movie’s sex and violence and discounted the romance, saying an Amish woman would never get involved with an outsider. But I totally bought it. How could anyone resist young Indiana Jones? Seriously, I thought Ford and McGillis, both perfect physical and cultural specimens, had fabulous chemistry. (Word is the role was first offered to Sylvester Stallone.)
And if you’re telling a moral tale, who better personifies decency than the Amish? That’s why that real-life Amish school massacre (a few miles away) left the world gasping.
While the movie is about corrupt Philadelphia police, most of it wasn’t filmed there. The massive Amtrak train station, also used for Blow Out and Trading Places, was featured in a few scenes. (Having seen all three movies, I was always creeped out when I had to use the restroom before the place was renovated. It was so isolated, it was scary.)
But other Philly locations were filmed in the city of Lancaster, the county seat and gateway to Amish County. The men’s room used for the murder witnessed by the Amish boy (Lukas Haas) was actually built in a Lancaster warehouse because Amtrak wouldn’t allow the real one to be used.
The Philadelphia police commissioner’s house was also in Lancaster. And Paramount rented part of a Lancaster office building and turned it into a police station. The parking garage where Ford was wounded in a shootout was underneath the Lancaster County Courthouse.
The rest of the film was shot in parts of the county that haven’t changed much in almost 30 years ago. Including the farm.
Then some Amish told him about a place owned by an Englisher who didn’t do much farming. He was more interested in farm preservation.
It had just what Weir needed: privacy. Away from the road. Good for filming and a great place for the movie good guys to hide out. (The farm owners continued to live there during the filming, and some family members appeared as extras. The farm was later sold to an Amish family and is now open to the public on a limited basis.)
Getting back to the movie: If someone got wind of it — like the bad guys did — this birdhouse would be the first thing they’d see approaching from the main road. This birdhouse replaced the one in the movie, hit by a car driven by Ford’s character.
And then the bad guys would discover the farm.
… where the sparks really started flying between Ford and McGillis; and where Ford hid from the bad guys. It’s since been expanded and is now used for dairy farming.
That silo with all the corn that came crashing down and smothered one of the baddies? Didn’t happen here. Filmed in a Lancaster warehouse.
The barn-raising took place elsewhere in the county. The barn was torn down as quickly as it went up because it was only for show. Ford said he liked being able to use his real-life skills as a carpenter in the film.
The scene where Ford bloodied a bully’s nose was shot in nearby Intercourse. Spare me the snickers please.
The farm is under a clause that will forever keep it a farm. That means it will never be developed — as Mitch put it, “Harrison Ford at Witness Manor. ”
Ford, who was nominated for an Academy award, contributed money to the farm’s preservation.
Kelly McGillis lived in nearby Berks County for a while.
Lord of the Rings actor Viggo Mortensen also got his start in the film.
And this footnote: No real Amish appeared, because they shun being photographed.
For more information about the tour, click here.