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Historic Lancaster Offers a Peak into Hollywood’s Past

It’s hard to believe that this year marks the 20th anniversary of the release of the movie Witness, a film that contrasted the violent modern world with that of the peaceful Amish… “A big city cop. A small country boy. They have nothing in common…but a murder.”Since then millions of people have watched Witness, which gained worldwide popularity due to its marketing as a romantic thriller and because it featured Harrison Ford, fresh from his starring roles in Indiana Jones and Star Wars. For many people, it was an introduction to the Amish culture, and a locale and people foreign to most people’s perceptions of America.Now, in honor of the film’s 20th anniversary, visitors to the picturesque Lancaster, Pennsylvania countryside can learn more about the peaceful world of the Amish while visiting Witness filming locations on the Witness Movie Experience Tour, a 3-hour guided motorcoach tour which runs through November 21st. The tour allows visitors, for the first time ever, a behind-the-scenes look at the farm featured in the film, while learning about the people who made Witness such an intriguing tale.The Witness Movie Experience Tour is the latest in a worldwide movie tourism trend. In London, for example, visitors can see the sites of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason; Philadelphia is the location of National Treasure movie tours, and New Zealand, the home of The Lord of the Rings’ Middle Earth.Unlike these recent films, however, two decades may have passed since you’ve seen Witness, so let me refresh your memory: the movie opens with the funeral of the husband of Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis), who soon takes her son, Samuel, with her on a train trip to visit her sister. The drama begins when Samuel, on his first trip to the “outside world”, witnesses a murder in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.Policeman John Book (Harrison Ford), takes the boy and his mother, Rachel, to the police station for questioning. When the boy recognizes the murderer in some newspaper clippings in the police station’s trophy case, Book realizes the three murderers are cops. Wounded in an attack, Book flees with Rachel and her son to the Lapp farm in Lancaster, where the Amish elders allow Book to recuperate, unaware that the murderers are looking for him.In real life, the Lapp’s 82-acre farm (twice as large as most Amish farms) is the home of an Amish family, and still looks just as it did during the filming of Witness, with a few exceptions: the Purple Martin bird house has been replaced with a replica, the farmhouse windows now have shutters, and a new cow barn was built in 2001 to accommodate 60 cows, whose milk is turned into Land of Lakes butter.Nevertheless, the farmhouse’s porch swing still catches the golden afternoon sunlight as it did during the filming of Witness, and if you stand still for a moment, it’s easy to imagine Alexander Godunov (Rachel’s Amish suitor, Daniel Hochleitner) and Kelly McGillis sipping lemonade as they swing upon it in awkward silence.The farmhouse itself is off limits, but visitors will see the summer kitchen, where grandfather lectures Samuel on violence and the value of life after the boy discovers Book’s gun in a drawer. Also, visitors will venture inside the barn, where the widowed Rachel dances with Book as they discover a mutual romantic attraction which raises serious concern within the Amish community.To give visitors an in-depth look at the Amish way of life, the Witness Movie Experience Tour begins in historic downtown Lancaster at the Lancaster Cultural History Museum, where three floors are dedicated to “Witness to Witness: The Exhibit.” The ground floor gives a background on the Amish people, their history, and the culture of the local Amish community.The museum’s second floor contains Witness memorabilia, including four of Kelly McGillis’ costumes from the movie, props from famous scenes such as Kelly McGillis’ blue agateware pot from the kitchen of the farmhouse, as well as dozens of international Witness movie posters.The exhibit’s third floor features a replica of a typical Pennsylvania-German Bank Barn, similar to the one built in the movie’s spectacular barn-raising scene in which Book puts his carpentry skill to use — a skill that is Harrison Ford’s real-life talent. The barn-raising movie scene, in fact, is no Hollywood fantasy, but a realistic depiction of how the Amish actually live – with a strong degree of commitment to their neighbors and community.This degree of commitment is also evident later in the movie when the bad guys trace Book to Rachel’s home. Book uses violence to defend himself, but it is the Amish that save the day when they use non-violence in the form of their sheer numbers and presence to end the killing.From the museum, the tour moves to other downtown Lancaster Witness filming locations, such as the Lancaster County Courthouse parking garage, used in the scene where John Book was shot, and W.L. Zimmerman and Sons Grocery & Hardware’s front porch, from where John Book placed his phone calls to the city.Finally, after a visit to the Witness farm, the tour takes visitors through the tranquil Lancaster County countryside, where the guide talks about the differences between the Amish culture and ours, reminding us of grandfather’s parting advice to Book, “You be careful out among them English.”There’s a lot to see and do in Lancaster, but if you have the time, the Witness Movie Experience Tour is well worth it. It commemorates a film which points out that people of different cultures can meet and be enriched by their interaction, without having to change each other’s way of life. Perhaps if enough people realize this, the world will become a less violent place, and grandfather’s parting advice won’t be necessary.If you go:The Witness Movie Experience Tour is available Mondays, Fridays & Saturdays, April 1- November 21, 2005 only. Reservations must be made. Cost of the tour is $29.95 for adults and $19.95 for children 4 to 12. For tickets and information, call the PA Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-723-8824, and press 1, or visit

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