The relationship between Mennonites and the entertainment industry hasn’t always been a good one. On the one hand, “we” (and I use that term loosely) haven’t always been happy with the morality of what appears on our screens. On the other hand, we are often used as characters in their storylines that misrepresent us. Today’s reality TV fascination with Mennonite/Amish/Hutterite lifestyle is a perfect example of this. They even use real Mennonite people and they still get it wrong. I’ve writted up a few ideas for new and better Mennonite themed TV shows, and it was well recieved, but I still haven’t heard back from any studio people.
But this wasn’t always the case. In 1985 Harrison Ford starred in the movie Witness. It told the story of a cop who found refuge in an Amish community while his corrupt superiors hunted him down. This was a Hollywood movie with Hollywood values (if you attended a Mennonite church, you probably wouldn’t have been able to watch it in youth group), and yet it presented the Amish people in a positive light.
Witness also served a secondary role in Mennonite communities where if somebody asked you what it meant to be a Mennonite, you could point them toward that movie and then build from there to explain what it means to have Anabaptist Christian values in a contemporary world. Unfortunately, this movie is fading from public memory, so it doesn’t serve that role well anymore. Thankfully, the solution is obvious; it’s time for a sequel.
At first it might seem odd to film a sequel thirty years later, but stranger things happen. Hollywood loves sequels and remakes these days for a variety of reasons. There is a certain amount of guranteed income, assuming that fans of the original will be more likely to pay to see another version. It also requires less investment of energy and money in terms of generating new ideas.
So, here are the building blocks of the sequel to Witness:
- Actors/Actresses that were in the original that would be available to be a part of the new film: Harrison Ford (John Book), Lukas Haas (Samuel), Kelly McGillis (Rachel), Patti LuPone (John’s sister Elaine) are all still alive and acting (with varying levels of success) and Viggo Mortensen was a relatively minor character in the story but his star has risen in Hollywood over the years as well
- The Amish fiction genre has taken off in the meantime (even thought it’s cooled a little since then)
- Anabaptist theology has become more popular in religious circles and pacifism is still an appealing concept
But there are still a few limitations:
- Because of lobbying on behalf of the Pennsylvania Amish community, a promise was made to not allow film crews back to Amish communities. This promise was made after Witness as a way of trying to limit the intrusiveness of tourists on Amish property. It may or may not still be enforced.
- Alexander Godunov, who played Daniel, the presumed future husband of Rachel, has died. He also played Karl in Die Hard. This loss is of course tragic on a personal level, but it also presents a number of storytelling limitations. Finding a replacement actor is always a step down in terms of quality. If the husband dies off in real life, it is either extra grief on a character or presents some sort of black widow scenario.
So, here is the storyline as I see it (again, I am willing to discuss this with any producers that are interested 🙂 )
John Book moved on from the events in the first movie. He found a wife and started a family of his own. He has also joined an anti-corruption task force within the FBI. In the meantime, Rachel married Daniel, as expected, but it wasn’t long before everything unravelled. The suspicions about her that arose within the community never went away and her new husband treated her accordingly. She had also developped a taste for the outside world. After an argument, she takes Samuel and they leave their home and the community. Rachel finds out about John’s marriage and doesn’t try to connect with him. She finds regular work and writes as a hobby until she writes a novel and becomes part of the Amish fiction craze, which is where the movie picks up.
John’s wife, having heard of his time in the Amish community, is a regular reader of Amish fiction and finds a novel that bears striking resemblance to the story John told her. She tries to track down the writer to see if it’s the same woman.
Samuel has now grown up, and after his first marriage ends in divorce he is struggling to find out who he is. Despite his mother’s wishes, he returns to the community where he lived as a boy and because nobody else will break the ban he reconnects with his step-father’s brother Moses (played by Viggo Mortensen) for a short-lived stay in the area.
Meanwhile, John has busted a network of criminal activity in a major police force, and certain people are out for revenge. They catch up with John’s wife just before she is able to meet up with Rachel, and kidnap her as bait to get back at John. He has been so busy with his case that he had no idea his wife was trying to find Rachel, but the novel is the only he has to find out where she went. He tracks down Rachel, and together they follow the clues to discover where his wife is being kept.
When John realizes that his wife was abducted in connection to the case he had been working on, he starts to worry about his daughter. Rachel then sends Samuel to look out for John’s daughter, who is attending a rural Mennonite church in California, and he finds his true spiritual awakening there.
John, Rachel and John’s newly freed wife return to meet up with the daughter (and Samuel), who is not yet out of harm’s way. Moses has heard what was happening, and he follows Samuel to California. In reconnecting with Rachel, Moses apologizes for what happened, and they fall in love. John and his wife grow closer, and while Samuel is too old to date John’s daughter, she faithfully leads him on his spiritual journey.
The bad guys of course meet their fate, delivered via a more or less non-violent confrontation, but there is just enough fighting to appease those movie-goers looking for that.
Again, the Mennonites are presented favourably and it pretty much still fits the formula of a Hollywood movie. Win-win.