We have done a series on the way the Amish have been portrayed in movies and on TV. The year 2005 also marked the 20th anniversary of the most famous film involving Amish characters and Lancaster --- the 1985 movie Witness, starring Harrison Ford and directed by Australian Peter Weir --- with Paramount releasing a special collectors edition DVD in August, 2005. The local Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau even wrapped its advertising campaign around the movie that brought Lancaster County and the Amish to an international audience. To make it all more exciting, the farm where Witness was filmed was part of a special “Witness Movie Experience Tour,” giving visitors the opportunity to actually visit the farm for the first time and for the year 2005 only.

For the true trivia fan, the first movie we know of that was filmed here was a 1943 documentary short subject entitled FARMER AT WAR, in which “Pennsylvania Dutch farmers demonstrate how American farmers can contribute to the war effort” during World War II. While Lancaster is most famous for the filming of Witness, we thought it would be interesting to see what other movie connections we have to Hollywood film-making. We found a few unusual connections, to say the least! Lancaster either provided a location or important "props" to these movies.

Trains, Trains, and More Trains
Downtown RAGE
"The Boys" Come to Lancaster
A Movie on Five Screens
Oprah Comes to Landis Valley

Trains, Trains, and More Trains

Prior to Witness, the main Hollywood connection to Lancaster had to do with trains, specifically cars and locomotives produced or provided by the Strasburg Rail Road. In 1956, Strasburg Railroad’s #20 was used as a funeral car in the MGM film RAINTREE COUNTY, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. Built 1919, the wooden car was later named the “Willow Brook,” and also appeared in the 1999 Will Smith film WILD, WILD WEST.

Thirteen years later in 1968, Hollywood called again, this time for the 20th Century Fox film HELLO, DOLLY! (1969) starring Barbra Streisand, Walter Matthau and Louis Armstrong. In this film, Strasburg Rail Road provided four coach cars and steam locomotive #1223, built in 1905, which is now retired and sits in the Rail Road Museum of Pennsylvania. You may remember the open train car Streisand is seen riding (and singing) on in the final shot. You can ride in it (or one of the other cars used in the movie) if you pick the right train when you visit. Besides the fun of being in this famous train car, you’ll enjoy the wonderful views of the Amish farmlands Streisand never saw…

Open Air Coach 68 – Built by the Pullman Car Company in 1896 as a passenger car, it was painted yellow and converted to an open observation car based on 20th Century Fox studio specifications, particularly so dancers could easily access it. This is the oldest passenger car on Strasburg Railroad’s roster and is still named the “Hello Dolly.” It has since been painted brown.

Coach 59 – Painted yellow for HELLO, DOLLY! and lettered NYC & HR No. 2, the coach is now named “Grasshopper Level.”

Combine 60 – This combination baggage-passenger wooden coach built in 1903 was repainted yellow for the film. Known as the “Donald E.L. Hallock,” it was also seen in 1999’s WILD, WILD WEST.

Coach 62 – Dating to 1897 and rebuilt into a straight passenger coach in 1901, it was also painted yellow to be used for HELLO, DOLLY! The coach was later named “Gobbler’s Knob.”

Later that year, Strasburg Rail Road Coaches 70 (Cherry Crest) and 72 (Mill Creek) were featured in the film GAILY, GAILY starring Beau Bridges and Hume Cronyn.

Thirty years passed until WILD, WILD WEST, starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline, was about to hit the big screen. In addition to those mentioned above, several other Strasburg Rail Road cars, including Caboose 476087, Flatcar 122, and Boxcar 713, were sent to Monument Valley, Utah for filming. The Strasburg Rail Road shop also restored a locomotive for the movie. It is the William Mason (B&O 4-4-0 #25), reputedly the oldest operating steam locomotive in the world, built in Massachusetts in 1856. Rebuilt in the spring of 1998 for Warner Brothers, the engine can now be seen at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

Finally in 1999, the Strasburg Rail Road played a role in the making of THOMAS AND THE MAGIC RAILROAD. In addition to Coach 70 used in GAILY, GAILY, the former Norfolk & Western #475 locomotive, built in 1906, was used with two coaches lettered “Indian Valley.” The train ran to Harrisburg under its own power for filming in the Amtrak station area, with two more days of filming done on the Strasburg Rail Road. The popular “A Day Out with Thomas” events are held three times a year at the railroad, with the engine “Thomas,” originally built in 1917, extensively remodeled to resemble Thomas the Tank Engine.

Downtown RAGE

Downtown Lancaster and the buildings of Penn Square made a brief appearance in the opening of the 1965 melodrama A RAGE TO LIVE, based on the steamy novel by John O’Hara. Eugene Kim describes the story thusly…”Grace Caldwell, a young Pennsylvania newspaper heiress living with her widowed mother, has trouble restraining herself when it comes to the amorous attentions of young men.” One viewer called this movie “trash with many notable TV stars,” including Suzanne Pleshette and Ben Gazzara. You can see the Watt & Shand building (now the facade of the Lancaster County Convention Center), Civil War monument, and other buildings under the movie’s main titles, a scene not looking all that different today.


The first film to really say something about Amish or Mennonite culture in Lancaster actually said it very well, in the movie HAZEL’S PEOPLE. This 1973 movie was filmed locally and initially titled “Happy as the Grass was Green,” the novel by Lancaster local Merle Good on which the movie was based. Starring Geraldine Page in a wonderful performance, along with Pat Hingle and local Rachel Thomas, it was still available on video as of this writing. For many years, visitors could see it screened evenings in Intercourse.

As the VHS wrapper describes the story, “Eric is an adamant fighter for human rights who discovers a way of life he never knew existed. He goes to attend the funeral of his best friend, John, who was killed in a campus riot. The bitterness and hostility he feels is challenged when he meets a young Mennonite girl named Hazel. The Mennonites display an inner peace he can’t understand….”

Charles Champlin, film critic for the Los Angeles Times called it “a modest and gentle film which has the quiet audacity to suggest that simplicity and goodness still exist.” An online reviewer called it “a small and unheralded gem that portrays the lifestyles of the more conservative Mennonites better, in its own way, than Witness did in its superficial view of the Amish. Simple, smart and courageous.”

"The Boys" Come to Lancaster

A few years later, Lancaster County was chosen for a key sequence in a major Hollywood production, THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL. A small house in New Providence in southern Lancaster County was used for the climatic scene between Gregory Peck, Sir Laurence Olivier, and a few Doberman dogs. The film also starred James Mason and Steve Guttenberg. Acclaimed director Franklin Schaffner was a graduate of Lancaster’s Franklin & Marshall College and perhaps found this rural location ideal. The plot, which seems far-fetched but plays out in exciting fashion, may actually sound more believable now than it did in 1978. Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele (a real-life character who was living in Brazil at the time) gathers some followers after World War II and they proceed to clone Hitler. Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman must try to stop the plot from succeeding, and this brings the two stars together for the thrilling finale. One viewer noted a film goof when, at the end of the film, Lieberman is in the hospital in Lancaster, but there is an English-style TV on the wall. By the way, other famous F&M grads in the performing arts include actors Treat Williams and Roy Scheider, as well as playwright James Lapine.


Perhaps not surprisingly, a few years after Witness, PBS-TV produced and broadcast THE SILENCE AT BETHANY in 1988. The film treated a conflict within the Mennonite church, and was filmed and premiered in Lancaster. Some of the same locals who worked on Witness were involved in this production as well. The beginning of the movie was filmed at the Forgotten Seasons Bed & Breakfast at 304 East Newport Road, Lititz. The film shows the milk house, tobacco shed, garage and barn that used to stand on the property where the B&B is located, locally known as the Richard Hershey farm and referred to by the historians as the Jacob Huber Tavern. Later, when East Newport Road was relocated, all outbuildings were demolished. The only building remaining is the farmhouse, now the B&B. The photo above shows the building with period cars for a scene in the film..

The story, written by local Joyce Keener, was based on her parents’ experience. In the story, Ira Martin (played by Mark Moses) had basically left the church as a young man, after the death of his family in a fire. While in his twenties, his path crosses with church members again and he reconnects with the congregation and with God. He eventually marries a young lady from the congregation, Pauline (played by Susan Wilder, above right), and becomes the pastor of the same congregation. The conflict develops when Pastor Martin does not preach the Bishop's interpretations and instructions from the pulpit, such as no milk pickups on Sunday. Pastor Martin is then silenced and he chooses to leave the church. The story is based in part on Pastor Keener's pastorate at the Stauffer Mennonite congregation in 1946.

One viewer found “this film story warm and meaningful as well as painful. Issues of church membership, acceptance, rejection, judgment, love, support and enforced uniformity are all dealt with in a clear fashion. Communities such as these still exist in the United States, but their numbers and their influence is rapidly declining. There are some sad losses and yet there are some very liberating, but difficult and uncertain choices to be made.”

A Movie on Five Screens

Ten years after Witness, some local producers saw a need for a presentation that combined Amish history with a more personal view of Amish life today. This resulted in JACOB’S CHOICE, a unique five-screen presentation that gives audiences a sensitive and dramatic look at the Amish world, past and present. Unlike most movies that involve a clash between the Amish and characters from the outside world, this story is told through the eyes of a teenage Amish boy within the Amish community. There are no non-Amish or city folk involved in the story. Rather than being merely a plot device, the Amish are the story.

This was also the first time anyone tried to bring in the history of the Amish, how their forefathers were put to death in Europe, and their seeking freedom in America. These Amish struggles with the "State" have been both a part of their past, and the subject of many novels and movies in modern times as well. An attempt here is to relate what has happened to the Amish in the past with who they are today. In other words, the Amish are not cultural oddities or eccentrics. There is a reason behind what they do.

The story is told through the eyes of a teenage boy who must make his decision to join the Amish faith of his parents, or lead a more modern life in the outside world. (The Amish believe in adult baptism.) Rather than portray the Amish as saints or curiosities, here they become real people. It is a "universal story" told from a distinctive Amish perspective.One of the show’s producers tells the story of a day when two ladies came to the theater. One was Amish, and the other her sister who had chosen not to join the church. At the end of the show, he asked them how they liked it. They answered, almost in unison, "It was a really good story."

While special effects are used to bring the historical scenes to life, the emphasis remains on the family, the community, and why any young person would want to be Amish in modern-day America. Long before “rumspringa” (the “running around” time of Amish teenagers) entered the English language courtesy of the “Amish in the City” reality TV show, this production attempted to show the challenges in an intimate way. While not all Amish young people join the church, approximately 90% to 95% do, resulting in the continual growth of the Amish population.

"Jacob's Choice" was filmed in 1995 in Lancaster with local actors, using some of the original Witness costumes from Paramount. Special effects, editing, and music were completed in Los Angeles while the specially designed three-dimensional theater set with its unique barn-siding movie screens was being completed. The presentation is shown daily on the hour at the Amish Experience Theater at Plain & Fancy Farm on Route 340.

On a side note, the 1997 movie comedy FOR RICHER OR POORER, starring Tim Allen and Kirstie Ally hiding out from the IRS on an Amish farm, was not filmed in Lancaster County. The A.M. Grove Store in Muddy Creek Forks in southern York County was used in some scenes, but the farm locations were shot in Maryland.

Oprah Comes to Landis Valley

Hollywood decided to use Lancaster again for several scenes in the 1998 film BELOVED, directed by Jonathan Demme and based on Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s best-selling novel. A pregnant slave woman named Sethe escapes to Ohio to join her children and mother-in-law, who had escaped via the underground railroad. Soon an old slave friend named Paul D. moves in with her. When the slave master tracks her down, she tries to kill her children rather than have them returned to slavery. The ghost of the oldest daughter, Beloved, and the only one killed, returns as an apparition of Sethe’s guilt and anguish. When Sethe faces her past and forgives herself with the help of the community, the haunting entity Beloved leaves and the healing process begins.

Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover (who had also been in Witness) were at Landis Valley Museum for the shooting in the fall and winter of 1997. The museum’s historically accurate buildings were ideal in creating the setting for Walnut Hill, Ohio, an African-American town, in the early 1870s. It took six weeks to transform the museum into the town.

Some buildings were created for the set, such as the Lady Jones House and Church of the Redeemer, while existing buildings were painted and changed, such as the Country Store, Brick House, Log Farm, and The Pottery (which became the Barber Shop).

Large production vehicles moved throughout the site and hundreds of workers busily prepared for the spring scenes (with fake flowers attached to real ones) and the winter sets (with fake snow and icicles), including the opening scene in the cemetery. Hundreds of Lancaster residents were hired as extras, and four full days of filming resulted in about four minutes of screen time for Landis Valley Museum.

Located on Route 272 north of Lancaster, Landis Valley Museum offers movie tours to groups and tour operators that provide visitors with an inside look at the movie production, as well as insight into the diverse and authentic experiences of African Americans as linked to the Pennsylvania German culture in Lancaster County through the underground railroad, Christiana Riot, and Treason Trials. The guided tour includes several buildings, a video, horse-drawn wagon ride, and a tasting from the bake ovens. While the tour is only available to groups, the museum and the existing buildings used in the film are open daily to individuals.

That leaves us with a few other recent movies that are indicated to have had scenes filmed in the area. According to the website, which is a great resource on movie information, these include:

GIRL, INTERRUPTED (1999) starring Winona Rider, Angelina Jolie, Whoopi Goldberg, Vanessa Redgrave. Various interior scenes were filmed on downtown Lancaster.
LUCKY NUMBERS (2000) starring John Travolta, Lisa Kudrow
DIAMOND MEN (2000) starring Robert Forster, Donnie Wahlberg
THE SLEEPY TIME GAL (2001) starring Jacqueline Bisset
RAVE ON (2005)

For better or for worse, movies will continue to define many of our perceptions of people and cultures, how we are similar and different. As historical documents, they also reflect the views and values of societies and cultures at various points in time. Since the earliest days of mankind, storytelling has been a way for us to express, understand, enjoy, challenge, and explore our past, present and future.

Amish Country News Article by Brad Igou (2005)


Comments or questions? Send us an email at

Amish Country News, PO Box 414, Bird-in-Hand, PA 17505 • 717-768-8400 ext. 217

All contents of this Amish Country News website are copyright 2006 byRoncki, Inc. All brand names and trademarks are acknowledged as belonging to their respective owners