#194 The Killing Fields

(1984, Roland Joffe)

“Here, only the silent survive”

The Cambodian Genocide is one of those major world events that rarely gets brought up much in movies, with the conflicts in neighbouring Vietnam typically getting a greater focus in the wider world of fiction. But it’s an event that should be talked about. Following a civil war in the 1970s, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime took over the country, and proceeded to reconstruct the entire country as they saw fit. Thousands were killed, including the educated and those associated with the previous government, all in the name of restarting the country from scratch, making those who remained into mindless slaves.

One man who helped bring all of this to the attention of the Western world was Sydney Schanberg, a journalist for the New York Times who was in Cambodia as a foreign correspondent for the Vietnam conflict next door, and he witnessed the Khmer Rouge takeover and reported it to the world. The Killing Fields is his story, and the story of his friend, Dith Pran.

It’s 1973, and Schanberg (Sam Waterston) is travelling to Cambodia to meet with Cambodian journalist and NYT interpreter Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor), who leaves because of a miscalculated American bombing run that has hit a Cambodian town instead of a Vietnamese target. During the course of the movie, the Khmer Rouge seize control and all foreign nationals are forced into the embassies, including Schanberg and fellow journalists Al Rockoff (John Malkovich) and Jon Swain (Julian Sands). The result is a chaotic drama which never lets up for one moment.

I was honestly expecting to hate this. The descriptions I’d read focused more on the Vietnam War, which was a side conflict with only small connections to the events of the movie, and I was under the impression that this was another long-winded film with a repetitive “war is hell” mantra shouted in your ear the whole time. I’ve discussed how much I dislike this kind of thing in the past.

I was pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong on this. OK, not entirely, since there are plenty of scenes which like to hammer home the point that the events of the Cambodian Genocide were bad and you should feel bad, but beyond that, the movie worked by focusing so much on developing human characters instead of repeating the staggering death tolls. It clearly has done its historical research, but the facts merely enhance the story instead of becoming its focus.

The Killing Fields works in pretty much every area you could expect it to work. It’s very well-paced, never once feeling drawn out or that it’s rushing. The start of the movie does feel very chaotic and moves from place to place very quickly, but we are following Schanberg as he tries to find Pran before being whisked away into the mistaken US bombing, so the chaotic pace is perfect for the tone. It can leave things feeling a little confusing, but stick with it, because everything does fall into place.

There are also excellent performances across the board. Waterston is excellent at balancing Schanberg’s desire for a good story with his perfectly understandable horror at the events unfolding around him. His growing anxiety and depression upon his return to New York in the later parts of the movie is also portrayed perfectly. It’s also hard to fault Ngor’s performance as Pran, and is even more impressive since it was the guy’s first acting job. It’s impossible to not feel sad for the guy.

I also genuinely loved that the movie went beyond the Western world looking in at Cambodia from a distance and gave us a good look at Pran’s attempts to escape the regime later on. The movie spends a good chunk of time in Pran’s shoes, helping us empathise with the Cambodians much better than we would have done just watching Schanberg mope in his New York apartment for an hour.

That said, there are moments where the movie tries too hard to try and make us sympathise with Cambodia and its people, such as when Schanberg watches a newsreel of the events while opera drills its way into our heads. Tragic events on display, sure, but the over-dramatic music made it feel more like the mental conditioning from A Clockwork Orange than anything else, and I doubt that’s the imagery Roland Joffe was really going for.

In fact, the soundtrack in general is a nightmare. Often edited in at too loud a volume, and often being more dramatic than it would ever possibly need to be, the score is often a distraction rather than a complement, and I really don’t know what Mike Oldfield was trying to achieve with it.

That said, I was pleasantly surprised by The Killing Fields. A fascinating yet bleak drama that gave me a great insight into a historical event I’d previously known little about.

Starring Sam Waterston, John Malkovich, Haing S. Ngor & Julian Sands
Written by Bruce Robinson
Produced by David Puttnam & Iain Smith
Music by Mike Oldfield
Cinematography by Chris Menges
Edited by Jim Clark

Favourite Scene: When Schanberg and his other Western journalist friends attempt to forge a British passport for Pran as they’re about to be removed from the embassy.
Scene That Bugged Me: That newsreel with the opera soundtrack. Less of that please, it’s a little silly.

Watch it if: You’re curious to know more about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge
Avoid it if: You hate being hammered by over-the-top scores

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Posted on June 18, 2013, in 1980s, Drama, Political, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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