From a distance, “The Killing Fields” looks like another in a long line of movies about the Vietnam War and of the terrible damage left in its wake. But in actuality, the movie takes place in Cambodia where the country is in the midst of a civil war with the Khmer Rouge regime; a result of the Vietnam War spilling over the country’s borders. It is based on the memoirs of award winning American journalist Sydney Schanberg who was a correspondent for The New York Times, and of how he spent years reporting the endless fighting and bombing which took place in Cambodia and Laos as the regime got overrun by the Khmer Rouge. Along with photographers Jon Swain (Julian Sands) and Al Rockoff (John Malkovich), Schanberg worked to capture the reality of this horrific situation as it escalates into something far worse.
But at its heart, “The Killing Fields” is really a story of friendship between Sydney and his translator, Cambodian journalist Dith Pran. Together, they work to get to the unvarnished proof of the situation and risk their lives in the process. When the time comes to evacuate Southeast Asia, Schanberg helps Pran’s family escape and tries to do the same for him, but the Americans are forced to give up Pran as the new regime wants all Cambodian citizens to be returned. This leads to a guilt ridden Schanberg spending as much time as possible trying to find Pran through humanitarian services and government officials. While he does so, we watch Pran being subjected to forced labor under the “Year Zero” policy the Khmer Rouge initiated to destroy the past and start a new future.
The scene where Dith Pran stumbles upon the corpses left to rot in the Cambodian fields is where the movie gets its name, and the images of what he discovers will forever burn in your conscious mind. In that moment, director Roland Joffé captures the most viciously evil nature of Pol Pot, Cambodia’s answer to Adolf Hitler. What happened in these fields is no different from what the Nazi’s did to the Jews during World War II. But what’s even worse is that this same kind of ethnic cleansing is still happening all over the world. Some might think the events of “The Killing Fields” have no real relevance to this post-9/11 world, but nothing could be further from the truth. With this movie, we get depressing proof of how history repeats itself.
What gives this movie even more emotional heft is the fact that Haing S. Ngor, who plays Dith Pran, went through the same ordeal as his real life counterpart did. It is impossible to watch Ngor in “The Killing Fields” without knowing he went through a very similar ordeal as he had to convince the soldiers he was an uneducated peasant. Had they realized he was an intellectual and a reporter, he would have been killed on the spot. Ngor was not a professional actor when cast, so he doesn’t act as much as provide an undeniably human face of what Cambodians went through when the Khmer Rouge came to town, and he gives what is undoubtedly one of the bravest cinematic performances ever. Forget the Oscar; Haing should have received the Purple Heart.
As great as Haing is though, let’s not leave out the other actors whose work is just as good. Sam Waterston plays Sidney Schanberg, and this was long before he got involved in that show with the “chung CHUNG” sound. Waterston does exceptional work in capturing Schanberg’s relentless quest for truth without watering it over for anybody’s benefit. We see him stubbornly pursue whatever sources are available to him regardless of it puts him and others in mortal danger, and this eventually leads to feel utter guilt as he encouraged Dith Pran to stay with him even though he was at greater risk than anybody else. Waterston captures the complexities of a reporter who sees the importance of getting to the truth as well as the cost that comes with it which becomes a heavy burden to bear.
In addition, you also have John Malkovich who brings an unrelenting intensity to his character of Al Rockoff as we watch him quickly recovers from an explosion that went off right next him to take one photo after another. Julian Sands also co-stars here as fellow photographer Jon Swain, and this was long before he got stuck in those “Warlock” movies. Plus, you have Craig T. Nelson on board in a small role as Major Reeves, the face of the military officials who work to cover up American mistakes while maintaining whatever control they have left over an increasingly chaotic situation. And there’s no forgetting the late Spalding Gray who plays the U.S. Consul, and his experience of making “The Killing Fields” ended up inspiring his monologue “Swimming to Cambodia.”
Looking back, it’s actually surprising to learn that “The Killing Fields” marked the Roland Joffé’s directorial debut. After watching, or enduring, this movie, it feels like he has been directing movies for years and years. Nothing we see here ever feels like staged or overly rehearsed, and Joffé makes you feel like you are watching a very in depth documentary that no one else could have pulled off.
Joffé was also aided by cinematographer Chris Menges who won an Oscar for his work here, and Menges captures a land and a time that is anything but sentimental. Composer Mike Oldfield (best known for “Tubular Bells”) also provides an original sounding score that captures the horror and unrelenting chaos that consumes Cambodia and those unlucky enough to be caught up in it.
All these years later, the depth of feeling and tragedy captured in “The Killing Fields” still remains a very powerful cinematic achievement, and its emotionally devastating power has grown even more so as a result of unfortunate events outside of it. Ngor, ended up being murdered during a robbery in downtown Los Angeles outside his home in Chinatown. Knowing that he survived the horrific fate that consumed and destroyed the lives of many Cambodians only to have his life cut short in such an utterly senseless crime makes watching this movie today all the more tragic. Then there was Gray, who ended up committing suicide as he could never come to grips with the serious injuries he sustained in a nasty car crash. To watch “The Killing Fields” today without thinking of what happened to the both of them is impossible.
I’m really glad that I finally got the chance to see “The Killing Fields” long after its original 1984 release. Even if its Best Picture segment during that year’s Academy Awards ceremony did give away its ending for me, none of the movie’s impact was lost on me. It proved to be not just a great directorial debut, but also a great collaboration or artists who completely sucked you into the reality of a place and time you would never want to experience up close. There’s no way to come out of “The Killing Fields” without being deeply affected by it.
Copyright Ben Kenber 2016