Review of 'The Killing Fields'

killing_fields.jpg Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) is a New York Times reporter based in Cambodia covering the political and social turmoil covering the civil war in the early 1970s. Aided by Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor), a local guide and journalist Scanberg attempts to document the accidental bombing of a local village by the American military. Two years later in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh the embassies are being evacuated on the news that the Khmer Rouge are set to invade. Schanberg arranges for Pran and his family to be evacuated by the Americans but Pran decides to stay with his friend, sending his wife and children away with the rest of the evacuees. As the city is inundated by the Khmer Rouge the two friends are captured by the occupying army but Pran manages to obtain their freedom. The population of the city are evacuating but the two friends along with a number of other reporters find sanctuary at the French Embassy which remains open. Eventually the Khmer Rouge force all of the Cambodians sheltering in the embassy to leave, including Pran. A few months later Schanberg is back in New York and congratulated for his extraordinary work covering the events in Cambodia but he is troubled by the unknown fate of Pran…

Having visited the real killing fields of Cambodia in 2017 (see my Angkor Trails Journal 2017) my wife and I were all too familiar with what had happened there so were not all that keen in watching this film. Luckily, although the film is quite a harrowing watch it is no where near as nasty as what we saw in our visit (think a tower stacked with human skulls and clothing the mud of the fields of the dead…still now more than 45 years later) but it is still harrowing nonetheless…

“The Killing Fields” is told from the perspective of reporter Schanberg and really manages to convey the chaos that must have ensued with the Khmer Rouge invasion of Cambodia. Many times even as objective viewers of the action have no idea what is going on with snatched images of horror and tragedy amongst the masses clamouring to escape. This realism continues in it's conveying of the mindless tedium and tension of long months spent by the reporters waiting for either their capture by the invaders or their ever-diminishing likelihood of escape. This also shows the real attachment of the American reporter to Pran, his Cambodian liaison, as they become friends with Schanberg's multiple attempts to keep him safe including passport forgery and simple running away, ultimately all unsuccessful. Pran is equally devoted to keeping Schanberg safe as time and time again he saves his life with his local knowledge. This is a relationship toughened by an unimaginable tragedy.

The action and visuals of “The Killing Fields” is hard to forget. Here we are able to see that Cambodia is a beautiful country with beautiful people which was all torn completely asunder by the civil war (even now the wounds run deep and the country is still coming to terms with what happened). There are glimpses here of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge which are truly horrific (particularly a later scene with Pran in a paddy field…and lots of bodies). The action is all utterly believable, really managing to capture the horror that must have been. Incredible, chaotic set pieces are huge in scope and breathless in their brutality. The cinematography is equally gritty with a lot of shaky filming and quick cutting accurately capturing the action yet never straying too far from the plight of the main characters. In all this confusion they are our focus and they are our window to the history unfolding around them.

Much of the acting here is simply RE-acting to the events as they unfold but Sam Waterston is truly amazing as the reporter driven to see that the truth is revealed to the world, at whatever the cost to himself though compassionate enough to still care for those around him. As Pran, Haing S. Ngor is equally spellbinding as his character's entire world is destroyed in the matter of hours. As a Cambodian actor this must have been particularly moving for him and his utter commitment to the role captivates any time he is on the screen. A young John Malkovich appears as Al Rockoff, a media photographer ever serving the role of conscience to Schanberg, reminding him to be doing the right thing yet at the same time sharing the passion of Schanberg to throw himself into danger to get the story out. Malkovich really manages to capture the care-free attitude of a young reporter throwing himself into the immediate aftermath of a bombing to capture pictures of the dead and dying, a man who perhaps shields himself from reality through the lens of his camera.

I have to say the tremendous score by Mike Oldfield really manages to lift what, let's face it, is quite a depressing story. It manages to convey the dread yet also the occasional hope of the characters in a moving and touching way.

A moving film of a modern day atrocity that somehow manages to keep it's humanity in an ultimately uplifting and life-affirming way. Not an easy watch by any means but it tells the story of events we should all be familiar with and take as a warning.

Rating: “Nearly perfect, but not quite”

Review Date: 2020-06-05

Directed by: Roland Joffé

Studio: Goldcrest Films International

Year: 1984

Length: 141 minutes

Genre: Melodrama