1984

Film #325: The Killing Fields (1984)

Throughout the 1980s there seemed to be a lot more Best Picture nominees based on recent historical events than in previous decades. That’s certainly true of our next film The Killing Fields, which explores the struggle of the Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge massacre.

The film views the atrocities of the time through the eyes of American journalist Sydney Schanberg and his interpreter Dith Pran. Over the course of two years Sydney and Pran become good friends but both realise that events in Cambodia are just getting worse. While Sydney arranges safe passage out of Cambodia for the Pran family, Dith decides not to go with them and instead continues to help his friend out with his stories. Eventually the embassies extradite all of the foreigners out of Cambodia and, after failing to get out of the country with a false passport, Pran is forced to go it alone. The second half of the film primarily deals with Pran’s struggles and his decision to play dumb in fear of alerting the soldiers to his true identity. Meanwhile, back in America, Sydney does all he can to locate Pran and tries to bring hope to his family that he’s still alive somewhere. But, after winning a Pulitzer, he is chastised by fellow journalist Al Rockoff who himself was in Cambodia with Pran. As American forces start to invade Cambodia, Pran still finds his life in danger and attempts to avoid peril until he finally gets to safety. Though I enjoyed a lot of The Killing Fields, primarily because it side-stepped any sort of Hollywood sentimentality, the final scene in which the two men embrace while ‘Imagine’ plays over the top is a little cheesy.

It’s fair to say that The Killing Fields was tough going at times but I suppose that was point. Director Roland Joffé employs almost a documentary-like style to The Killing Fields as he instructs cinematographer Chris Menges to capture every inch of the atrocity. Menges lets us see the horrific nature of events through the eyes of Sydney and Pran as dead bodies are left on the side of the road and eventually occupy large valleys. In particular I found this to be Pran’s story and, in his first ever film role, Dr. Haing S Ngor brought the perfect amount of realism to the role. It was Ngor’s naturalistic performance that really lifted the film and added to the believable nature of the story. In fact the second half of the film basically relies on his facial expressions to tell the story of The Killing Fields as the latter Cambodian scenes have few lines of dialogue. Ngor would go on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor but to me his performance was as much a lead role as Sam Waterston’s with the pair having about equal time on screen. Not that there was anything wrong with Waterston’s portrayal of Sydney as I found him to be sincere and earnest throughout. Although it took me a while to get into it, The Killing Fields really grabbed me with its Oscar-winning cinematography and editing. Even though the film didn’t take the top prize at that year’s Oscars, it did win Best Film at that year’s BAFTAS and it definitely strikes me as a deserving nominee. Ultimately this was a film to appreciate rather than enjoy but it’s a thoroughly interesting watch and Ngor’s performance is just sublime.

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