The Killing Fields (1984)

*. The Watergate era has been mythologized as a golden age of American journalism, which is an observation that has several facets. Reporters became heroes in the ’70s (or, perhaps an even better word, stars), but it’s also the case that the public, who were still reading newspapers back then, cared a lot more about the stories being covered. Today’s political scandals are much worse than Watergate, but since the news media ecosystem is so fractured, not to mention so roundly despised and mistrusted, the scandals (and crimes) get lost in the noise.
*. The Killing Fields takes us back to that golden age (it’s set in the mid-’70s) and a pair of heroic newsmen covering a story (the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia) that could still at least evoke sympathy from an American audience. It’s sad to think of how far we’ve fallen since then, and how unlikely it would be for such a movie to be made today. Even the idea that Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor) would stay behind in Cambodia in part because of his love for his country but even more because of his sense of calling in being a reporter, would strike most of us today as unbelievable.
*. Producer David Puttnam wanted Roland Joffé to direct because Joffé had seen the script and recognized that it was primarily a movie about friendship rather than politics. On the DVD commentary Joffé is eloquent on this: “I think friendship is undervalued in our generation, curiously enough, in our age. It’s as though the only relationships that really have any value are supposed to be those between men and women, sexual relationships. Which of course are wonderful and superb but life is full of many things and I think that real friendships in many respects may be more enduring than relationships that are bonded around sexual love. In some respects I think this film was a hymn to that.”

*. And so it is. This is one of the great movies about a passionate male friendship that is not sexual, even if it is, as Joffé thought, “a love story.” This may be due, in part, to the fact (or at least reported fact) that men don’t often form such attachments, at least to the extent that many women do. In any event, it provides a core of honesty here that holds the whole movie in its grip. We feel how much Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterson) and Pran care for each other, which makes us care about them.
*. Ngor was not an actor. In fact he was a doctor who had himself escaped the Khmer Rouge labour camps. Apparently the casting director saw him at a Cambodian wedding in Los Angeles. Remarkable how things like that happen. He’d go on to win a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, though he could easily be seen as being the lead.
*. But Ngor wasn’t the only newbie. Joffé had never directed a feature film before, though he’d done a lot of TV work. This was only John Malkovich’s second movie. He was an unknown, just as was Julian Sands. I don’t know how much movie work Mike Oldfield had done before doing the score but I don’t think there was a lot. And apparently he didn’t care for the experience here very much.
*. An interesting choice to go without subtitles, but I think it pays off. Joffé says he thought it added to the sense of Cambodia turning into “an incomprehensible world,” but it may be more elemental than that. Under the Khmer Rouge language has lost its meaning. Everything is symbolic. Being able to read glances and gestures becomes of great importance and silence is one’s only option to survive.

*. The score is disjointed, perhaps because the movie was being recut and Oldfield felt he had to keep changing it. But I think Pauline Kael is wrong to dismiss it or blame it for ruining some of the best scenes by “hyping death.” I think it has great passages, like the terrific airlift out of Phnom Penh, but also some over-the-top misfires. Even at his least effective, however, I prefer what Oldfield does to Sydney listening to “Nessun dora” in his apartment or John Lennon’s “Imagine” coming on at the end. Talk about trite.
*. Kael’s review is significant in another way. She seems to have been of many minds about the movie. For example, she calls it “an ambitious movie made with an inept, sometimes sly, and very often equivocal script.” Inept, sly, and equivocal? As with the score, I think it’s all three. It’s an uneven movie, but one with real integrity in its message. At 140 minutes it doesn’t feel a bit too long and even the epic scenes — the deurbanization of Phnom Penh, Pran’s march through the mucky Golgotha — occur on a human level.
*. Beautifully shot, with only the one animated blood spatter marring the proceedings. Boy does that look bad! Like Reptilicus bad. They should go back and fix that up now. They have the technology.
*. A chilling portrayal of the horror of the killing fields. The transformation of children into soulless zombies may be the scariest part. Elsewhere there are some slips, but the central story is carried along through some brilliantly worked-up scenes that have stayed with me ever since I first saw the movie, and long after I’d forgotten the few flaccid moments in between.

14 thoughts on “The Killing Fields (1984)

  1. Bookstooge

    I think friendship is undervalued in our generation

    Oh, I’d watch this movie on the strength of that statement alone. As a lonewolf, introverted male, I do tend to not form a lot of friendships with other guys. But I know I need them and I’ve taken steps to reinforce the few I do have.

    On the flip side, I’m not sure I could handle the children aspect of the movie. That type of thing just kills me on the inside when I see it.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      It’s hard to think of many movies that deal with the subject of male friendship in this mature a way. Usually they try to shoehorn in some homoerotic subtext. But even in the real world it’s becoming a bit of a rare bird.

      The Khmer Rouge brainwashing of the kids is the most disturbing part, and the little girl even scared Ngor!

      1. Bookstooge

        It is becoming very rare in the real world. Every time you see 2 guys together, you wonder if they’re in a sexual relationship instead of being friends. It is driving men apart and destroying them piecemeal 😦

        I just don’t know if I could handle watching that. I’ve talked with Dix about this, but not you, I think. I watch movies strictly for entertainment. Period. And if anything impinges on that, it’s not a movie for me. I want my learning from books 😉

      2. Alex Good Post author

        Yeah, that’s fair. But entertainment needn’t always be the same thing as feel-good entertainment. Otherwise we wouldn’t have any tragedies!

  2. rdfranciswriter

    Sam Waterson. Period. Case closed.

    Everyone seems to forget his deep, rich filmography prior to Law and Order, where the youngins know him from. Love him so much so that I recently rewatched Rancho Deluxe and The Great Gatsby. After another’s review of The Satan Bug, I was inspired to rewatch Warning Sign.

    I hope he returns for the Law and Order: TOS. If not, I won’t bother. Wouldn’t be the same without him.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I have to admit I’ve never watched Law & Order. And it’s been on forever. Is it still going?

      Just looking over his CV, it’s amazing how busy he’s kept in movies, television, and on stage. It was nice to see him in the lead here.

      1. rdfranciswriter

        Well, the original series ran for, uh, 19 years, I think. It’s been off for ten, now they’re bringing it back. I didn’t start watching until Waterson showed up, which was in the 3 or 4th season. But yes, still going on with spinoffs that don’t match the original.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        I do remember hearing about the spinoffs, but never saw any of them either. I sort of gave up on TV for a while and only came back when they started having the great cable series like The Sopranos and The Wire. And it took me forever to get through them. 19 seasons of anything would finish me off.

      3. rdfranciswriter

        I hear ya. Cable series always rise above the network norms. I did the same with Dexter. Took forever to get though the seasonal boxes.

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