It’s become something of a maxim in North America to casually set aside even a remedial understanding that certain parts of the world do not ascribe to the same level of social justice. Occasional moral outrage aside, we really are a clueless lot – and becoming more isolationist in our naval-gazing with each passing year. When the image of Miley Cyrus ‘twerking’ (I’m even ashamed to use that word) can bump an atrocity like Kim Jong-un murdering his uncle off the front page – and this from some fairly celebrated American newspapers - you know there’s a serious problem with our cultural mindset. Yet this collective failure to even comprehend atrocities taking place elsewhere around the globe has become something of the new norm even as it suggests a grotesque embarrassment; particularly in our wilful ability to anesthetize ourselves with entertainments that are about as far removed from what’s going on beyond Hollywood’s conclave of superficial fantasies as the farthest reaches of unexplored outer space.
I may sound like I’m pontificating here, and perhaps I am. But entertainment should, at least infrequently serve as a reminder – apart from filling up our leisure – providing a mirror of life greater than itself. For a while, at least, Hollywood actually took this lofty view too, particularly in the 1980’s – a decade that, in retrospect, is often referenced only for its whack-tac-ular juvenile fantasies, crass comedies and mindless low budget horror movies. To be fair, the 80’s were guilty of catering to all these aforementioned vices. But they also put forth some heavy-hitting dramas; perhaps the most unrelentingly stark and sobering: Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields (1985). As remarkable as it seems, this was Joffe’s debut as a director, a bleak and uncompromisingly factual account of the destruction of Cambodia – considered something of a forgotten sideshow to the Viet Nam conflict. Bruce Robinson’s screenplay is based on a series of articles written by New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston); one in particular, The Death and Life of Dith Pran winning the real Schanberg a Pulitzer for investigative journalism.
For nearly a decade, at the crux of Schanberg’s prose there remained an open wound of regret and mystery surrounding the whereabouts of Dith Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor), a Cambodian journalist who became Schanberg’s learned guide, trusted confidante and ultimately, his friend, but who paid a terrible price for this allegiance when the Khmer Rouge invaded his country, tearing asunder the very essence of domestic law and order and murdering hundreds of thousands of fleeing Cambodians in the process in what later became known as ‘the killing fields’. The carnage inflicted on the general populace cannot be overstated; and in bringing The Killing Fields to the screen, director Roland Joffe has assumed a gargantuan responsibility: to tell his story plainly, honestly, unflinchingly, but above all else, to give it a soul as authentic and affecting as anything yet seen on the screen.
Hollywood has plumbed the South East Asian conflict from all angles. Yet it frequently seems remiss to hold the mirror up too close, fearful perhaps that the grit and guts will genuflect to a maudlin expression of rank sentimentality. The Killing Fields is, for all intent and purpose, the tale of two men who form an unbreakable bond despite a crippling separation and seemingly insurmountable odds to ever be reunited. It is the story of one man who could not move on – either emotionally or professionally – without first learning the fate of the other; and another man, who never lost sight of that reunion.
Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a physician at Preah Monivong Hospital when the Khmer Rouge made their move into Cambodia, was no stranger to the horrors of war, though he was a newcomer to the art of making movies. Evidently, director Roland Joffe had seen Ngor’s photo at a wedding, had made inquiries throughout the Cambodian expatriate community in Los Angeles and eventually was placed in touch with the ideal candidate to play Dith Pran. For the part of Sydney Schanberg, Joffe made an even more unorthodox choice in the casting of Sam Waterston. Despite a decade’s worth of film appearances in some very high profile projects, Waterston had failed to break through as a major star. His relative autonomy proved a major asset to The Killing Fields. Production spanned four months in Thailand, with designer Roy Walker and art directors Roger Murray-Leach and Steve Spence piecing together the capital city of Phnom Penh from a variety of relatively authentic locations including a school in Nakhon Pathom and Phuket’s city hall. Joffe’s verisimilitude also drew inspiration from the casting of twenty local gymnasts to portray the Khmer Rouge. The unspeakable brainwashing of Cambodian youth, the living fear of the survivors from that initial conflict and its’ even more devastating aftermath – the country’s transformation into, as Schanberg put it, ‘a nationwide gulag’, and, the grizzly rain-saturated fields of death are all vividly recreated in the film. Yet, the scope of production, though impressive, is dwarfed by the human interest story at its heart.
The Killing Fields opens in 1973 just as the Vietnam conflict is about to spill over into neighboring Cambodia. Devoted to the cause of exposing the atrocities being perpetuated on an unsuspecting people by what he perceives as America’s meddling in a private war, liberal journalist, Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) arrives in the capital city of Phnom Penh. His trusted guide, Dith Pran (Haing Ngor) misses Schanberg’s plane. Meanwhile, Schanberg’s partnered photographer, Al Rockoff (John Malkovich) is laid up at the hotel with a slight fever and headache. After some initial frustrations and debate, Schanberg leaves word at the hotel for Pran to meet them at a nearby café; their afternoon’s diversions interrupted when a bomb is detonated only a few feet away, killing innocent bystanders.
Sydney is determined to get in the thick of things and attempts to board a U.S. helicopter to fly him to the rumored hotspot where an American bomber has inadvertently decimated a town after suspecting the Khmer Rouge was there. His journey is thwarted by Major Reeves (Craig T. Nelson) who will neither confirm nor deny what Sydney has already heard, but absolutely refuses to allow Sydney and Al the opportunity to view the devastation firsthand. Sydney makes several fruitless attempts to secure another passage into the war zone. But only after Pran manages to bribe a local police cruiser do he and Sydney find themselves at ground zero. Sydney is morally outraged by his government’s complicity in the war. But he incurs the wrath of the Khmer Rouge when he refuses to stand down as they publicly execute several teens suspected of being traitors.
Pran convinces Sydney to leave the scene, thus sparing their lives. Not long after, American forces under Reeves arrive with the press corp., doing damage control with their own spin on what happened there. Sydney is disgusted by what he sees and puts his boiling passions to work writing articles to be cabled to the New York Times. Meanwhile, the Cambodian national army continues to lose ground to the communist insurgents. We leap ahead to April 1975 and the fall of Phnom Penh. The U.S.’s anti-communist stance has put the entire press corp. at risk. The Khmer Rouge takes Sydney, Al, and a British reporter, John Swain (Julian Sands) hostage. If not for Pran’s quick thinking, his exquisite pleading with the enemy directly placing him in harm’s way, Sydney and his friends would likely have been shot then and there. Instead, they are released to take temporary refuge inside the American embassy where U.S. Consul (Spalding Gray) informs Sydney of America’s decision to pull out of Cambodia altogether while there’s still time.
Sydney arranges for Pran’s wife and children to evacuate with the U.S. diplomats aboard a convoy of military helicopters. But Pran stays behind with Sydney, Al and John; the foursome retreating to the French embassy where temporary asylum is granted. When the newly appointed Cambodian government orchestrates a treaty with the French to surrender all of their Cambodian nationals taking refuge inside the embassy, Al and John attempt to forge a passport for Pran, claiming him as a British citizen. Working night and day to create the fake document, the ruse proves for not when the photographic chemicals used to develop a picture of Pran turn the picture to chalk instead. With the bitter realization they will likely never meet again, Schanberg promises to look after Pran’s wife and children for him in America. The Khmer Rouge removes him from the Embassy and Sydney vows to search for his friend, even as he is forced to return to the relative safety of New York where his articles garner rich accolades.
Schanberg’s victory is, regrettably, hollow. From here, Joffe’s movie shifts almost exclusively in its third act to Pran’s perilous journey through the bleak purgatory of the Khmer Rouge’s occupation of Cambodia. Pran is first sent to a prison camp where he is repeatedly tortured and beaten. Malnourished, but kept alive by his sheer wits, knowing of the Khmer Rouge’s policy to murder anyone who is educated, Pran manages to convince his captors he is nothing more than a poor taxi driver. One of his captors, Phat (Monirak Sisowath), by far the most compassionate of the lot, exploits Pran as his servant, placing in his care his only son (Lambool Dtangpaibool). Repeatedly, Phat attempts to get Pran to admit to a higher intelligence. But Pran continues to fake ignorance. As the Khmer Rouge has become highly suspicious of Phat’s affinity for Pran, Phat is publicly assassinated. Along with another former servant loyal to Phat, Sarun (Edward Entero Chey) Pran takes Phat’s son into the jungles to escape certain death.
After some time alone in the wilds it seems as though Pran, Sarun and Phat’s son have eluded the worst of it. Alas, Sarun steps on a hidden bomb. He and Phat’s son are blown to bits with Pran narrowly escaping a similar fate. After several days journey, Pran arrives at the makeshift Red Cross medical evacuation center on the outskirts of Thailand; news of his miraculous survival reaching Sydney in New York who wastes no time flying to the far east to be reunited with his old friend. “Forgive me,” Sydney offers upon their reunion, to which Pran tearfully replies, “Nothing to forgive, Sydney.” The film concludes with their tearful embrace and an epitaph stating that Pran and his family were eventually reunited; Pran rejoining Sydney as a photographer for the New York Times. The real life epitaph is somewhat more disheartening and bittersweet.
Haing S. Ngor, the virtual unknown who found immediate fame as Dith Pran was assassinated on Feb. 25th, 1996 outside his home in L.A.’s Chinatown by three reputed members of the Oriental Lazy Boyz street gang. At trial, the prosecution attempted to infer the attack was politically motivated, paid for by sympathizers of the Khmer Rouge; a claim they were unable to substantiate. A little over a decade later, Kang Kek Lew, an ex-Khmer Rouge official on trial in Cambodia revealed under oath that Ngor was likely murdered on orders from Pol Pot. The theory of the crime that has endured is Ngor was killed by burglars after refusing to give up a locket worn around his neck, containing a picture of his late wife. As of 2013, the locket has not been recovered. Asked to comment on the bizarre turn of events then and Ngor’s untimely passing, the real Dith Pran said, “He is like a twin with me. He is a co-messenger and right now I am alone.”
Viewed today, The Killing Fields remains a difficult film to sit through; its stark and uncompromising images filling the viewer with a profound and genuine remorse. Sam Waterston is technically the film’s ‘star’ but its’ emotional center ultimately belongs to Haing S. Ngor who delivers a life-affirming performance so utterly true to the struggles and strife of the real Dith Pran, it shatters all artistic sensibilities as mere acting. Clearly, this is a role Ngor was not only born to play but has instinctually lived through and absorbed into every fiber of his being. The film continues to work on almost every level, minus Mike Oldfield’s synthesized underscore that is too big on sounding like a Vangelis knock-off and much too heavy-handed as it punctuates even the most benign dramatic moments as though each were the climax of the movie. Thankfully, The Killing Fields is a movie with a very sparse score. When the music swells it is a painful reminder of how bad an 80’s score can be. But in its absence we are afforded vast portions of discerning drama, somber and unimpeded.
Warner Home Video’s debut of The Killing Fields in hi-def is problematic. First of all, it’s framed at 1.78:1. The original aspect ratio was 1.85:1. Why the change? Go ask someone at WB. I’m at a loss. Moving on; while many of the visuals are quite stunning throughout the overall look of this presentation is rather softly focused. A good solid smattering of film grain is a reason to cheer as are the deeply saturated colors that pop throughout, particularly during exterior scenes. Interiors are a problem. The sequence in New York (actually shot in Toronto) where Schanberg accepts his Pulitzer, suffers from severely muted colors. I would even go so far as to call them muddy. A subsequent scene where Al blames Sydney for Pran’s fate inside the hotel’s public washroom exhibits contrast that is so low we can barely make out Waterston or Malkovich’s faces. Everything is bathed in a deadly orange hue too. I vaguely recall seeing The Killing Fields at my local movie house back in 1985 but cannot in all good conscience compare my recollection of these scenes then to what I am seeing now.
Fine detail doesn’t really come to life as I expected. Close-ups are impressive. Then again, close-ups in hi-def ought to be. But establishing shots just fall flat. The 2.0 DTS audio is consistently crisp and, for 2 channel stereo surprisingly potent during action sequences. Bass is what’s lacking herein, as are extra features. We get an audio commentary from Roland Joffe and a trailer. Warner’s liner notes, always handsomely represented with full color photo spreads, regrettably doubles up on the same text twice; once in its synopsis of the movie, then again for the brief bio on Haing S. Ngor. Dumb! Was no one looking or were they just stumped for something original to say? Bottom line: The Killing Fields is superbly entertaining and sobering. It makes one glad to be living in a country free of potentates to whom mass murder remains the most effective way of maintaining their autocratic control. Recommended with caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)