30 Years Ago Today – The Killing Fields. (Film Review)

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I was surprised to find in my research for this post, that The Killing Fields rarely makes it in any “top lists” of war films, at least in those up to one hundred, which is as rich an indicator as you’ll find of the banality of internet “lists”, and their overall status as gatekeepers against anything fresh or even slightly enriching. The Killing Fields is undeniably one of the most important war films ever made, all the more so for its shrewd insights into the consequences of international political policy and it’s arctic, accurate portrayal of the precarious essence of nationalism. Identity acts as a property claim by the country you belong to, and the way the status of the Western citizen is used as a weapon against the nationals of the country those citizens find themselves visiting has rarely been as chillingly incontestable as it is in The Killing Fields. There is no doubt that the film carries the burden of it’s eighties-fashion melodrama yet it remarkably transcends it, incorporating the bloated emotionalism as if it were a colonizing trope of Western dominance. When Dith Pran hugs Sydney Schanberg in the closing moments of the film, John Lenon’s ‘Imagine’ outvies the film makers intention, to appear as its own version of Westernised pop cultural anemia, using tears to wash away the political sins of the governments we like to ‘Imagine’ act without our permission. Surely this is the mark of a truly great film, when it becomes something stronger thirty years down the track, than it was when first made?

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Politically it is spot on, supported by impeccable research, stridently adhering to the tales of the two protagonists, Dith Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor) and Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterson) who came home from Cambodia, at different times of course, to tell their tale of what happened when the botched Vietnam war spilled over the border into that country, inviting the Khmer Rouge in to devastate the populace with its genocide. Haing S. Ngor who won an academy award for his performance, was himself a survivor of the Khmer Rouge labour camps, a doctor and intellectual in Phnom Penh prior to the commencement of Year Zero. It is his endorsement of the film above all else that marks its careful authenticity, when he says: “”I wanted to show the world how deep starvation is in Cambodia, how many people die under Communist regime. My heart is satisfied. I have done something perfect.” (People Magazine) His understated performance, particularly in the second half of the film as he battles to save his dignity and his morality, imbues the film with a meritorious lucidity that forges a unique perspective of the Cambodian on the Western eye.

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It is believed that more than two million out of eight million people were killed and buried in the mass graves of the The Killing Fields, a phrase coined by Dith Pran when he stumbled upon them in his escape from the work camp where he was held as part of a repatriation program for older Cambodians who were inconveniently cognizant under a regime that refused the past. It is the single worst act of genocide of the Cold War, Pol Pots regime killing intellectuals, and all those who carried the memories of an old Cambodia who might impose those memories on Year Zero the new start heralded by the Communist regime in the newly declared Democratic Kampuchea, determined to bring the country back to the peasant state. The Killing Fields is divided into two parts, hence its substantial length, the first dedicated to the working relationship between Schanberg and Pran and the easy, subtle, almost flippant way Schanberg convinces Pran to remain with him because the team are writing Pulitzer-bait in their New York Times articles. The second half, focused almost solely on Pran, deals with the consequences of decisions Westerners make in their own self-interest. To dwell for so long on the ramifications of a choice made so quickly and lightly is the strength of the film, and highlights how little Schanberg understood about himself and his friend when he asked him if he was going to stay in Cambodia to help him get The Story.

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Director Roland Joffé, for all the emotional excesses of the film, shows towering restraint in his insistence on dwelling on the periods between the action, the moments when the relationships are forged, the subtly ignored growing unrest in the country. The nationality divide between Schanberg and Pran is constantly present, Pran’s perpetual accommodating of his colleague over the top of Shanberg’s overwhelming ignorance (of which he is unaware) of the country and the culture he finds himself in, is exacerbated due to Schanberg’s immunity and Pran’s vulnerability. Twenty-three minutes in, the men are running through a recently US bombed township where the military have brought the pop-press in to create and control a sanitized media campaign over the top of their botched bombing of civilians. As we hear the propaganda of the US forces in sprouted English over the voices of screaming children, the camera watches Pran through a doorway of a partially destroyed temple as he pauses to pay respect, hands in the gesture of prayer, to an intact statue of Buddha. The camera pans forward to a second doorway into the same ruined temple where we see Schanberg paused watching his friend with incredulity. Every scene is like this, a tumultuous clash of cultures amid the blood and chaotic destruction of war, such that we feel the enormity of the gap between Schanberg and Pran constantly throughout. What motivates Pran, we wonder, but as the film progresses we see Pran as an intellectual hero, who wants the news of what is happening in Cambodia to reach American shores. He is not a “helper”, he is not a “man on the ground.” He is a journalist, a man of letters, a human being who works for the New York Times because it is essential that the news reported to America goes through him as a filter. This is the key to his forgiveness of Schanberg in the final moments of the film.

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Positing Pran as a super-protectionist, verbal Boy Friday of sorts in the first half against him as a brilliant tactician trying to hide his intelligence in the second, is perfectly framed in his role as reporter, understated (due to our own bias the film eventually reveals) at first only to be brought to the fore through voice overs in the second half as we see him meticulously keeping track of details that he will relate to Schanberg and the world when he finally escapes. In the second half we find he bares Schanberg no malice, in the same way one cannot bear a child any ill will, because we start to realise Pran is taking advantages of the opportunities that come his way, and was never a victim, and least of all a Boy Friday. All this and bloodshed too against the backdrop of beautiful Cambodia, which has some of the most winsome scenery in the world, delicately captured in all its majesty by the camera work of Chris Menges. Together with an entirely unique score by Mr Tubular bells himself, Mike Oldfield make for a tense while salient film experience peppered with a demystifying of the majesty of the orient that our inherent racism sorely needs.

I was blown away watching The Killing Fields thirty years on. Highly recommended.

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