Starring: Sam Waterston, Haing S. Gnor, John Malkovich
Director: Roland Joffe
Made not long after the events it describes, this movie about America’s disastrous involvement with Cambodia and the rise of the Khmer Rouge has the power of raw, impassioned reportage. Although the production wasn’t able to film in the country itself for obvious reasons, the use of locations on the Thai border with Cambodia and a cast of Cambodian ex-pats lends it stunning authenticity. Roland Joffe handles the huge set-pieces with the skill of a latter-day David Lean – smoking panoramas of a town that the Americans have bombed by mistake, the frenzied debacle as the last Americans are airlifted out – and he has just as firm a grip on the later scenes of quiet horror as the Khmer Rouge go about their business of herding people into forced labour camps where they can be brainwashed or whisked off to be suffocated to death with a plastic bag over their head.
Where it has worn less well is as a human interest story about the deepening friendship between New York Times foreign correspondent Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) and his interpreter and aid Dith Pran (Haing S. Gnor). It’s a relationship which has distasteful overtones of imperial entitlement, with Sydney bossing Pran about and taking him into danger zones with little thought for his safety, and Waterston doesn’t have the guile to play against the script and find some redeeming twinkle of humanity in his pompous, selfish character. Yes, later on he sees the error of his ways, or says he does, but by then you’re wondering what Pran sees in him. And because the material resists becoming the buddy movie that producer David Putnam clearly wanted it to be, The Killing Fields is one of those films where the pieces are more impressive than the whole.
That said, those pieces are extraordinary. Joffe shows a great eye for revealing vignettes which speak volumes – troops holed up in a warehouse full of crates of Coca Cola, prisoners being executed while a soldier listens to “Band on the Run” on the radio, and the eerie set-piece where Dith Pran stumbles upon the killing fields of the title, a dike of rotting bodies, many with tell-tale plastic bags still clinging to their faces. And the script by Bruce Robinson is packed with lines which resonate to this day, as when Sydney exclaims, “Maybe we underestimated what kind of insanity seven billion dollars’ worth of bombing will produce!”
The HD transfer is a little soft and dull, with some scratching to the print, but there’s no grain, and by way of compensation the disc comes with a bunch of long, illuminating interviews. There’s a 48-minute chat with David Putnam, who talks about coming across Sydney Schanberg’s story in Time magazine and negotiating for the rights. He explains that the production had enormous cooperation from the Thai military and the US Marine Corps, hence the film’s scale. He also reveals that in the original version of the film there was much more about Sydney after his return to New York from Cambodia, but that a great deal of this was cut out after an unfavourable preview. And he speaks movingly about Haing S. Gnor, who himself suffering terribly under the Khmer Rouge, with his wife starving to death, and who was tragically slain in a mugging in Los Angeles. Almost as long and just as interesting is the interview with Roland Joffe, who discusses in a charming and funny way how he became involved in the film and muses intelligently on its themes. Last but not least is a 21-minute piece with Bruce Robinson. He mentions that his own unease about what he condemns as Sydney’s and Dith Pran’s “Gunga Din relationship” was present in the original script but became toned down in the finished movie He also tells of visiting the film set on the Thai border and nipping over into Cambodia, staying there for all of “63 seconds”.