The Killing Fields – Review
A photographer is trapped in Cambodia during tyrant Pol Pot's bloody "Year Zero" cleansing campaign, which claimed the lives of two million "undesirable" civilians.
Sam Waterston is Sidney Schanberg, a reporter working for the New York Times in the midst of a civil war in Cambodia in the early 70s. His dedicated interpreter is Dith Pran. In and around the capital are a few dozen other reporters and diplomatic personnel, including photographers John Malkovich and Julian Sands. It’s dangerous work. This is a most powerful and visceral film. It is probably the best of the Vietnam war/drama movies even though it is not directly about that country, but of Cambodia. It clearly demonstrates how war transposes into other countries and can forever disfigure them.
Civil wars and political upheaval can often bring out the best elements in a film: suspense, emotion, and the immediacy of current events, in this case turning yesterday’s headlines into a grim but gripping human drama. The 1975 collapse of Cambodia and subsequent ‘re-education’ of its population (through brainwashing and genocide) by Khmer Rouge insurgents is reconstructed through an unlikely but true friendship between two journalists from opposite ends of the globe: hard-nosed New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg and his resourceful Cambodian counterpart Dith Pran. From their anxious refuge inside the French Embassy in Phnom Penh to the horrors of a post-revolution work camp, the film builds moments of agonizing intensity, although the latter half splits into separate stories of unequal impact: Schanberg, in New York, agonizes verbally and at length over the unknown fate of his friend, while Pran, in the newly named Kampuchea, endures a torment that surpasses words. The performances in general and the cinematography in particular merit special attention, with the moody colors suggesting the light of a solar eclipse: darkness in broad daylight.
The film scatters the nationalities of most of the other first world, usually Capitalist, officials Schanberg and Pran deal with; a deliberate deploying of varying nationalities representative of The First World attempting some form of aid to those of Pran’s ilk involved in the hardships, everything from Australia to Scotland to England to Russia. But the film is less bothered with the politics than it is of the true story of these two men linking up; Schanberg’s relationship with Pran, like Pran’s characteristics in regards to his own natives The Khmer Rouge, is in stark opposition to that of his getting along with The American Government, whom he berates from the beginning and clashes with on a number of personal and political points. After initially arriving and meeting with a relatively spaced out photojournalist named Al Rockoff (Malkovich), Schanberg is forced into travelling to the site of an American bombing raid with some locals when denied access to fly out along with the Americans; a later event as Schanberg attempts to practise liberalism in trying to photograph some atrocities leading to arrest and later realisation at press fabrication with what they perceived to have happened there that day.
This is powerful, engaging and disturbing. The violence and blood is never gratuitous. I doubt anyone could sit through this and not be affected. It does not make for a pleasant viewing, but it is important and should be respected, not ignored. While there is some humor in this, it is seldom if ever a light experience. The script is well-written throughout. It is very difficult to find flaws in this. Wonderfully filmed, well acted, brilliantly scripted, The Killing Fields is a timeless, important classic. A must see for any student of history or film.
The Message grows increasingly relevant as cultures continue to clash violenty.
There are many scenes that haunt the mind.