Based on a true and harrowing story, The Killing Fields garnered mass critical acclaim when it was released in 1984 and was rewarded with three Oscars. Set during 1975, the film focuses on the period when the shaky Cambodian government, backed by the United States, yielded under ferocious pressure from the Khmer Rouge revolutionaries causing the Americans to pull out of supporting the country and abandon their embassy. The Khmer Rouge proceeded to rule Cambodia under a policy of terror, ultimately killing more than three million Cambodians (for a brief history lesson, try here). Front-line journalists caught inside the country bravely reported on the eventful news stories as they happened despite their lives being constantly at risk. The Killing Fields concentrates solely on two of these journalists - Pulitzer Prize winning American Sidney Schanberg (played effectively by Sam Waterston) and his Cambodian translator assistant Dith Pran (sensationally portrayed by Dr. Haing S. Ngor).
Rather than aim to present a film based on historical representation, The Killing Fields, directed by Englishman Roland Joffť, is more accurately a film dealing with friendship, turmoil and the battle against inner ambition, told perfectly through the film's two main protagonists. The plot tells of journalist Schanberg, who faces the decision of whether to stay and report on events or flee the country whilst he has chance. Deciding to stay amidst the political minefield of Cambodia, Schanberg (Waterston) pulls a guilt-trip on his close friend and translator Dith Pran (Ngor) persuading him to stay, primarily because Schanberg's journalistic success at surviving Cambodia hinges upon the assistance of Pran. However, Pran, due to his heavy education and Westernised-swaying, is in much more considerable danger from the Khmer Rouge. Using the French embassy as safe-haven, the swarm of international journalists report on events for their countries far away. However, after further political trouble, the embassy states that all Cambodians inside it must be turned over to the Khmer Rouge. After failing to disprove his nationality with a fake passport, Dith Pran is given to the Khmer Rouge. The film then splits into two sub-plots and jumps forward a few years. We follow Pran's struggle to survive amongst the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge; and Schanberg back in the United States, receiving prize after journalist prize despite suffering from inner-guilt over Pran's circumstances. Schanberg won't be happy until he brings Pran back.
Director Joffť pounds the audience with an ultra-gritty direction in the Killing Fields, and the film is all the better for it. Rather than taking a conventional route, Joffť refuses to pander to overt-sentimentalism and excessive visual atrocities. Instead, the director treats the story as if every word actually happened, and therefore refuses to allow his indulgent touches to spill over the authenticity of the film. The Oscar winning cinematography by Chris Menges is a perfect touch for the film, since it combines stunning natural locale photography with a deliberate drab tone, almost as if contrasting the notion that such a beautiful country can contain such bloodstain. Mike Oldfield, gifted composer of works such as Tubular Bells, gives the film a jarring, bizarre synthesised score that works effectively for the film but is probably not very good as a stand-alone soundtrack.
The performances in The Killing Fields however, are the best element of the film. Sam Waterston, gifted New York star of The Great Gatsby, Crimes And Misdemeanors and Capricorn One, does a tremendous job at portraying all of the traits of journalist Sidney Schanberg. Schanberg is shown as ambitious, highly determined and ruthless, and yet we never dislike him, even when it comes to his exploitation of Dith Pran. As for Pran, Dr. Haing S. Ngor is a sensation. Ngor was himself a native of Cambodia, and was educated as a physician. The events of his life mirrored that of his character Pran's. Ngor became a captive of the Khmer Rouge during the revolution only escaped execution after denying his medical education. Fleeing to the United States as a refugee in 1980, Ngor was chosen to star as Pran for The Killing Fields despite it being his first acting job. Ngor was so popular as Pran that he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year. This caused a debate around Hollywood, with some critics noting that Ngor deserved a Best Actor nod and not a supporting one, since his character has the most prominent share of on-screen time. The BAFTAS responded by awarding Ngor with the Best Actor award. A frequent dissenter of the Khmer Rouge, Ngor had a moderately successful movie career afterwards, appearing most notably in Oliver Stone's Heaven & Earth. However, in 1996, Ngor was tragically shot dead by what was believed to be a revenge killing carried out by the Khmer Rouge (although the official stance was that his murder was not "politically motivated"), who were bitterly angry at his criticism of them.
Other performances shine in the film, such as John Malkovich's heroic photographer Al Rockoff and Julien Sands' Jon Swain. Bill Paterson, star of TV's Edge Of Darkness and Traffik, also provides memorable support.
In short, The Killing Fields, alongside other films such as Salvador, are compelling since they capture periods of history that are hopefully behind us and yet still close enough to remember. If you are new to the events of the Khmer Rouge revolution, you'd be advised to brush up on your history before watching The Killing Fields, as it takes for granted that the audience is fully aware of the political side of things. However, even someone completely ignorant to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge will not fail to realise that The Killing Fields is a classic of early eighties cinema.
Academy Awards 1984
Best Supporting Actor - Dr. Haing S. Ngor
Best Cinematography - Chris Menges
Best Film Editing - Jim Clark
Academy Award Nominations 1984
Best Actor - Sam Waterston
Best Director - Roland Joffť
Best Adapted Screenplay - Bruce Robinson
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1 (which beats the fullscreen Region 2 version) the picture is mostly pleasing but suffers from some noticeable artefacts and grain on occasions. Colour tones are slightly gloomier than they could have been, but this is still a very watchable presentation of the film.
Presented in 2.0 surround stereo, the sound track relies essentially on mono-recorded dialogue and events, other than the occasional stereo spatial channelling given to background noises, such as helicopters, explosions and rain falling. Even so, the sound track is recorded crisply and is mostly free of hiss.
Menu: A static menu comprising of still images from the film and featuring some rousing elements of Mike Oldfield's score.
Packaging: Warner Brothers own the Region 1 DVD rights to the film, and so The Killing Fields has been given the infamous snapper casing. At least Warner have seen fit to maintain the beautiful cover artwork the film is famous for.
Audio Commentary With Roland Joffť: A very good commentary from the director, who talks extensively about his views on both the history and plot side of the film, and also provides many insights into the process of him making the film. Maybe the commentary would have been enhanced with either lead actor Sam Waterston or producer David Puttnam, but despite this Roland Joffť provides an excellent commentary, especially considering the Region 2 version is bare-bones.
Cast & Crew: A brief textual list of the main cast and crew members, with short biographies added for Roland Joffť and David Puttnam.
Dr. Haing S. Ngor - Biography: A five-page text biography of the film's star Dr. Haing S. Ngor.
Awards: A good text page listing all of the numerous awards the film received.
Theatrical Trailer: The film's original theatrical trailer, which features a good summation of the film's plot and exploits heavily the notion that it's based on a true story.
One of the most compelling and outstanding films of the early eighties is given a commendable DVD release when compared to the poor-quality Region 2 version. The commentary is a major plus point, combined with the anamorphic widescreen transfer. Considering the very low RRP, this can and should be acquired cheaply, and is definitely worth it.