Director: Roland Joffé
Screenplay: Bruce Robinson
Starring: Sam Waterston, Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich, Julian Sands
Producer: Lord David Puttnam
Running Time: 142 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
The Killing Fields is a classic British film which I’ve avoided for a long time. I’ve had it on DVD for years, but an ‘issue’ war film which looked weighty, worthy and bleak didn’t always appeal when I’d flick through my collection for something to watch. When a shiny new 30th Anniversary blu-ray was offered to me I finally gave in though and decided to give it a whirl.
The ‘issue’ under scrutiny in The Killing Fields is the Cambodian civil war and the atrocities dished out by the Khmer Rouge during their infamous ‘year zero’ cleansing campaign as well as looking at the poor handling of the situation by the American military. However, the film’s plot doesn’t spend too much time delving into the political machinations, it’s more a tale of friendship, loyalty and survival set amongst the carnage of civil war and ethnic cleansing. Based on a true story, The Killing Fields follows the relationship between Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston), a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the New York Times, and his Cambodian aide Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor). Pran, being well educated, is a prime target for the Khmer Rouge and chooses to stay with Sydney early on in the film when he has a chance to leave the country so, later on whilst his American friend is evacuated, he is sent to one of the notorious ‘re-education camps’ where he is savagely treated by his captors.
I find that epic, award winning war films can often be overrated, especially over time as their presentation becomes more dated. However, The Killing Fields has stood the test of time rather well and remains a powerful experience 30 years on. A lot of this is due to the fact that it is unflinching in its depiction of the horrors of war, more so than a lot of other films of that genre and era. It’s a bloody, dirty, often chaotic film which throws you into the madness of what was happening and rarely lets you take a breath. A portion of the third quarter which sees Pran, Sydney and his fellow journalists held at the French Embassy is the only time the film really calms down, but wisely this time is used to develop the friendship between the lead characters as well as to deliver the most tense film developing scene I’ve come across.
In enveloping the audience in the chaos I found it was difficult to keep a grip on what was actually happening in the country behind the scenes though. In a way this was effective as it made me feel like a lost child caught up in it all without understanding why, but the confusion was often more frustrating than frightening.
As impressively staged and mounted the more epic scenes of war are in the first half, I found the later scenes which followed Pran alone in his incarceration and escape the most effective. The pinnacle of this section is his infamous walk through the watery ‘killing fields’, which is eerily horrific. Much has been said about Haing S. Ngor’s performance and he certainly brings more humanity to the table as Waterston’s character can be a little too stubborn and abrasive to be truly sympathetic. Of course, the knowledge that Ngor had lived through the regime’s rule for real helps bring things home to the audience and it’s incredibly brave of the actor to face such memories once again so that he can show the rest of the world the truth.
I must admit I still felt a little distanced by the end of it all though. Perhaps it was the weaker lead character, perhaps it was the hit and miss music (Mike Oldfield’s score is a little dated and the choice to use John Lennon’s Imagine at the end is ill-judged) but as impressive as much of the film was, it didn’t hit me emotionally quite as much as it probably should have.
Nevertheless, it’s a finely crafted film with some excellent cinematography, impressively mounted yet grim scenes of war and an admirably unsentimental tone, so I would still recommend the film to anyone who may have been hesitant to watch it like myself.
The Killing Fields is re-released on blu-ray in the UK on 3rd November by Studiocanal. The HD picture transfer is pretty decent. There are a couple of minor flecks and lines and the grain isn’t always handled brilliantly, but otherwise it’s a reasonable effort. In terms of audio I found the dialogue hard to hear sometimes in the mix, but I think that’s largely down to the original design rather than the remastering.
For special features you get an audio commentary from Roland Joffé and an interview with Lord Puttnam, which I think were both included in the earlier special edition DVD, but on top of this you get two new interviews with Roland Joffé and Bruce Robinson. The Omnibus special from the DVD hasn’t been ported over unfortunately, but this is still a well stocked set. Unfortunately I’ve not had the time to work my way through the features myself, so I can’t comment on the quality, but three sets of interviews and a commentary seems generous compared to a lot of offerings these days and I hope to give them a watch/listen soon.