The Killing Fields

December 2, 2019

killingfieldsThere is a tremendous movie in the middle of The Killing Fields. It lasts for about 90 minutes or so, and during that time you can’t take your eyes off the screen.

This section begins with a group of international journalists being captured by the hostile Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in 1975. When the reporters are rounded up and held at gunpoint, with their extermination apparently imminent, one of them, Dith Pran (played by Dr. Haing S. Ngor), the only Cambodian in the group, starts doing some fast talking to the captors. After an exhausting session, Pran manages to save their necks, and the journalists are moved to the neutral zone of Phnom Penh’s French Embassy, where they wait for deportation.

There, the Westerners must do for Pran what he did for them, because anyone with a Cambodian passport will be detained in the country (and be subject to almost certain execution). Thus follow some frantic efforts to construct a false passport for Pran.

These sequences are riveting, and brilliantly filmed (in Thailand) by first-time director Roland Joffe and cinematographer Chris Menges (whose most recent credit – about as far from The Killing Fields as you can get – was Comfort and Joy). The sequence during which Pran’s family leaves Phnom Penh, staged in a whirl of helicopter blades and con­fusion, is stunning in its grasp of what makes for compelling cinema.

The film, which is based on the true story recounted by New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg, has many such vivid scenes, although it has some problems, too. It begins with Schanberg (Sam Waterston) arriving in Cambodia in 1973, just as that country was being introduced to the bombings during the Vietnam War.

Schanberg is an abrasive, self­ righteous journalist who strikes up a friendship with Pran. The movie, while dealing with the issues of deception and inhumanity in Cambodia, is really more about the developing comradeship between these two unlikely friends.

As such, it works well enough, although the film details Pran’s life better than Schanberg’s. It’s interesting that a big-budget film would have the courage to devote much of its running time – especially in the final 45 minutes – to this nonactor playing essentially wordless scenes, during Pran’s internment in a hellish Cambodian prison camp.

Although a lot of The Killing Fields hits home with force, I was left with a vague feeling of disappointment. Director Joffe, who during the lengthy (and sometimes shapeless) exposition sequences shows a gift for throwaway shock effects, also has a tendency to overstate his case.

This ranges from a few too many shots of burned and mangled victims’ bodies to the use of a popular song (I won ‘t tell which one) over the final scene. Some people will watch that final scene and think it exactly right; I found it overdone. Sometimes restraint is the highest eloquence.

This is the latest of British Producer David Puttnam’s string of important films, many of which were done by novice (or near-novice) directors. He’s done Midnight Express, Local Hero, and Chariots of Fire, and he’s very definitely turned into a one-man industry to watch.

Also very watchable is John Malkovich, the blind man in Places in the Heart, who really lights up the screen as Schanberg’s photographer buddy. Malkovich ought to bag a supporting actor Oscar nomination this spring – the only question is, for which movie?

But The Killing Fields belongs to Dr. Haing S. Ngor. He doesn’t exactly give off sparks, but Ngor, with his quiet, natural screen presence, has the audience’s unconditional sympathy throughout. He communicates true but not icky good-heartedness, and his heart is the pulsing center of the film.

First published in the Herald, January 17, 1985

Haing S. Ngor won the Oscar, and the film found great critical success. Joffe did The Mission and some other serious films, and is still working, although his disastrous 1995 version of The Scarlet Letter seemed to take his career from its high platform. 




October 7, 2019

kipperbangKipperbang is the latest in a series of charmingly low-key films – produced under the umbrella called “First Love” – by David Puttnam, the busy British producer who walked off with an Oscar a couple of years ago for Chariots of Fire. Puttnam’s series concentrates on that moment in adolescence when the problems of the outside world pale beside the mountainous dilemma of the first crush.

Other films in the series include Experience Preferred – But Not Essential, and Secrets. For Kipperbang, Puttnam called on director Michael Apted, with whom he had worked on the rock movie Stardust in 1974. Apted, who did the lovely Coal Miner’s Daughter and then the muddled Continental Divide and Gorky Park for Hollywood, may have been grateful to get back to the vignette-like scale of Kipperbang.

Anyway, he’s certainly done a very nice job. It’s set in 1948, and concerns a likable 14-year-old lad named Alan Duckworth (known, of course, as Quack Quack). Alan isn’t a bad sort, but he’s not exactly on a lucky streak. To give you an idea of his impact on his peers, when the girls in his grade vote for the “dishiest” – read “most awesome” in today’s vernacular – boy in class, Alan doesn’t suffer the humiliation of pulling a low vote – he isn’t even nominated. The girls forgot about him.

He is bewitched by a classmate named Ann. When he lies in bed at night – or anytime – he bargains with God for just one single kiss from those pouty lips. One kiss, and Alan figures he will have led a happy life. One kiss. That’s not so much, is it?

Of course, it’s never going to happen. How could it? Ann’s got eyes only for Geoffrey, the dishiest boy in class. But never underestimate the mysterious ways of divine providence. A teacher (who is involved in the film’s main subplot, wherein she may be pregnant by the school’s groundsman, who is also Alan’s hero), weary of Alan’s daydreaming, sticks him in the school play.

The other two thespians are Ann and Geoffrey. And when Alan gets to the last page of the play, he discovers – oh ecstasy of ecstasies – that his character actually kisses Ann as the play ends!

Apted directs this wisp of a tale with proper affection for the characters. There’s lots of quirky behavioral business, especially with the class nerds and their polysyllabic nonsense.

And Apted does a wonderful job with the moment onstage when the kiss is called for (in rehearsal, the kiss keeps getting nixed by circumstance). Alan, all a-quiver (and his stage moustache all akimbo), approaches Ann with the life-and-death resolve he knows he needs. It’s the best suspense sequence of the year – Steven Spielberg notwithstanding.

First published in the Herald, June 16, 1984

According to my memory, a really wonderful movie, one of Apted’s best. The little short blurb next to my review had the actors’ names in it, but let’s give them their due: John Albasiny played Quack Quack and hasn’t amassed a great many credits; Abigail Cruttenden played Ann, and has many jobs on her resumé, including being married to Sean Bean for a while. Maurice Dee, who played Geoffrey, also did not stick in movies and TV. One of the biggest adult roles went to the great Alison Steadman, another to the prolific Garry Cooper. The screenwriter was Jack Rosenthal, who wrote a huge amount of British television and also – how do these things happen? – the Barbra Streisand picture Yentl. The film’s British title is P’tang Yang Kipperbang, for the piece of kid doggerel some of the characters say. Puttnam’s “First Love” series made a nice little impression at the arthouse; I reviewed most of them, including Sharma and Beyond, Arthur’s Hallowed Ground, Those Glory, Glory Days, and Winter Flight.

Winter Flight

December 22, 2011

The five-week series of David Puttnam’s fine “First Love” films wraps up this week with Winter Flight, which has the distinction of being the longest and most serious of the bunch. It’s also the most problematical.

While the earlier films, especially my favorites, Sharma and Beyond and Forever Young, managed a careful blend of good cheer and seriousness, Winter Flight tips more toward the serious, as suggested by its Bergmanesque title. And yet the somber tone is almost too much for its slim plot, which, though it presents a grave enough situation, seems stretched a bit too far.

It’s about a virginal 19-year-old British serviceman, Mal (Reece Dinsdale), whose primary social activity is reading the encyclopedia. The first time he ventures into a military bar, he is humiliated by the toughs who regularly hang out there.

But his humiliation draws out the compassion of Angie, the bartender (Nicola Cowper), who soothes his wounds and begins dating him. It’s his first romance.

It’s not quite hers, as evidenced by the discovery that she’s pregnant, but can’t remember who the father is. Mal knows it isn’t him, but he assumes the stiff upper lip and resolves to do the right thing by her.

This situation is nearly identical to Preston Sturges’ classic 1944 comedy The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. In that film, Betty Hutton saved the day by delivering sextuplets, thus vaulting into celebrityhood. Winter Flight has a surprise ending, too, although of a different kind.

This ending, in fact, provides the most original moment in the film, which spends a little too much of its length arguing whether the couple should give the child up for adoption. the movie is sensitively told, Roy Battersby’s direction is unfailingly decent, but the script by Alan Janes does tend to meander.

The birth of the child is intercut with an attack on the RAF base where Mal is stationed. It’s a peculiar sequence, since the film has prepared us for the possibility that the attack may be a real one by the Soviet Union, although logic tells us it is more likely a war game. It even sets up some slapstick, as Mal runs around the hospital with his gas mask flopping on his face. It’s an interesting comic try that doesn’t quite jell.

Winter Flight is still a good, often moving film (especially the ending). But it doesn’t achieve the plateau of some of the others in the series. That’s the problem with doing exemplary work; you’re always expected to keep up with yourself. These “First Love” movies have been so uniformly excellent, I think we can forgive one of them for being merely good.

First published in the Herald, February 1986

On the off chance that anybody else remembers these “First Love” movies, I will say that it surprises me to read that my faves were Sharma and Forever Young; Sharma yes, but I thought Kipperbang and Arthur’s Hallowed Ground were my other choices. Sean Bean was also in this one.

Sharma and Beyond

February 28, 2011

That's right: giant VHS box. You try finding an image for this movie.

The Crest theater’s series of filmed-for-British-television “First Love” movies continues this week with another charmer: Sharma and Beyond, from writer-director Brian Gilbert and executive producer David Puttnam.

From its mysterious opening sequence, during which the camera glides down an empty English country road while the soundtrack soars with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, there’s the feeling that a confident presence is in control behind the camera. The rest of the film confirms this feeling.

Sharma and Beyond is about the adventure of Stephen (Michael Maloney), a young science-fiction writer. Actually, he’s a would-be science-fiction writer, although he labors over his lengthy novel every day. To make ends meet, he works in a school teaching foreigners to speak English.

He whimsically drags his students out to the country house of his idol, the reclusive author Evan Gorley-Peters (Robert Urquhart). Stephen knows the writer’s classic Sharma Trilogy practically by heart, and he’s always dreamed of meeting the man. While they stand outside the grounds and look around, a young woman rides up: Natasha (Suzanne Burden), Gorley-Peters’ daughter, out exercising her horse.

She and Stephen speak, he calls her later, and a date is set. But when Stephen arrives at her house for lunch, he seems more interested in meeting the great author than in wooing Natasha, who’s not too pleased about the turn of events. Neither, for that matter, is Gorley-Peters, an aloof gentleman who greets Stephen’s babbling conversational sallies with bemused disbelief.

For Stephen, this period of ingratiation is leading up to one crucial moment, when he will ask his hero to read his rough-draft manuscript. This becomes the central event in the film.

Gilbert’s directorial touch is light and sure (in the production notes, Gilbert cites Francois Truffaut as a stylistic inspiration, and you can see the influence here). It’s easy to get caught up in Stephen’s excitement, but at the same time Gilbert doesn’t let you forget the touching Natasha, who sometimes gets short shrift from Stephen.

Above all, it’s a marvelous trio of actors that holds our attention. Maloney is bright-eyed and buoyant; Burden is sad-eyed and moving; Urquhart is just what you’d expect a remote scribe to be: magisterial, distant, interested in details (he quizzes Stephen about the current costs of the London subways).

I was so captivated by these people and their situation, it didn’t even matter much to me that Gilbert’s script gives them perhaps too little to do. And the movie remains resolutely modest, which appears to be the hallmark of the “First Love” series. They’re gems, but intentionally small ones.

First published in the Herald, April 25, 1986

In its own way, and maybe partly because of its obscurity, this movie is one of my most fondly-remembered films of the 1980s. And its level wasn’t unique in the Puttnam-produced “First Love” series, which included Michael Apted’s splendid Kipperbang and also Arthur’s Hallowed Ground, a movie about a groundskeeper who has meticulously maintained a cricket pitch for many decades—exactly the kind of movie you’d expect to be the only directing project from David Lean’s cinematographer, Freddie Young. But Sharma is just lovely, and I remember it gave my twentysomething self a hint of “If I made movies, this is the kind of movie I would make” (Gilbert liked Truffaut too, after all, it said so in the press kit). Maybe that’s why I take it as a personal disappointment that Gilbert’s film-directing career has not quite reached its promise, despite the odd title of interest. (Plus I used to confuse him with Brian Gibson, a Brit who did What’s Love Got to Do with It, and who I’m sorry to say died in 2004.)

There were movies that used the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh before this one did, and as The King’s Speech proved, it’s still a go-to piece. I can’t argue with that, although it might be nice if they came up with something else. IMDb says that Tom Wilkinson is in the cast. Sharma was a rare lead for Michael Maloney, who does such excellent work as a second-level player in movies (he played Rosencrantz and Laertes for Mel Gibson’s and Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlets, respectively; he’ll probably be old enough for Polonius when Justin Bieber gets around to his version). On stage Maloney gets to do more. I saw him play Prince Hal to Robert Stephens’ Falstaff on stage, and he was in full command. In fact, the second-tier status of the people behind Sharma and Beyond fits the movie’s feel just perfectly.