There 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.