By Philip Newton (England)
The Killing Fields is a moving true story based on the true life events of Sydney Schanberg a correspondent for the New York Times and his quest to rescue his friend, local reporter Dith Pran from being held by Khmer Rouge troops in Cambodia in 1975. The film is both visually captivating and distressing in equal measure as well as at its emotional core is a tender and heart-warming story that is the backbone of the film.
The films overall story takes place in 1975 in Cambodia with US New York Times correspondent Sam Schanberg, played here by Sam Waterston, investigating the United states pull-out from the Vietnam War, along with his partner, played by John Malkovich. Sam relies on local reporter Dith Pran, played by Haing S. Ngor, for the inside scoops on local events, however, due to escalating tensions of hostility his life is in potential danger. When there is an opportunity for Dith to be evacuated by US troops he chooses to stay with his American friend making sure his wife and children are safe by evacuating them. Things take a turn for the worse when Dith and the American reporters are captured by communist group Khmer Rouge whom Dith manages to convince not to execute his American friends and the group seek refuge at the French embassy. However orders by the Khmer Rouge to release all local Cambodians leads to the unfortunate capture of Dith with the Americans being allowed to return home. The final act of the film revolves around Dith’s capture and of Sam in New York consumed with guilt over letting his friend down and his quest to set him free.
The film works brilliantly on two contrasting levels on the one hand it visually does not shy away from the horrors of its surroundings in a way I have not personally seen within cinema very often. We witness injured children on the streets and in grubby and grimy hospitals, we see dead bodies and wreckages of vehicles and debris, this is a film which is interested in the effect which war has on all that is involved and almost wants its audience to acknowledge this. As a viewer it proved effective I found the images harrowing and almost took a feel of a documentary with hand held camera work as well as long takes of scenes which are natural, not forced or manipulated we see close up’s of local children, perfectly capturing the authentic expressions of the victims in the atrocity which surrounds them. The film won an Oscar in 1984 for cinematographer Chris Menges and is well deserved; some of the imagery in particular at the end with Dith’s escape takes on an almost epic quality grand in scale and beauty.
On the other hand the film works as an emotional piece of fictional storytelling which obviously keeps the loose framework of true events however amps the rest up for a satisfying payoff. What I admired about this film was even in scenes that felt like they were somewhat Hollywood style in their handling, worked because it was subtle and implemented at the right times. The scene with getting Dith’s passport was I’m sure more over the top than what happened in real life however was believable because I was rooting for the characters I cared about their fate which was important.
I also admired how natural the performances and dialogue were, I did not feel like people were saying things constantly for dramatic effect which made it all the more convincing, and when something was done for dramatic effect it had a purpose like Sam’s speech when accepting his Pulitzer Prize it was a powerful comment on the United states involvement in the Vietnam war and the damage done because of it.
This is a powerful reflection of War, both in its visual impact as well as its natural and realistic screenplay which both complement each other fantastically well.