The Killing Fields (1984) 3.86/5 (5)


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Rating: The Good – 77.5
Genre: War, Drama, Thriller
Duration: 141 mins
Director: Roland Joffé
Stars: Sam Waterston, Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich

The Killing Fields is arguably the standard bearer for those political thrillers of the 1980’s that focused on embedded reporters in various Cold War time conflicts. It tells the true story of Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran’s reporting of the Khmer Rouge’s abominable “Year Zero”, when, under the leadership of tyrant Pol Pot, they attempted to purge Cambodia of its “decadent ideology” and stamp a political submissiveness into the consciousness of its population. They achieved this primarily by taking children from their parents, moulding them into vicious shock troops, and often placing them in charge of older more corrupted officers. The resulting brutal murder of two million civilians gave rise to the eponymous paddy fields where the bodies were discarded.

The story naturally guarantees a level of power and captivation that few can rival but the starkness of Roland Joffé’s direction and the delicate manner in which he persistently contrasts the beauty of Cambodia’s countryside and people with the death and perverted ideologies of the Khmer Rouge is striking. Thanks to an interesting screenplay from Bruce Robinson, Sam Waterston is allowed flourish in a complex role and he hits just the right balance between righteous, self righteous, selfish and selfless. Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a real life survivor of the Khmer Rouge, is remarkable in his Oscar winning role of Pran, Schanberg’s loyal interpreter, who was sentenced to the death camps after he failed to escape with his western colleagues.

The film feels extraordinarily authentic with the majority of it being shot in neighbouring Thailand but with the help of Mike Oldfield’s foreboding score, which pulses through the two hours and twenty minutes like a portend, Joffé still manages to phase much of the horror onto an otherworldly plane at crucial times. There are moments when Joffé stands back from the narrative a little too overtly to offer commentary that really isn’t needed. The most criminal example of this is of course the final scene when (one suspects with producer David Puttnam’s influence) he uses John Lennon’s “Imagine” like an emotional baseball bat – a song that needed little in the way of heavy handed pressure in the first place. This is the decision that won him Time Magazine’s “Cultural Low of the Year” award and it’s terrible to admit but it tarnishes the entire film. Thankfully, there’s enough complexity, emotion, and drama in the rest of it to do this crucial piece of history justice and enough overall class to excuse that ending.

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