It’s been 30 years since “The Killing Fields” arrived in theaters hailed by critics for its presentation of the horrors of Cambodia in the wake of the Vietnam war. 30 years later however, viewed with more distance from the actual events it depicts, “The Killing Fields” comes off as a shockingly average movie, unworthy of the critical plaudits that propelled it to one of the leading Oscar candidates of 1984.
“The Killing Fields” stars Sam Waterston as New York Times writer Sydney Schanberg who has traveled to Cambodia in 1973 to investigate rumors that the U.S has spread the Vietnam war into the neighboring country with hope of using it as a strategic launching point. In bungling into Cambodia however, the U.S has tilted the already teetering country into a civil war that topples the friendly if diffident current regime in favor of murderous outlanders called the Khmer Rouge.
It’s exactly the story that President Nixon attempted to cover up and exactly what Sydney Schanberg came to the country to document. But the rise of the Khmer Rouge is a sidelight story in “The Killing Fields” to the growing friendship of Sydney and his Cambodian interpreter and fellow journalist Dith Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor). The two bond deeply after Sydney is able to rescue Pran’s family as the U.S leaves Cambodia and the two stay behind to document the new regime.
Unfortunately for Pran, the Khmer Rouge begins a program under new leader Pol Pot to purge all educated Cambodians, anyone who could challenge the new regime’s brutal tactics of violence and indoctrination. While he and Sydney and other western journalists are held at the French embassy awaiting the opportunity to escape the country we are treated to a thriller style scene in which the heroic American journalist attempts to create a fake passport to sneak Pran out of the country. The scene is supposed to be tense but we know going into the film that Pran does not escape and will spend several years missing amid the chaos of the Khmer Rouge thus rendering the scene a pointless addition intended to add some Hollywood style tension into an otherwise real life story.
Director Roland Joffe brings a great deal of Hollywood style to “The Killing Fields.” His approach to the story, in fact, as told to someone on the production, was to make a love story only instead of star crossed lovers, he had Waterston’s Schanberg and Haing Ngor’s Pran. This approach makes the final 30 minutes of “The Killing Fields” quite awkward as Pran takes to narrating letters to Sydney in his mind as a way of documenting his time in hiding. The letters drip with the kind of mash note prose that soldiers in War movies narrate to the girlfriends waiting back home for them.
Since Pran never actually wrote these letters to Schanberg, merely imagined them, we know they are a screenwriter’s invention and the falseness and uncomfortable sentimentality is rather shocking for a film with the reputation of “The Killing Fields” as a bleak memoir of suffering based on real life events. The Hollywood touches extend to a synth based soundtrack that consistently interrupts what tension the film does begin to develop, especially in the time when the perspective of the film shifts from Schanberg’s journalist, to Pran finding ways to survive the brutality of post-revolution Cambodia.
There are shockingly lazy passages to the film as well as in a subplot meant to dramatize the guilt Schanberg felt leaving Pran behind in Cambodia. Back in New York Sydney decries his reception of the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting, rendering it meaningless until he knows what happened to Pran. A character played by John Malkovich, who was also in Cambodia at the time of the revolution and befriended Pran while there, is used to attempt to blame Schanberg for Pran staying behind when he could have escaped with his family. The implication is that Pran stayed at Schanberg’s behest to help cover the story. This is a remarkably smarmy and contrived bit of melodrama that is tossed off in such a fashion that it only lasts for one scene and is forgotten.
I went into “The Killing Fields” expecting to come out depressed and outraged over the U.S involvement in Cambodia and the rise of the brutal Khmer Rouge. Instead, my feelings are far more jaded and my anger is toward a Hollywood movie that assumes our sympathies for a true story and then sets about making a very typical Hollywood movie under that assumption, that we will automatically praise the film simply for being about an important and dramatic real life subject.
A documentary about Dith Pran and Cambodia featuring the real life Schanberg as a talking head would have been far more dramatic and effective than this rather dim-witted Hollywood production. That is not to take away from the performance of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who’s own true life story mirrors that of Dith Pran and who was plucked from obscurity with no acting background to play Pran and delivers a picture of dignified suffering. Sadly, this movie isn’t worthy of him or the story being told.