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Rating: **** Out of ****
Hard to say, but I believe when it comes to the war genre, The Killing Fields manages to edge out even Saving Private Ryan, and without a doubt, there's no better war film out there that's done a better job of capturing the realistic details and emotional loss of the time period (that being, the 70's in Cambodia/Vietnam).
Thus, I've always considered it a little odd that no one I know has even heard of this film. When lists of the greatest war films are decided, I don't believe I've ever seen this film crack any list. And the reason is simple: The Killing Fields is often ignored because it doesn't come from a soldier's point of view, and neither does it feature any adrenaline-pumping battle sequences. The fact that a strong portion of the film (about 2/5's) comes entirely from a Cambodian man's viewpoint might throw off a few viewers here and there. And yet, the film does just as fine a job as any anti-war film in creating a frightenining, chaotic world.
The performances all around superb without exception. Haing S. Ngor, who was tragically killed a few years ago, delivers a riveting, emotionally wrenching turn as the guide who is trapped in Cambodia and forced to fight for his life. He deservingly won the Oscar, though it's a shame he was snubbed for the best actor award. Inarguably, he's the film's central character and he also has more screen time than top-billed Sam Waterston. Despite my complaint on that matter, Waterston is also excellent as the journalist with a guilty conscience.
The Killing Fields is a suspenseful and exhilarating experience, a journey through an apocalyptic landscape that features one shocking image after another. Watch, and you'll see why the film is so acclaimed.
Oh, this brings me back alright. It was the last days of 1984, and
earnest college students like me had much to talk about. Wasn't it
wonderful that Walter Mondale had chosen a strong woman like Geraldine
Ferraro to be his running mate, and wouldn't the Democrats sweep the
Northeast at least for that brave move? Does buying a Coke at the local
convenience store signal support for the apartheid government in South
Africa? Did anyone else see that amazing film about the human price of
American involvement in Southeast Asia?
It's nearly 20 years later, and I've managed to shake the ill effects of my youthful liberalism easily enough in most cases. This film, however, packs the kind of punch that isn't explained away by political trendiness.
"The Killing Fields" is a great film that tries and succeeds in capturing much of the carnage and tragedy of Cambodia as the radicalized Khmer Rouge and the U.S.-backed regime of Lon Nol controlling Phnom Penh clash in a fight to the death to be/not be the next domino in the Communist rollover in Southeast Asia. By particularizing the conflict to that of the true-life relationship of two men, New York Times reporter Syndey Schanberg and his Cambodian apprentice and aide-de-camp, Dith Pran, the film forces a level of empathy that is at once uncomfortable and absorbing. It is possible to walk away from this film hating the manipulation, the America-bashing, the easy liberal guilt. But it's impossible to walk away from the human experience borne witness to before the movie's done, if one has any pretense of being human, and that's its great strength.
Oh, it's polemical alright. We hear comments about how the Khmer Rouge's excesses were the direct result of Nixon's secret bombing campaign. (U.S. Counsel: "After what the Khmer Rouge have been through, I don't think they'll be exactly affectionate toward Westerners." Schanberg: "Maybe we underestimated the anger $7 billion in bombing would unleash.") It makes its point, absolves Pol Pot and condemns Kissinger with the same broad brush, and it feels a bit jaded and hollow for that, but I don't know. Schanberg betrays the attitudes of a knee-jerk liberal, and I outgrew that, and maybe I feel superior for that, but Schanberg had AK-47s pointed at his head by 12-year-old brainwashed boys, and I didn't, so shut up already, know what I mean?
The performances are incredible in their verisimilitude, particularly the leads. Sam Waterson burns with righteous anger as Schanberg, and I like his performance for what it is and how he creates that extra level of tension, but he's a butterfly compared to the condor that's Dr. Haing S. Ngor, one of the Academy's most obscure best supporting actor recipients (there was even a joke about it in an episode of "The Simpsons") but someone who didn't just walk the walk. He relived his experience surviving a holocaust that was, per square mile, even more savage than the Holocaust itself. The fact he won a Best Supporting Actor award (Waterson instead was nominated for Best Actor, and lost to F. Murray Abraham for "Amadeus") is one of those perversities of film history, given he carries more of the film than Waterson (who slinks to the background two-thirds of the way in) but also that he personalizes the story in a way that makes the incomprehensible immediate and involving.
We lost Ngor to a senseless murder a few years ago, and have little left to explain what was going through his mind as he relived an experience that cost him his wife and child when he actually lived through it. Roland Joffe does a nice job in the DVD commentary, though, a commentary I put up there with P. T. Anderson's "Boogie Nights" and William Peter Blatty's "The Ninth Configuration" for being worth the price of the DVD and then some by itself. He recalls Ngor's reaction to one child actress whose hard face in enacting a scene convinced Ngor she wasn't just pretending to be Khmer Rouge, and Ngor's request that Joffe participate in one critical scene by muttering real torments Ngor suffered at the hands of the "KR" as a way of enhancing his performance. At one point, trying to convince him to come aboard, Joffe said something about Ngor owing it to his country to bear witness to his story, and that of Dith Pran, and that did the trick, though Joffe seems to wonder if the same sort of manipulation Schanberg pulled on Pran wasn't going on here, too.
It's a great movie because it doesn't shy away from uncomfortable truths, because it never loses sight of the human dimension, and because it gave a pretense of understanding to one of the great human traumas after World War II. We never wallow in gore, but the cost of this war is always with us while we watch. The experience is both endurable and humiliating.
I just wish they reshot that ending, with "Imagine." Joffe in his commentary even notes the lyrics are the sort of thing Pol Pot would have gone along with. It feels forced. Did Yoko Ono give her approval after they explained the scene her dead husband's song would appear in, or after they told her the first nasty execution scene would be shot while "Band On The Run" issued forth from a soldier's radio?
A great movie, of an awful moment in human history. If we have any chance of overcoming man's sorry past, it will be because movies like this one get made once in a while.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Complex & historically rich, THE KILLING FIELDS is closely based upon New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg's 'The Life And Death Of Dith Pran.' Schanberg was a stringer for the Times during the Vietnam War, and was stationed in Phnom Penh in the early 1970s as once-neutral Cambodia was overrun by outside interference (US and North Vietnam), and collapsed into an explosively violent civil war.
Schanberg reported extensively on this war, assisted by Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran, and this film does an adequate job of introducing the complexities of it the rightist government (which was nominally US-backed - not touched upon during the film) quickly became paralyzed by inaction, stunning levels of corruption and ineptness. Simultaneously, the mysterious other side (deemed Les Khmer Rouges by the deposed Prince Noorodom Sihanouk) fought with near-incomprehensible ferocity, maintaining an impenetrable veil of secrecy about their ideology and future plans for Cambodia.
With the Cambodian government(the Khmer Republic) soon in a swift free-fall, the American embassy was closed on April 10, 1975 and Americans along with some Cambodians were airlifted out. After painful debate, Schanberg and Pran opted to remain, in an attempt at covering the now-imminent fall of Phnom Penh. Seven days later, the Khmer Rouge (K.R.) captured the city the dying government shuddering to a surrender, and Schanberg and Pran went into hiding in the French embassy.
The finest moments of the film are the depictions of the chaos, desperation and crowding at the French compound the intent and future behavior of the K.R. were not well-known at this point (right up to, and for a considerable amount of time after their victory they operated in absolute, cult-like secrecy), and the sense of oncoming apocalypse is perfectly expressed with a subtle, seemingly-throwaway line delivered at this point by a French diplomat: "Adieu, ancien regime," as an official from the now-overthrown Khmer republican government was lead away at gunpoint, and the sound of massacres could be heard all over the city.
Pran was stranded in the country as the K.R. immediately launched one of the most infamous revolutions in world history, ordering cities emptied of their populations in an attempt at creating an isolationist agricultural utopia, and dismantling 'bourgeois' institutions. The ideology of the K.R. (critical to understanding the tragic depths of the story, and skimmed over in the film) was essentially a blend of the most extreme theories of Mao and Stalin, mixed with a strand of nationalism rivaling any variant of fascism in its ferocity. In this harshly reconstructed society, urbanites and the educated (like Pran) were automatically considered enemies of the people, likely to be killed as potential counterrevolutionaries. Forced into a gulag in the countryside, Pran camouflages his background, but is still subjected to the brutalities inflicted upon many of his comrades.
Upon hearing that Vietnam has invaded Cambodia, Pran flees into the bush, gradually making his way to the Thai border. Word reaches Schanberg, who has been searching for Pran for nearly four years (Cambodia had been sealed off from the outside world), and the two are reunited in a refugee camp in Eastern Thailand. KILLING FIELDS is a gripping film, successful on many fronts. Filmed in Thailand, the performances seem very authentic, and the period setting is painstakingly recreated. The cinematography has an impressive John Ford grandeur. Thus my main problems with the film amount to hairsplitting: the Mike (ugh) Oldfield score is abysmal, and at least one otherwise great scene (the US embassy evacuation) is ruined by it. A little more digging into some of the political ideologies swirling around the actual events would give the later scenes (Pran in one of the KR collectives) needed context. Other commentators here have already noted the inapproriateness of Lennon's 'Imagine' at the films' end, and the mercifully brief Schanberg-at-home scenes during the latter half of the film are a bit much.
Very intense - as doctor-survivor-actor Haing S. Ngor who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Pran stated in 'A Cambodian Odyssey,' - his own autobiography: "Had the film portrayed the actual severity of what had occurred, no one would've been able to sit through it." This is easily among the most harrowing tales of friendship and loyalty to have ever made it to the big screen; even with minor problems, a film very much worth seeing.
First of all I love this genre of movie; I'm not a huge fan of action
or fantasy or romance movies, I have so-called "comedies" but I love
genuine FILM, as in FILM not MOVIE; art as opposed to enterprise.
This film, The Killing Fields, is one of the defining films in it's class; based on the true story of an American journalist (one Sydney Schanberg) working in Cambodia and his guide/interpreter; a Cambodian named Dith Pran. When the Khmer Rouge (probably one of the most vicious and barbaric regimes in history) takes power the Westerners flee. The enterprising American, however, remains behind with his faithful guide (who sends his family off to America). This turns out to be a bad decision; through a series of misadventures Dith Pran cannot escape Cambodia and must remain behind while his friend flees. The movie weaves a wonderful tale of adventure, misadventure, loss, suffering, death, and reunion (in no particular order).
This movie is so beautiful and touching (and so very graphic) that one cannot help but be affected by it; a must-see, one of the defining movies on the subject of war as well as loss and certainly the most evocative film about the Khmer Rouge and the Viet Nam War in Cambodia. A beautiful film about war and tragedy but filled with hope throughout...
Based on the Khmer Rouge revolution in Cambodia, this is an excellent tale
of hardship and friendship. Basically director Roland Joffe` did an
wonderful job in exposing the detailed facts so simply in the film that you
believe that you are in that time in person. The two actors, Sam Waterson
and Haing Ngor both displayed godlike pieces of acting. It's unfortunate
Waterson couldn't join Ngor in Academy Awards. In addition, the director's
credit is to highlight both the characters' points of view. That's why the
movie became so interesting to watch. John Malkovich brought out a fine
performance as a photographer.
In the course of the story of adventures of the two men, the film also has vivid descriptions of the public life during the war. Several detailed scenes of war violence are presented here so indifferently that you are bound to be convinced about its historical accuracy. Here we find the magical cinematography of Chris Menges. Again, during the time of Dith Pran's suffering, it never seemed that the director is showing too much.
One of the most important, and my favorite, aspects of the film is its ending. You cannot imagine of a better alternative of this happiest ending possible in a war drama. And with the fantastic use of Lennon's "imagine", it has got to an enormous height of perfection. 5/5.
I've read only 20 comments so far, and it was surprising to learn that some
viewers (namely 'gregory.messine' and 'RBarse', both of US of A ) think it's
set in Vietnam. Come on lads, I've heard that education in America is not
great but I didn't expect it to be so bad. Have you ever opened an atlas.
Maybe the sound in your theater didn't work or sth. THIS FILM IS ABOUT A WAR
IN CAMBODIA. Cambodia is a neighbour of Vietnam. It's set in 1973-79, just
after the Vietnam War!!!!!
Anyway, back to movie. It's brilliant, not too sentimental, not too cold. The acting is simply marvellous (to be honest I didn't know any of the actors except for Malkovich), cinematography is a touch of genius. Some people complained about the score. Well I can agree, that the lyrics of "Imagine" in the context sound like a Khmer Rouge anthem, but the rest is beautiful (Oldfield did a good job).The scene when Schanberg watches some TV programme about the Cambodian War while listening to Puccini's opera is so moving, just like the sight of thousands of Cambodians being "evacuated" by the Khmer out of Phnom Pehn.
I saw this film a while back and just saw it again on TV. If you are interested in seeing a great, tense drama this is a good start. Honest and unapologetic directing from Roland Joffe and fine performances from Sam Waterston & John Malkovich (plus nicely played small parts by Craig T. Nelson & Spalding Gray.) Above all of them, however, is Haing S. Ngor as Dith Pran, the Cambodian journalist assisting the New York Times reporter played by Waterston during the conflicts in Cambodia around the time of the Vietnam war. This was Ngor's first film and had no previous acting experience. Quite a performance from Ngor, earning a well deserved Academy Award. Interesting note, Ngor himself led a very similar life to his character. Wonderfully touching film, you should see it.
I can't put my finger on exactly what it is about this film that gets to
so much, but it is THE most haunting, emotional film experience... and
only ever seen it on video.
Excellent performances from Waterston, Ngor and Malkovich. A brilliant score by Mike Oldfield. Scenes of high emotion, tension, drama, horror and even one or two pieces of light relief (well, it has got Australia's Graham Kennedy of comedy fame).
The stand-out scenes for mine are those in the French Embassy; I can never watch the final scene from this sequence with a dry eye.
An excellent film and the soundtrack is not a bad investment either.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Without doubt THE KILLING FIELDS is one of the greatest films ever to have
come out of Britain . The cinematography is outstanding , watch the numerous
scenes where someone runs past the camera and the camera follows them only
to have the camera follow someone else when they run past it , or the way
the camera spins around when the journalists are captured outside the
hospital , but this film is rightly remembered for one man : Haing S Ngor ,
a Cambodian doctor who had his own horrors to tell after nearly being
captured by the Khmer Rouge ( !!!! POSSIBLE SPOILER !!!!!) the scene near
the end where he sees the red cross refugee camp in Thailand is one of the
most moving in the history of cinema .
I won`t bother to list all the great things about the film , but I will reply to some criticisms . First of all the anti American slant . Well I think we can all agree that America`s intervention in South East Asia in the 1960s has been the greatest mistake in American history . Their war in Vietnam and the bombing of Cambodia and Laos caused the massive instability that led to the rise of Pol Pot and as THE KILLING FIELDS shows when the Americans fought and lost they abandoned the Cambodian people to their fate. I also agree that the music can be intrusive but has anyone noticed that we get string orchestras for Dith Pran and ordinary Cambodian civilians and mechanical synthesisers for KR killers ? I think there`s a reason for this . My only other criticism is that after reading Christopher Hudson`s novelization the script makes makes some of the characters vague like Noakes and Rosa for example . But there`s not much wrong with THE KILLING FIELDS , a throwback to a time when Brits made films that weren`t comedies , though I`ll be the first to admit that this film won`t be to everyone`s taste .
And as I write this review many years after it was made THE KILLING FIELDS does have an added poignancy today . Dr Haing S Ngor was brutally murdered by a street gang for no reason at all several years ago . And we see Sydney Schanberg looking across the New York skyline with a very prominent shot of the twin towers of the WTC
A must see movie...
The story about relationship and life, in decisive situations. And also a struggle towards guilts and torments.
Watching this movie, I'm thinking about how many sorrows and death brought by such horrifying ideology and minds. And how this things still happened to this moment.
One interesting plot, revealed how the west always want to tell the east what to do, and what they think best for them (which is in fact sometimes it's not). From the moment the military covered up their mistakes and their misjudgement about the country, to the day Sam Waterstone felt guilty about his demand for Dith Pran to stay with him and help his journalism work, while he also told Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor) to get his family off country.
And the pattern also still happens to this moment.
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