Ironically, the romance of war is undying. It’s a perpetual cinematic winner with all the emotional aphorisms habitually overkilled by hyperbole; the realities of terror repeatedly trounced upon by the fantasies of the movie theatre. Yet, at times the facts can outplay the fiction. Roland Joffe’s untimely showpiece, The Killing Fields (1984), is a solid, stark, cheerless rendering of hard-boiled storytelling. It’s historical filmmaking at its most candid and its most pragmatic. Between 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge coerced most of Cambodia’s people into forced labour, murdering around 20-30% of the entire population in the process.
It was one of the 20th century’s contenders for most calamitous, devastating regimes. Joffe utilises the story of Dith Pran (Dr Haing S. Ngor), a Cambodian fixer, and his companion, New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston), as they endeavour to report on the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. Scenes of refugees begging Schanberg to take snapshots of their suffering are potently frequent, as are reconstructions of the failings of the American government in reforming a broken South East Asia . The unpatronising stance taken by Joffe compliments the adversity of the original story in which Schanberg coerces his native counterpart to remain in Cambodia to assist in stockpiling insider news stories while he takes sanctuary in the French Embassy.
Sheltered from the chaos, he awaits the return of his friend with regular updates from the frontline. Pran is eventually captured and finds himself as a POW in one of Pol Pot’s infamous prison camps. The Cambodian confidante is tortured in the most heinous of scenes and what began as a hard-hitting comment on the banalities of war forges into a harrowing movie about the camaraderie between Schanberg and Pran. The experience of watching The Killing Fields is genuinely despairing and is heightened by the real-life tragedies of those who worked on the film – Ngor was murdered by an LA street gang in 1996. Joffe’s interpretation of the events has been accused of lacking in warmth. It’s a strange assertion to be charged with considering the authenticity of the production and the calibre of Waterston’s acting as the blinkered american writer is masterful. Not to mention the support of Ngor and a great performance from John Malkovich as photographer Al Rockoff. There is no denying that subjective inaccuracies have been reported – especially between the relationship purveyed between Schanberg and Rockoff – but the portrayal of human fear and desperation to survive could not be more correct. The Killing Fields is a staple war movie and a fine director’s finest work.