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The Killing Fields (2-Nov-1984)

Director: Roland Joffé

Writer: Bruce Robinson

Original Music Composed by: Mike Oldfield

Producer: David Puttnam

Keywords: Drama, Cambodia

NameOccupationBirthDeathKnown for
Nell Campbell
24-May-1953   Little Nell
Athol Fugard
11-Jun-1932   The Blood Knot
Spalding Gray
5-Jun-1941 11-Jan-2004 Swimming to Cambodia monologist
Patrick Malahide
24-Mar-1945   Alleyn Mysteries
John Malkovich
9-Dec-1953   Subject of Being John Malkovich
Craig T. Nelson
4-Apr-1946   Coach Hayden Fox on Coach
Haing S. Ngor
22-Mar-1940 25-Feb-1996 The Killing Fields
Julian Sands
15-Jan-1958   Warlock
Sam Waterston
15-Nov-1940   Asst DA Jack McCoy on Law & Order


Sam Waterston   ...   Sydney Schanberg
Haing S. Ngor   ...   Dith Pran
John Malkovich   ...   Al Rockoff
Julian Sands   ...   Jon Swain
Craig T. Nelson   ...   Military Attaché
Spalding Gray   ...   U.S. Consul
Bill Paterson   ...   Dr. MacEntire
Athol Fugard   ...   Dr. Sundesval
Graham Kennedy   ...   Dougal
Katherine Krapum Chey   ...   Ser Moeum (Pran's Wife)
Oliver Pierpaoli   ...   Titony (Pran's Son)
Edward Entero Chey   ...   Sarun
Tom Bird   ...   U.S. Military Advisor
Monirak Sisowath   ...   Phat (K.R. Leader 2nd Village)
Lambool Dtangpaibool   ...   Phat's Son
Ira Wheeler   ...   Ambassador Wade
David Henry   ...   France
Patrick Malahide   ...   Morgan
Nell Campbell   ...   Beth
Joan Harris   ...   TV Interviewer
Joanna Merlin   ...   Schanberg's Sister
Jay Barney   ...   Schanberg's Father
Mark Long   ...   Noaks
Sayo Inaba   ...   Mrs. Noaks
Mow Leng   ...   Sirik Matah
Chinsaure Sar   ...   Arresting Officer
Hout Ming Tran   ...   K.R. Cadre -- First Village
Thach Suon   ...   Sahn
Neevy Pal   ...   Rosa


Review by Walter Frith (posted on 7-Jun-2007)

On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge thought that they could free their people from the conflict in Vietnam which was quickly beginning to reach into their country. The leader of this regime, Pol Pot, had Cambodian citizens evacuated from the cities and put into the countryside, supposedly for their own safety. Shutting off their borders to the rest of the world, it would take four years for the rest of the world to discover that in a country of seven million people, one and a half million would be killed by their own leaders. Warner Bros. brought this story to the screen in 1984 and entitled it 'The Killing Fields'. Bringing in untested writer Bruce Robinson, he churned out a screenplay of large anti-American military and government sentiment but was sure to include positive American characterizations in the form of New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) and photographer Al Rockoff (John Malkovich). Despite these two fine performances, the film's main character is Dith Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor). Pran was an interpreter for Schanberg and an eventual prisoner for the Khmer Rouge during the country's holocaust. The film begins in 1973 where we are introduced to the film's main characters. Documentary director Roland Joffé was given his first chance at directing a feature film and did so with stunning competence. His vision of a country in disarray is both truthful and gut wrenching without crossing the line and while Joffé did not push the envelope like many other directors would, his work here is of the highest order because he leaves many nightmare scenarios to the imaginations and sometimes what we don't see but imagine can be equally devastating or more so compared with what we do see. The entire film is captured on film by cinematographer Chris Menges who would get an Oscar for his bleak, stark and heart pounding photography. Plunging his camera into the heart of all this, Menges uses bouncing rotations, sometimes going as far as to shape them with 360 degree turns. Silhouettes against sunsets, depressing facial expressions during blistering rainstorms and jungle stillness are some of his best moments and the film's photography is probably its greatest technical aspect. Schanberg is constantly hitting brick walls in his quest for a journalistic piece that will sabotage the American government's campaign in southeast Asia and expose it. He is detained by government armies, stonewalled by American military officers who won't talk to him and is trying to stay alive at the same time through all of this. Schanberg has Dith Pran's family evacuated when it soon becomes clear that Cambodians may at some point, be slaughtered by their own people. Pran stays behind to assist Schanberg, a mistake that would soon lead to his surrender and transport to the Cambodian death camps. As the film enters its second half, it is a quiet, more sedated journey. The film becomes an escape thriller as Pran plots his departure from the killing fields. It is a slave infested violation of the most basic human rights where the people have been told that God is dead and that it is the year "zero". Indoctrinated and brain washed, the most heart breaking passages are those involving children as we see them throughout the film with rifles in their hands, later taking part in the death camp tortures and suffering from the abject poverty that reduces many of them to orphans and outcasts. When I first saw 'The Killing Fields' twenty years ago in 1984, it struck a nerve in me that hasn't healed since. The only other highly charged political drama/thriller that had any lasting impact on me was 'The China Syndrome', made five years before that. That film was fiction turned into semi-reality but 'The Killing Fields' was pure fact. Witnessing a chapter in world history that went largely unnoticed at the time it was being carried out was a great thing to see. Haing S. Ngor won the best supporting Oscar for his work and thanked Warner Bros. and others involved for letting the world know what happened in his country. Many felt that his role in the film was a leading performance. After all, he won the British academy award and the Boston society of film critics award for best actor but he was relegated to the best supporting actor category at the Oscars because he was unknown to audiences and his peers alike who never had a chance to truly appreciate just what an impact his acting had on everyone. He acts better when not speaking. His expressions through all of the devastation are award winning stuff alone. Sam Waterston's work on this film is also a marvel. Nominated for the best actor Oscar, he only had a few weeks to prepare for the role and met briefly with the real Sydney Schanberg who later admitted that "real pieces" of him are on the screen through Waterston's portrayal of him. Most of us know Waterston from his work on television's 'Law and Order' and he is a superb actor of dramatic flare whose efforts are unflinching. To date, three Emmy nominations have failed to bring Waterston recognition for 'Law and Order' but he did win and Emmy in the category of Outstanding Informational Series for 1995's 'Lost Civilizations', which took audiences on a 7,000 year look at world history. Director Roland Joffé has never been able to match the power or quality of his work here but the most interesting thing about Joffé's work on 'The Killing Fields' is the DVD release of the film which has a thorough running audio commentary by Joffé as he takes us frame by frame through the devastation the film showcases. Joffé guided 'The Killing Fields' to seven Oscar nominations including best picture, director for himself, actor (Waterston), supporting actor WIN (Ngor), screenplay (Bruce Robinson, cinematography WIN (Chris Menges) and film editing WIN (Jim Clark) who pieces the film together steadily and whose cuts aren't noticed as individually impressive but rather as a whole masterpiece of dissecting and threading together film as the art form that it is. The film concludes on October 9th, 1979 as John Lennon's 'Imagine' is played near the end and over the film's closing credits. Ironically, October 9th is also John Lennon's birthday. Sadly, on February 25, 1996, Haing S. Ngor was murdered in the parking garage of his home. The motive, according to authorities, was robbery. Apparently, he would not give up a piece of jewelry containing a picture of his spouse whom the Khmer Rouge allowed to die in childbirth in 1975. At first, it was thought by Ngor's family that Khmer Rouge forces may have sent agents to kill him for his opposition to them after settling in America but a police investigation found that an Asian street gang killed him in an attempt to get money to buy rock cocaine. [Visit Film Follow-Up by Walter Frith]

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