‘Cambodia. To many westerners it seemed a paradise. Another world, a secret world. But the war in neighbouring Vietnam burst its borders, and the fighting soon spread to neutral Cambodia. In 1973 I went to cover this side-show struggle as a foreign correspondent of the New York Times. It was there, in the war-torn countryside amidst the fighting between government troops and the Khmer Rouge guerrillas, that I met my guide and interpreter, Dith Pran, a man who was to change my life in a country I grew to love and pity.’
The opening lines to The Killing Fields (1984), spoken in voice over by Sam Waterston in his breakthrough role as real-life journalist Sydney Schanberg, concisely set up this haunting war film’s political and emotional threads. What follows is a powerful humanist exploration of the Cambodian civil war, Pol Pot’s brutal re-education camps and ‘Year Zero’ philosophy.
In his debut screenplay, Bruce Robinson (who credits the success of the film with enabling him to later direct cult hit Withnail & I) immediately sets up his protagonists as extraordinarily fearless. In the chaos of an explosion on a Cambodian street, Schanberg and fellow journalist Al Rockoff (John Malkovich) run towards the danger. A few moments later Schanberg heads to Neak Leung with aide Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor) where an American B52 Bomber has just dropped its entire load.
Robinson’s screenplay is openly critical of American involvement in Cambodia and debut director Roland Joffé is similarly committed to this political angle – the irony of Khmer Rouge guerrillas supping bottles of Coke should not be overlooked. But neither does The Killing Fields give us a single political hero.
Based on a true story, The Killing Fields is essentially a story about male friendship, and without this angle the film would make for very bleak viewing. Through the separation of Schanberg and Pran (who’s left behind after the journalist’s evacuation), Robinson’s screenplay explores responsibility at an individual level, neatly mirroring the film’s political messages.
Surrounded by home comforts, Schanberg watches video footage of Cambodia. Through the screen, a wounded man looks him in the eye. Nessun Dorma plays over the scene. As the score reaches a crescendo, Schanberg fast-forwards through fires, bodies and chaos. Joffé cuts to Schanberg’s face. His guilt is palpable. It’s one of the many exquisitely realised, and edited, scenes The Killing Fields has to offer.
From here, the film focuses almost entirely on Pran, who faces starvation, hard labour and abuse, in the face of the state’s absurd philosophies. It’s a poignant performance from first time actor Ngor, a real-life survivor of the Cambodian regime and, although we are aware of Schanberg’s guilt, we see little of his personal struggle from this point forward. In brand new interviews for the film’s 30th Anniversary release, Robinson and producer David Puttnam discuss the toning down of Schanberg’s guilt in the final version of the film, which involved the removal of several scenes. Sadly these deleted scenes remain unavailable on disc.
Even so, what is most impressive about The Killing Field’s is Joffé’s restraint in capturing the atrocities. The director gives us nurses mopping up blood, doctors removing shrapnel from brutal wounds, but he is not reliant on gore to appal and terrify. Joffé pays special attention to smaller details: the cries of children, the panic of crowds. Later, as Pran traverses the waterlogged killing fields, it is the silence and volume of death that horrifies. As Pran looks down at the skeletons, water ripples cause a bony hand appear to beckon. It’s a bleak reminder of life lost.
Sound too plays a critical role in the tone of Joffé’s film. The director’s decision to withhold subtitles from Cambodian conversations, especially in the film’s later sequences, enhances the fear and panic. An eclectic score from Mike Oldfield shifts from clanging symbols and jarring, otherworldly synths to hopeful, triumphant strings.In his latest interview, Joffé describes his ambition to ‘create two hours of empathy’ and he certainly achieves this. The Killing Fields is an immersive and consuming viewing experience. But it also remains relevant on a political level. The contrast between Cambodia at the beginning of the film (already ravaged by civil war) and at its close is immense, something that can be felt in a gradual tonal shift throughout the film. Puttnam has even advocated the use of The Killing Fields in Iraqi schools.
It is perhaps impossible for a piece of cinema to capture the full horror of war (on set Ngor himself insisted ‘it was much worse’) but The Killing Fields allows us to feel a powerful, horrifying sense of it.
The 30th Anniversary Edition of The Killing Fields is released by STUDIOCANAL on 3 November 2014. Extras include brand new interviews with director Roland Joffé and screenwriter Bruce Robinson, an interview with David Puttnam and film commentary with Roland Joffé.