The Killing Fields

Indy Datta reviews the 30th anniversary Blu-ray edition of David Puttnam and Roland Joffé’s  film about the rise of the Khmer Rouge, which is released today by StudioCanal.

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The Film

The Killing Fields is an adaptation of a New York Times article by Sidney Schanberg (played in the film by Sam Waterston) about his escape from Pnomh Penh in the early days of the Khmer Rouge, and his failure to engineer a similar escape for his interpreter Dith Pranh (portrayed by Haing Ngor, himself a Khmer Rouge survivor). It’s very much a producer’s film – David Puttnam optioned Schanberg’s work, commissioned a script from Bruce Robinson, then yet to have a script produced, and gave Joffé his first feature film gig – and also firmly in the mode of a certain kind of British prestige picture; serious-minded, based on real events and expansive in scale.  30 years later, much of what is compelling about the film arguably arises from the tensions between Robinson’s view of the material on the one hand, and Puttnam and Joffé’s on the other. Equally, where the film rings false now, it maybe does so where it hews most closely to its producer’s awards-bait instincts.

The extras on the new disc include a commentary by Joffé, recent interviews with him and Robinson, and a 2004 interview with Puttnam. In his interview, Robinson foregrounds his anger at America’s role in Cambodia – a peripheral note in the finished film – and notes that the relationship between Schanberg and Pranh was not one of equals, but more like the relationship of Kipling’s unnamed narrator with Gunga Din, a master-servant bond, freighted with paternalistic and orientalistic undertones. In contrast, both Puttnam and Joffé note in their interviews that the key thought that got Joffé the gig over a long list of more renowned directors was that this was a story about love and  friendship between two men; that if they lost sight of this and made a war film they would fail. And to hear both Puttnam and Joffé speak of the late Haing Ngor is occasionally uncomfortable, from the way neither of them seems able to report his speech without mimicking his accent, to the anecdote Joffé tells about Ngor appearing to him in his thoughts at his funeral  (he was shot dead in the street in Los Angeles) reassuring Joffé that it was right that he died violently, as he had lost everyone he had loved to the violence of the Khmer Rouge.

At a key inflection point in the film, the conflicting ideas about what it should be seem to come to a head as it seems for the first time to comment on itself, and to flirt for a time with a radical shift in form. After the pseudo-documentary realism of the first half (often stunningly realised in elaborate tracking shots by cinematographer Chris Menges and veteran camera operator Mike Roberts), when the ruse cooked up by Jon Swain and Al Rockoff (Julian Sands and John Malkovich in early roles) to pass Pranh off as a British citizen has failed, Schanberg finds himself alone in New York. Consumed with regret he puts Nessun Dorma on the stereo and sits down to watch a home-made VHS compilation of news footage from Cambodia, intercut with footage of President Nixon expounding upon the Nixon Doctrine, all disrupted by jump cuts and speeded up sections. As this remarkably strange (and not necessarily successful) sequence (closer to the rhetorical strategies of late Godard in its cinematically constructed phantasmagoria of white guilt than to, say, Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi) builds, Joffé holds for longer and longer in an unsparing close-up on Schanberg’s face. And then the film cuts to the Year Zero.

Starving workers hoe the red earth under a blistering sun, watched over by armed overseers. Loudpseakers blare propaganda. All trace of the world we knew has been erased. Pranh spots a small lizard writhing in the mud, and pockets it to eat later. Dead-eyed children uproot a tomato plant Pranh has cultivated outside his hut. Suspected counterrevolutionaries (for example, anyone with any connection to the West) are unmasked, tortured and killed. For a while, all of this plays out in Khmer, with no subtitles, adding to the disorienting sense of quasi-surreal dissociation. What, the film seems to ask, is the relevance of Schanberg’s torment in this place, or to his friend?


The film doesn’t have the nerve to follow this direction for long, first introducing an expository voice over from Pranh, and then depicting his escape from his tormentors in an ultimately conciliatory triumph-of-the-human-spirit mode (to be scrupulously fair, Pranh did in fact escape, and this sequence still contains some of the film’s strongest moments and images). Pranh’s ultimate tearful reunion with Schanberg in a Thai refugee camp, scored to the (initially diegetic) strains of John Lennon’s Imagine, the film’s concluding note, was much mocked upon the film’s intial release, and both Puttnam and Joffé devote considerable energy in their interviews to defending the choice. Joffé at least seems to recognise that Imagine would make a pretty apt Khmer Rouge party anthem, and claims that the irony was deliberate, although the sequence is so tonally flat-footed, and so thoroughly fails to incorporate and express that irony, that this feels, maybe unfairly, like a post-hoc rationalisation. Ultimately, that instance stands for the whole film: the fillm makers are too often not in control of their effects, and unsure of what kind of film they are making (or not all making the same film).

The Disc

In addition to the extras already discussed, the disc carries a trailer, but is missing the BBC documentary that was included on the recent Australian Blu-ray. The transfer is free of digital nasties but the source materials used are not always of the highest quality, and some shots are very soft. The linear PCM soundtrack is, I assume, an accurate reflection of the source but is frequently unclear and distorted. I didn’t sample the DTS HD-MA surround mix.

1 thought on “The Killing Fields

  1. What I remember clearly about seeing this this film in 1985 is the huge vistas, and how I felt when I walked out of the cinema in Leicester Square, which was completely stunned.

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