Tuesday, 5 March 2013

From the archive: "The Killing Fields"

As is his wont, Oliver Stone was to blow the conscience-movie out of the water in 1986 with Salvador - wherein those investigating American foreign policy's latest atrocities were a comedy double-act straight out of a Hunter Thompson novel - but he'd never have been able to do that without The Killing Fields being the film it was two years beforehand. This was the true story of how, with the Vietnam conflict spreading into surrounding areas like an especially pervasive cancer, New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) and his interpreter Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor) came to tour Cambodia, witnessing one act of neo-colonial cowardice after another, and staying behind even after the Khmer Rouge took to the streets and senior American officials fled the scene.

As an account of a country submitting to internal chaos, Roland Joffe's film is by necessity a little shapeless, but - written by Withnail's Bruce Robinson - it's finally human, four-square and upstanding in the best David Puttnam tradition, to the point where it can only ever really end with Lennon's "Imagine". The one big surprise is that it should so evidently play as a love story between its two male characters, complete with tearful parting in the rain, a second half in which Schanberg is haunted by his erstwhile partner's absence, and a (genuinely emotional) final-reel reconciliation.

Waterston's liberal nice-guy persona is both challenged and set in stone here - he's interestingly tetchy, and at least a little self-absorbed to begin with, as though Schanberg's beard was both irritating and insulating him; the thesp equivalent of a one-hit wonder - though he'll live on in Simpsons lore as the actor whose Academy Award Homer Simpson attempted to pass off as his own - Ngor offers his own baleful perspective on events, rather than merely translating everything into English for the benefit of the white man and his white audience. 

I suspect an entirely American-backed production would have stuck to Schanberg's viewpoint come what may, but in fact Pran's second-half expose of the Khmer's Orwellian project (forcing its citizens to un-remember pre-Revolutionary Cambodia) perhaps results in The Killing Fields becoming a better 1984 film about Nineteen Eighty-Four than Nineteen Eighty-Four itself. Yet twenty-five years on, the real question here - and it's a question that points to the way the cinema might be heading - is this: how did Joffe go from the abhorrence of suffering displayed here to the torture-porn of Captivity? Is that what the modern American cinema does, turn people into sadists? Or are these but two sides of the same coin: that the Joffe of Captivity was already present here, and that where once he lingered over boneyards and dismemberment to make a point, now he does so to make a buck?

(July 2008)

The Killing Fields screens on BBC1 tonight at 12.20am.

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