Thursday 5 July 2018

1,001 Films: "The Killing Fields" (1984)

Oliver Stone (as is his wont) was to blow the liberal conscience-movie out of the water in the mid-1980s with Salvador - wherein those investigating the latest atrocities of American foreign policy were a comedy double-act straight out of a Hunter S. Thompson novel - but he'd never have been able to do that without Roland Joffé's The Killing Fields having been the Oscar-winning film that it was two years before. It opens with the Vietnam conflict spreading into surrounding areas like an especially pervasive cancer, and New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) being dispatched - along with interpreter Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor) - to tour Cambodia; there they come to witness one act of neo-colonial cowardice after another, and wind up staying behind even after the Khmer Rouge take to the streets and senior American officials start fleeing the scene. An account of a country submitting to internal chaos, it is by necessity a little shapeless, but - written by Withnail's Bruce Robinson - finally human, four-square and upstanding in the best David Puttnam tradition, to the point where it can only really end with Lennon's "Imagine". The one big surprise is that it should play so evidently as a love story between two men, complete with tearful parting in the rain, a second half in which Schanberg is haunted by his former partner's absence, and a (genuinely emotional) final-reel reconciliation. 

Waterston's leftie 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. He's well matched with the late Ngor, the thespian equivalent of a one-hit wonder (though he lives on in Simpsons folklore as the actor whose Academy Award Homer attempts to pass off as his own); admirably, Dith Pran is shown offering 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 American studio 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) arguably results in The Killing Fields becoming a stronger 1984 film about Nineteen Eighty-Four than Michael Radford's honourably bleak Nineteen Eighty-Four adaptation. Three decades on, the real question here - and it's a question that points to the direction the movies might be going in - is this: how did Roland Joffé go from the abhorrence of suffering displayed here to the grim torture porn of 2007's 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 Joffé 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?

The Killing Fields is available on DVD through Optimum, and Blu-Ray through StudioCanal.

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