THE KILLING FIELDS (1984): UNREAL – Review by Pauline Kael

The Killing Fields, which is based on Sydney Schanberg’s 1980 Times Magazine article "The Death and Life of Dith Pran,” is by no means a negligible movie. It shows us the Khmer Rouge transforming Cambodia into a nationwide gulag, and the scenes of this genocidal revolution have the breadth and terror of something deeply imagined.

by Pauline Kael

The Killing Fields, which is based on Sydney Schanberg’s 1980 Times Magazine article “The Death and Life of Dith Pran,” is by no means a negligible movie. It shows us the Khmer Rouge transforming Cambodia into a nationwide gulag, and the scenes of this genocidal revolution have the breadth and terror of something deeply imagined. The picture is at its most powerful when nobody is saying a word. When the director, Roland Joffé, and his cinematographer, Chris Menges, are looking at the wind from the choppers buffeting the American evacuees or at roads packed with masses of confused, displaced people or at purplish, hothouse landscapes, each widescreen image seems to make a complete statement. These images suggest paintings, because the horror and the exotic colors are “unreal.” We see what Dith Pran meant in the article when he said that “in the water wells, the bodies were like soup bones in broth, and you could always tell the killing grounds because the grass grew taller and greener.” The landscapes appear to absorb the cruelty and the corpses and remain pristine—paradisal. The imagery suggests a documentary made by a macabre lyric poet. It’s the shallow foreground story that keeps letting us down.

In the article, Schanberg, who was the Times’ correspondent in Cambodia from 1972 to 1975, recalls his friendship with Pran, his interpreter and assistant, who stayed on with him in Phnom Penh after the Americans were evacuated, because Schanberg was determined to cover the story and Pran knew that Schanberg would be helpless without him. The fast-thinking, multilingual Pran was able to save Schanberg—and Jon Swain, the correspondent of the London Sunday Times, and A1 Rockoff, an American free-lance photographer—from slaughter by the Khmer Rouge soldiers, but his Caucasian friends weren’t allowed to keep him with them, and he had to slip off into the countryside. The article was a record of Schanberg’s subsequent efforts to locate Pran, and the remorse and general anguish that he experienced until the wily, resourceful Pran, after four years of slave labor and hiding and pretending to have been an illiterate cabdriver, made his way into Thailand, late in 1979, and got word to him. Schanberg’s account may have seemed like first-rate screen material: a story of the friendship of an Asian and an American, against the canvas of a brutal revolution.

But as it comes across in this British film, Pran, played by Haing S. Ngor, who was a physician in Cambodia and now lives in Los Angeles, is selflessly good, and Sam Waterston’s bearded Schanberg is an idealistic journalist driven to pursue the truth, but he’s also a manipulative fellow who’s morbidly sensitive, stuck-up, and humorless. In Cambodia, the film’s Schanberg seems to be in chronic pain from the weight of his determination to get the story: he paces irritably and glowers with importance; he stands as if he were doing his best to relax while on the rack. Back home, he mopes and looks distressed, and the hoarseness in his stagey voice equals moral agony. The way the movie is constructed, Schanberg’s consciousness is the battlefield, the theatre: we’re supposed to be watching what Cambodia makes him feel, and if he’d forgotten about Dith Pran the movie would have ended. It’s almost as if Cambodia only existed to make Waterston’s Schanberg suffer and soliloquize, endlessly asking, “Did I do what was right?”

Joffe is making his debut as a movie director, but he has had a great deal of experience in the theatre, on television, and in documentary. He and the scriptwriter, Bruce Robinson, must have known what our reaction to Waterston’s Schanberg would be: he’s always bawling people out, and the only emotions he offers us are his dry angst and his guilt. The moviemakers may have intended us to perceive some sort of equivalency between Schanberg’s irresponsible treatment of Pran and the United States’ irresponsible actions in Cambodia: the bombing that Nixon kept secret, and the invasion, and the support of the corrupt, unpopular Lon Nol government—all of which contributed to the demoralization that made it possible for the Khmer Rouge, under the crude (some say psychotic) Communist theoretician Pol Pot, to take power in 1975. By 1979, when the rule of the Khmer Rouge was overturned by a Vietnamese invading force, an estimated forty per cent of the Cambodians (three million out of seven) had been massacred or had died of starvation or disease. The movie quite explicitly (and cavalierly) lays the blame for this on Nixon and Kissinger—on us. It says that the American government talked high ideals while lousing things up and then waltzed away, just as Schanberg did.

Joffé is saddled with the mechanics of crosscutting between Pran’s experience of the atrocities in Cambodia and Schanberg’s worry and remorse in various settings in San Francisco and New York. The Schanberg-in-the-U.S. scenes have no substance; they’re just filler, and some of them are worse than filler—they’re designed to rub Schanberg’s nose in the dirt. In one nastily pointed scene, at a plushy New York gathering at which Schanberg is honored as the 1976 “Journalist of the Year” for his dispatches from Cambodia, he goes into the men’s room and runs into A1 Rockoff (John Malkovich), who sneeringly accuses him of having let Pran sacrifice himself so he could pick up his big award. (It stands in for the Pulitzer Prize, which the actual Schanberg did in fact win, and the film punches up the accusation by cutting directly from Pran wading among human skeletons in the flooded rice paddies to Schanberg being applauded as he goes up to the dais to speak.)

Striving for prizes and pursuing the truth get all mixed up in this movie, and there’s an unintended consequence of the emphasis on Schan­berg’s motives. Waterston’s Schanberg, who uses the Times as his shield and his glory (it’s what the flag is to the American Ambassador in Phnom Penh), is so cut off from other people that Pran’s loyalty to him makes a viewer uncomfortable. If the “friendship” isn’t a true one, if Schanberg is a self-promoter with a gnawing conscience—and that’s how the movie presents him—then the small, smiling Pran is too close to the patronizing cliche of the trusting, childlike native. And his devotion to the master-race American seems flat and—well, puppy-doggy. When we see Pran in a Khmer Rouge prison labor camp undergoing forced reeducation, the light has gone out of his face. It comes back when we hear him on the soundtrack whispering his thoughts to Sydney. (It’s an indication of the movie’s shaping of the relationship that Pran, who in Schanberg’s accounts calls him Syd, is more formal in the movie.) We don’t hear Pran whispering to his wife or children—only to Sydney. And it feels fraudulent and sticky—a colonial version of “Come back to the raft ag’in, Huck honey!” Perhaps the stickiest moment in the movie is the one in which Pran, explaining to Schanberg why he has decided to stay with him, says that he’s “a newspaperman, too.” The pathos in this scene is naked and a bit pushy; the moviemakers show us Pran as a naive man, duping himself. The scene also makes Schanberg more culpable, but they may not have intended that. They may simply have been trying to make us find Pran more touching and lovable—more of a victim—so that the movie would be involving.

The Killing Fields is an ambitious movie made with an inept, sometimes sly, and very often equivocal script; it’s written like a TV docu-drama, but you can’t always tell what the scenes are getting at. A major early sequence, set in 1973, deals with the accidental bombing of a Cambodian town by an American B-52, but we don’t find out what our B-52 was doing there—were the bombs intended for another country or for a different spot in Cambodia? The incident seems included so that we’ll see how Schanberg and Pran work together to get the facts, despite the attempted coverup by an American diplomatic officer (Craig T. Nel­son), and to introduce a suggestion of American business interests in Cambodia—Schanberg and Pran spend some time holed up in a Coca- Cola bottling plant. The questions about the B-52 are simply left dan­gling. Some of the episodes covering Pran’s four years of slavery and escape attempts and beatings and his being tied to a tree and left for dead are almost as phonied up as the men’s-room scene; there are fictional episodes in which Pran, entrusted with the child of a disaffected Khmer Rouge official, tenderly carries the little boy in his arms over dangerous mountain passes, and the glossy piousness affects even the cinematography—it becomes blandly pictorial. (The film was shot in Thailand.) Yet the power of the images of urban death squads and the mass exodus from Phnom Penh stays with you. The great scenes are so impressive that the weak ones don’t cancel out your emotions. And there are some first-rate dramatic vignettes: Bill Paterson plays a harried doctor at a hospital packed full of bleeding, mangled children who were caught in the fighting between the Lon Nol government troops and the Khmer Rouge; a day or so later, he has nothing to do but tinkle the piano keys in the French Embassy and talk to another doctor (Athol Fugard) —their patients have been forced out of the hospitals and onto the roads. And there are tense moments at the French Embassy when Malkovich’s Al Rockoff, in his hippie headband, and Julian Sands’ Jon Swain (who’s like a blond, British Edward Albert) hatch a plan to save Pran with a forged passport, and Rockoff tries to develop a passport photo of Pran, though he doesn’t have the necessary chemicals. Paterson and Fugard give colorful, accomplished performances, and Malkovich does more: the function of his touchy loner character is to recede into the background, and Malkovich somehow creates a drawling, sloppy pothead who would naturally do just that. (The only sour note in the performance is the unplayable men’s-room confrontation.)

It’s likely that the producer, David Puttnam, undervalues the full emotional expressiveness of Joffé’s vision of Cambodia under siege. Sometimes, just when we are holding our breath at what we’re seeing, music, by Mike Oldfield, is poured on top of the images to pump up our emotions. During the evacuation scenes at the American Embassy, there’s loud chanting. When the central characters have been taken prisoner, and they watch other prisoners being killed and expect to be killed themselves, there’s music—it suggests that Oldfield was weaned on Tangerine Dream—to make the panic and hysteria more heart-poundingly intense. The executions are so convincing that I would have thought the audience had all the emotions it could handle—there are fresh corpses all over. But the music insists on hyping death. It gets between the imagery and our responses; it tries to mythologize the scenes, and it deprives us, I think, of honest feelings. When we see the dull-eyed young-boy soldiers of the Khmer Rouge forcing the entire population of Phnom Penh onto the roads out of the city—masses of people, lost children, the wounded, the aged—the soundtrack cries of the people are turned down and we get loud Oldfield. And when Schanberg is back at home he looks at TV footage of Nixon explaining his decision to bomb Cambodia and why it had to be secret, and then presses the fast-forward on his video, and we get speeded up images of atrocities at the same time that the hi-fi is on at full volume—Franco Corelli, backed by a symphony orchestra, singing the “Nessun dorma” aria from Puc­cini’s Turandot. The only bit of appropriate music—or, rather, music that through some cross-cultural mystery seems appropriate—is heard under the final credits, and it’s balm to the ear.

Puttnam was also the producer of Chariots of Fire, and in a recent interview he said, “When you’re in post-production, the composer becomes vastly important. I’ve seen Chariots of Fire without a score and can speak with great authority: I don’t think it would have won the Academy Award or very much else without Vangelis.” I believe him, and if The Killing Fields had been made by the director of Chariots of Fire it, too, might have needed souping up. But the music is an insult to Joffé and to Menges—even if they don’t know it. In the same interview, Puttnam, referring to The Killing Fields, explained that “over the years, I’ve wanted to try and make a film that could be described as ’operatic realism,’ ” and said, “I always wanted to try and combine the toughness of The Battle of Algiers with a story that was a bit more accessible and mix in some of the operatic quality, if you like, of Apocalypse Now. ” This is a case of a producer pinning down his own aesthetic crime. It’s highly doubtful that Sydney Schanberg let Dith Pran stay on with him in Phnom Penh because—as the film’s innuendo has it—he was looking ahead to a Pulitzer. But it’s a cold cinch that David Puttnam is hoping that the kind of musical inflation which won the Best Picture Award for Chariots of Fire will do the same for The Killing Fields. As for the friendship between Pran and Schanberg which is supposed to make the movie “a bit more accessible,” it’s what is most ambiguous. Among the film’s lesser aesthetic crimes, there’s a tiny, glaring one: Accepting his award, Schanberg makes a speech in which he refers to the American officials who made the decision to secretly bomb and invade Cambodia, and says that he and Dith Pran tried to make a record of the concrete results of those decisions. And we get a cut to a baldish man in the audience bobbing his head appreciatively. The director may not have been able to do anything about Puttnam, but surely this guy’s head could have been cut off.*

* I may have gone too far in this review in exculpating Roland Joffé: in a letter, he states that he made his own choices, and that David Puttnam is “a good, thoughtful, supportive producer.”

The New Yorker, December 10, 1984


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