Monday, June 23, 2008

Film #50: The Killing Fields

British documentarian Roland Joffe made his narrative filmmaking debut in 1984 with The Killing Fields, a devastating and suspenseful film about a real-life friendship. Sam Waterston plays Sidney Schanberg, an obsessive New York Times reporter stationed in Cambodia during the last days of the Vietnam War. Dr. Haing S. Ngor, in an Oscar-winning performance, plays Dith Pran, Schanberg's trusted translator and photographer. When Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge overtake the country, all foreigners must leave, and all who are left behind are to buckle under to the new regime's personality-erasing laws. Schanberg's unrelenting quest for headline-making news forces Dith Pran to remain in Cambodia, despite the best efforts of his friends to save him (this accounts for some of the movie's best scenes, taking place in a run-down British embassy as a group of journalists try and fake a passport for Pran).

Meanwhile, Schanberg escapes unharmed and, now back stateside, is working frantically to uncover news of Pran's whereabouts. But Pran is caught in the unforgiving, hellish world of the Khmer Rouge, in which it is now Year Zero and normal life has turned into a charnel house. Ngor, a Los Angeles gynecologist who went through similar ordeals himself as a Cambodian refugee, most deservedly won his acclaim for a dignified, natural and moving performance. The doctor went on to a short film career and a continuing medical practice until he was brutally murdered in a drive-by outside his home in 1995. Pran himself (who was the one who coined the phrase "the killing fields") went on to a successful career as a photojournalist before dying in New York City in early 2008.

Waterston, black-bearded and hypertensive, has never had a film role as meaty as Sidney Schanberg (he was nominated for Best Actor, but I believe Ngor has the lead here). And we have one of the first film roles for John Malkovich, explosive as a photographer who blames Pran's life-threatening problems on Schanberg. The great supporting cast also
includes South African playwright/actor Athol Fugard, Scotsman Bill Peterson, British Julian Sands, and Craig T. Nelson (as American as you can get). This was also the first film for monologist Spalding Gray, who launched another stage of his career with Swimming to Cambodia, a stage piece about his involvement with the film. Gray went onto an enviable career as a supporting player in a lot of fine movies (somehow King of the Hill and How High stand out right now), and as the creator of such monologues as Gray's Anatomy and Monster in a Box. He died of an apparent suicide in 2003, a great loss for everyone who loves fine theater and movies (I saw him four times, including once as the Stage Director in an early 90s Broadway version of Thornton Wilder's Our Town.)

Whenever I think of The Killing Fields, I can't get my mind past its fantastic look. Chris Menges, its cinematographer, also took home an Oscar for his richly colored frames and his realistic battle photography (the Cambodian fields look beautiful, for all their horror). I love those opening shots of the orange sun setting over the rice fields; the intensity of the greens in the Cambodian countryside; the grey look of the destroyed villages, where the only thing that's survived is a Coca-Cola bottling plant. (Photographer Menges, a collaborator with many great British directors such as Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Lindsay Anderson, and Peter Watkins, went on to a directing career himself, garnering acclaim for South African drama A World Apart). With incisive editing by Jim Clark, haunting music by "Tubular Bells" composer/performer Mike Oldfield, and absolutely fresh direction by Roland Joffe, The Killing Fields is the harrowing last word on the Vietnam conflict as well as on the lengths most of us will go to keep a friendship alive.

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