Life During Wartime: on The Killing Fields

British director Roland Joffé’s 1984 film about the Khmer Rouge régime in Cambodia in the early ’70s is essentially a story of brotherly love between two journalists, one an American filing for the New York Times, the other a Cambodian interpreter. The two are played by Sam Waterson—star of the TV series Law & Order, recently cancelled after 20 years on air, and Bernt Capra’s little-seen intellectual exercise, 1992’s Mindwalk—and Haing Somnang Ngor, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1985 for his performance in this film. (He remains the only Asian to have been given the accolade.)

The film opens in 1973 with a payload having been dropped, probably by accident, by an American b-52 bomber on a town outside of the capital Phnom Penh. The journalists travel to the town and survey the damage, where they’re joined by a press photographer—a surprisingly understated performance by John Malkovich. Fast-forward two years to 1975, and “Operation Eagle Pull”—the (American) withdrawal, including the evacuation of all international embassies, from Phnom Penh ahead of an anticipated takeover by the Khmer Rouge—is in full swing.

The interpreter sends his family ahead to the US (San Francisco to be precise) and stays behind in solidarity with his countrymen, who hide out in the French embassy. Back in New York, Waterson’s NYT journalist has returned home to much adulation from his peers; but while he’s winning awards for his reporting left right and centre, he’s still tirelessly trying to locate his friend back in Cambodia.

Given the film’s running time—a little over two hours—it’s a credit to the performances and even-handed direction that the story never once becomes dull; this is due in large part to the script’s emphasis on the human element of the tale, instead of focussing on the complex military or political aspects, which could have easily plunged the film into either the action genre and/or gratuitous debates about ‘responsibility’ and modes of representing reality. The subdued action, military and otherwise, is lively and almost as polished-looking as that in the then-gold-standard for war dramas, Apocalypse Now.

One of the only drawbacks is Mike Oldfield’s score, which hasn’t aged well. In what seems an obvious attempt to replicate the success Coppola had with Wendy Carlos’ electronic score for his Vietnam film, Joffé’s film uses music by the man who had released Tubular Bells—a landmark instrumental record—just ten years earlier.

Unfortunately, while Carlos’ music helped accentuate the emotions of a group of men trekking upriver to a demented self-appointed King, Oldfield’s score here is jarring and not at all suited to the events on screen. Interestingly, the film was written by Bruce Robinson, who, three years later, would write and direct a couple of very different films: Withnail & I and How to Get Ahead in Advertising, two highly successful, well-regarded, very British comedies starring Richard E. Grant. Robinson’s writing here is so different from those films—context aside—that it’s difficult to see that the films all came from the same mind.

The Killing Fields stands not only as an exemplary war film and masterful work of historical drama, but also as a truly humanistic tale set in wartime.

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