Movie Review: The Killing Fields (1984)
Who decided on the music? And how much did it harm the movie?
I’m not talking about the dissonant music we hear when the foreign journalists are in the clutches of the Khmer Rouge and fearing for their lives. That’s obtrusive but appropriate: time out of joint, life upended. I’m talking about the music we hear after Dith Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who won the Oscar for best supporting) somehow secures their release, and they return to the city proper, with its increasing lawlessness and triumphant teenaged soldiers, and our guys are pushing along a small white truck but the camera lets them push it out of frame while it holds on the mass of Cambodians being herded out of Phnom Pehn—prefiguring mass relocation, reeducation, and, for many, death. That’s when we get something out of western opera: medieval chants and bombast. At first I thought it was from an opera, but it appears to have been created for the soundtrack by Mike Oldfield. He was going old school, but old western school, which hardly seems appropriate. It’s so over-the-top, silence would have been preferable.
Worse, of course, is the last song we hear, but I don’t know if we blame Oldfield since he obviously didn’t write it. (According to IMDb.com, we blame producer David Puttnam.)
So after years in the countryside, hoeing mud and being subjected to dissonant loudspeaker propaganda, not to mention a constant threat of torture and death; and after escaping one misery only to tromp through the titular killing fields and then land in another, as a kind of au pair for a benevolent KR leader; and after fleeing that situation with several others, two of whom die on a landmine, Pran finally makes it all the way to Thailand. He’s working at a Red Cross station there when he’s told someone has arrived to see him. Confused, he goes outside, and sees, half out of a car, his old boss/mentor/friend, and the film’s co-star, New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterson, nominated, lead), who has been looking for him all of these years, plagued by the guilt that he didn’t insist Pran leave when he had the chance.
And what’s the music we hear during this powerful moment? “Imagine” by John Lennon.
Even when I saw the film as a 21-year-old in 1984, I all but slapped my forehead in disbelief. And that’s the mood you take with you from the theater. It absolutely ruins the feeling it's spent two-plus hours cultivating.
They came from TV
I decided to watch “The Killing Fields” again after I saw the documentary, “The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor” at the Seattle International Film Festival this year. I thought it needed a rewatching. I remembered so little of it.
Mostly, I remembered that the movie was split into two parts: before the Khmer Rouge and after. A lot of waiting around in embassies in the first half, and the horror, the horror of the second. To be honest, in the rewatch, I fastforwarded through some of the second-half scenes of horror.
Is the first half more interesting because it’s ensemble? Because of its different tensions? Pran is almost in a servant role. He gets Schanberg into and out of places. Sometimes he wakes him up in the morning. Does he ever resent it? Is that what he and the driver talk about once they drop Schanberg off at his swanky hotel? And by the way: What happens to the driver? Does he make it out alive? Do we ever find out?
Back in’84, I liked the bored, soggy worldliness of the international journalists stationed in Phnom Pehn, and that feeling’s still there. John Malkovich is stellar as Al Rockoff, while Julian Sands is startling handsome (but not much of an actor) as Jon Swain. Spalding Grey is our U.S. consul, a government functionary trying to do the right thing, but, sadly, he’s not really that good, either. Is Craig T. Nelson as the stonewalling military attaché who keeps Schanberg from visiting Neak Luong, the site of an accidental U.S. bombing?
A lot of the principles came out of television. Director Roland Joffé had been directing British TV series when he got the gig, Waterson had been relegated to TV movies after the box office disaster of “Heaven’s Gate," Sands was in Brit TV.
Ngor, of course, came out of nowhere. The producers were looking for someone to play Pran and he was working at a medical clinic near L.A. and someone suggested him. He had the background (he’d escaped the Khmer Rouge himself) but zero acting experience. But he’s quite good. For some reason I thought Ngor didn’t really deserve his Oscar; back then, I’d been rooting for Adolph Cesar in “A Soldier’s Story.” But his performance anchors the movie.
The Nixon Doctrine
“The Killing Fields” is not a great film but it is a worthwhile film. The line of the movie belongs to Pres. Richard Nixon, whom Schanberg, back home, watches on a primitive VCR while “Nessun Dorma” (again with the opera) plays in the background. This is what Nixon says to the press, almost with a swagger, while explaining U.S. incursion into Cambodia:
Cambodia is the Nixon Doctrine in its purest form.
Truer words. Maybe a different John Lennon song should’ve ended the film: “How Do You Sleep?”