The Killing Fields is one of those movies that I wanted to watch, but never had the motivation to actually find. It’s a movie that comes up in conversation, has a striking title and won 3 Academy Awards but was made in 1984. The date of its release meant that it took a backseat to my desperate search for foreign horror films that tickled my fancy.
But after reading First They Killed My Father (incredible and heartbreaking), I decided I had to watch the movie.
It is incredible.
The Killing Fields focuses on two journalists, Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran from 1973 to 1979. Initially covering the Vietnam War, Sydney sees the conflict spilling into neighboring Cambodia and follows it. Dith, a native Cambodian, is his close friend and interpreter. The Khmer Rouge quickly take over the capitol at which point Syd, Dith and their journalist friends realize that the end of the war may usher in something far more ominous. Eventually Syd is sent packing to America while Dith is herded up with the rest of the city and resettled into the country side, beginning Year Zero.
For being a film about the Cambodian Genocide, I respect the hell out of The Killing Fields for not devolving into torture/gore porn.
It’s a trap that many WWII movies have fallen into (I’m looking at you, Fury) where the gore and violence is dialed up to compensate for the lack of a cohesive narrative or characterization. Because the film is shown mainly through Syd and Dith’s eyes, the violence is “incidental”; the audience sees it in the same way journalists on the scene would. Rather than a blown up battle scene, we see wounded soldiers being carried past on stretchers with mutilated limbs. Executions are heard, but not necessarily seen.
Normally, I look down on people who don’t know history but The Killing Fields is a movie that’s enjoyable whether you you’re historically literate or not. And the best thing is that it’s enjoyable in different ways.
For newbies, the truce between the FANK and Khmer Rouge sets up shock and horror when the latter begin their violent takeover of the country. To the history literate, you’re filled with tension because you already know that the same men celebrating alongside the Cambodian soldiers are going to take them to the Olympic stadium and execute them. Also since the movie takes place from 1973 to 1979 (and was filmed in 1984), it’s told as the genocide is happening and without the body of knowledge we have today.
So if you aren’t well versed in the Cambodian Genocide, it’s cool because neither are the filmmakers to some extent!
Are there flaws? A couple, and both have to do with the film being made in the 80’s.
There is a scene in which the Khmer Rouge are taunting a set of prisoners with their rifles. One of the prisoners reacts and is executed with a shot to the head for his troubles. This kill shot happens with a garish, borderline cartoon blood splatter that is clearly animated onto the screen. I get its par for the course in 80’s movies, but juxtaposed against the realistic prop blood it just looks bad.
Oh, and the music is a little wonky. I’m not even talking about the happy ending set to “Imagine” (which is hilarious by the way) but there are definitely at least two instances in which the soundtrack goes CRAZY. For ominous music, there’s this weird clanging of bells and I can’t tell if its supposed to be so it sounds Asian or because that’s just what the 80’s did.
I give them a pass because of how old the film is, but it’s definitely noticeable.
The only people this film wouldn’t appeal to are the types who can’t stomach slow build ups and a focus on plot and character development. You know, the types who have a framed poster of White Chicks but complain that the beginning of Dark Knight Rises was “too slow”?
If you aren’t one of those people watch this movie.
It’s a good take on an often forgotten (and rarely taught) tragedy, and it takes time to show the US involvement in making it. It’s not boring, it’s (mostly) faithful to the true story its based off of and it may spark interest in learning the history of Southeast Asia during the Cold War.
Now if they could get it Netflix, we’d be in business.