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Saturday, 28 June 2008

The Killing Fields (1984)

The Killing Fields are sites in Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge, during their six year rule of the country, executed vast numbers of people. Those numbers equal at least 200,000 killed outright with an estimated million and a half dead through direct consequence of Khmer Rouge policies. Given that there were only seven million people in the country at the time, those are stunningly large numbers: more than one in five, basically. The reason that people have heard of the Killing Fields is because a Cambodian journalist called Dith Pran escaped them and coined the term, from which this film took its name.

Dith Pran is one of the lead characters in this story and is played by Haing S Ngor, a doctor hired from an open casting call who won a Best Supporting Oscar for his trouble. While it would be very possible that he won it for political reasons, that doesn't mean he wasn't worthy of the honour. As we open in 1973, he's the translator for Sydney Schanberg, an American foreign correspondent for the New York Times. Schanberg and Pran are covering the war in Vietnam that has spilled over into Cambodia where the government is fighting the Khmer Rouge. As the Khmer Rouge progress, westerners are forced out of the country for safety reasons.

While the hero is American, there's a very notable anti-American bias here. The first major impact scene has to do with the bombing of an entire town by an American B52 that got its coordinates wrong. The second one has to do with the American military covering it up. However soon we jump forward to 1975. The war ends, the Americans leave and the Khmer Rouge take over. Most westerners leave by organised evacuation, but the journalists who stay to cover the situation are corralled and forced out in an organised manner. It's a very tense time for all of them, as the Khmer Rouge are unpredictable, but it's even worse for Pran because he is not a foreigner. The film's real focus is how his friends can get him out of the country, knowing that remaining behind would mean likely death.

Eventually, after an hour and a half, Sydney Schanberg finds himself evacuated and back in the States. Dith Pran remains behind in Cambodia and while Schanberg effectively tortures himself psychologically worrying about his friend, Pran has to avoid torture and death in the Khmer Rouge's Year Zero, when everything starts anew and people disappear often. We switch back to Schanberg in the States on occasion but Ngor carries this half of the film even when he's not on screen.

What impresses here is the scale and the tension. Massive evacuations from Pnomh Penh accompanied by choral music are highly impressive. The killing fields themselves are even better and they can't help but resonate. Scenes when soldiers from the Khmer Rouge pile on the pressure are often astounding, because we have no idea what's going to happen or who is going to die. However scenes with children injured, crying or dressed as soldiers and pointing guns at people are obviously designed to impress but they don't, mostly because there are just so many of them and the whole 'think of the children' concept has been overdone so many times that it becomes just tired. I would expect that it's possible to make a film about a bad situation without making propaganda. I expected a lot more.

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