Roland Joffé’s brilliant drama The Killing Fields sees New Yorker reporter Sydney Schanberg witness Pol Pot’s “Year Zero” tyranny first hand when he becomes trapped in Cambodia.
They say that comedy writers often have an intense capacity for drama – just think of Blackadder’s extremely poignant end. The writer of Withnail and I and the adaptation of The Rum Diary, Bruce Robinson, is another example to back up this notion. His introspective and harrowing depiction of 1970’s Cambodia, The Killing Fields is enough to floor any exclusively-dramatic writer. The reason it works so well is down to the heart of the film – mainly resting on the comradery of Sam Waterston’s Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran (played with Oscar-winning poise by Haing S. Ngor) – something a (regular) comedy writer must always rely on.
Before you even get a taste of the acting prowess on show, director Roland Joffé starts the film with beautiful overviews of the Cambodian landscapes. With Chris Menges’ superb eye, the film introduces you to a stunning terrain, before the film has you weeping over the destruction of it. Much like his work on The Mission (for which he also won an Oscar), Menges shows us a picturesque land with gorgeous colours to reflect innocence, later to be replaced with drab palettes signifying desolation. He is a very thematic cinematography and this film earns more credibility thanks to his artistic vision. The new restoration (that is out now) is so crisp; it makes you long for the days of reel film and on-location shooting. The film is so impactful due to how it was shot, and how it was made – these tropes so finely displayed with the 30th Anniversary edition.
The film has very few features that feel dated, most of which may be its pacing, yet insignificant in the grander scheme of things. It is the second half of The Killing Fields that truly captivates and shocks you, as we mainly follow Dith Pran after the deportation of the journalists he had stayed safe with. The Supporting Actor Oscar that Haing S. Ngor received must have been down to this latter section of the film. The violence and atrocities are witnessed heavily in the first two acts, but the aftermath of that is lingering in Pran’s lonely passage through his country. Here – where there is little dialogue – seems to be the pinnacle of Robinson’s work on the script, emphasising war with subtle shocks and sanguinity.
As much as Sam Waterston is excellent, usefully unknown for the leading part, and as much as John Malkovich can steal scenes, this is Haing S. Ngor’s film, and he carries it well. To have seen the man go onto other projects would have been interesting yet fate sadly intercepted and we’ll never know that career. He leaves us with a legacy intact in every breath of this performance, and giving Bruce Robinson and director Roland Joffé a soul to their film. If you aren’t so aware of “Year Zero”, The Killing Fields will implore you to research a little more into the history, as this is a brutally educational tale.