I remember watching The Killing Fields when I was a kid because it was (I thought) a big studio film that received a bunch of award praise heaped on it that I was not too familiar with. It was as I learned later on, something that was beyond that limited young view of that categorization, particularly after the tragic murder of one of its stars years later. Coming back to the film now on the eve of the 30th year since its release, there is so much more to admire, respect and marvel about the film than I did when I was young.
Bruce Robinson (The Rum Diary) wrote the screenplay for the film that Roland Joffe (The Mission) directed, and is based on a book by Sydney Schanberg , who was located in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Schanberg (Sam Waterston, Serial Mom), with the help of a Cambodian journalist and interpreter named Dith Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor), focused on secret American bombings and the goal of making these incidents public. As the war ended and the United States forces withdrew from both Vietnam and Cambodia, Schanberg and Pran had the opportunity to leave with the Americans, but both decided to stay, with Pran leaving his wife and children (who were on a helicopter to America) in the process. The Khmer Rouge eventually overtook Cambodia , leaving Schanberg with little alternative but to leave. The harder part was getting Pran out. Attempts to forge a passport with the help of photographer Al Rockoff (John Malkovich, Red 2), though attempts prove to be unsuccessful. While Schanberg returned to America and accepted multiple awards for his work, including the Pulitzer Prize, his thoughts remained in Cambodia with Pran, and whether or not a) He was alive and b) If so, could he get him out.
Perhaps what makes The Killing Fields more effective than it is is that it is less a film about the horrors of war and more about the relationship between Schanberg and Pran, set against several different backdrops which told events coldly and matter of factly. Schanberg always wonders about Pran and we see him going through news footage of dead Cambodians to see if he perhaps spots him as a way of finding out, but he seems to think that his efforts are hollow, which is confirmed later in a confrontational scene with Rockoff. Meanwhile, Pran is attempting to stay alive in the camps, portraying himself as a lesser educated taxi driver (instead of his journalist with US connections reality) in order to avoid likely execution. We experience to a minor degree how the Khmer was able to influence young boys and girls into becoming Khmer loyalists and how Pran had to continue to avoid being "spotted." The journey to his escape and eventual appearance at a medical station in Thailand is harrowing to view through his eyes.
Playing Pran to virtual perfection is Ngor, who won an Oscar for the role despite having no training for his character. However, Ngor had ample life experience to borrow from to play Pran. Ngor was also a survivor of the Killing Fields (a term that Pran had coined when recounting his time in Cambodia under Khmer rule), married and with a child on the way. When the Khmer occupied Cambodia, Ngor's wife went into labor and developed complications from it, eventually resulting in her death. She had not mentioned her husband was a doctor who could have easily saved her life, as it would have led to his death as well. Ngor's performance is palpable and sears into the memory. If you are a viewer, Waterston and Malkovich are the familiar faces, but Ngor is the presence to behold in the movie. One could only wonder what would become of Ngor if he was not murdered in 1996 (as part of a botched robbery or other circumstance, depending on who you talk to), but his impact on American audiences was short and hopefully deep.
Some big studio films attempt to have a message behind them these days, but the impact of the events that The Killing Fields attempts to show us helped awaken a side of the world that had seemingly washed its hands of it after leaving. Cambodia may still be attempting to shake off the aftereffects of the Khmer Rouge to this day, but The Killing Fields should remind us and them that it is not forgotten.
Warner trots The Killing Fields out on Blu-ray in 1.85:1 widescreen and uses the AVC codec for its high-definition…ness. The disc looks good, with film grain present throughout viewing, colors and flesh tones reproduced accurately and without complaint. The exterior shots are not razor sharp but then again the film has been around for awhile and the greens of the Cambodian (well, Philippine) jungles and forests are not oversaturated in any noticeable way. I have not seen the standard definition disc but I would image this Blu-ray is an upgrade, albeit not a mind-blowing one.
I was mildly surprised to see that the disc lacks a 5.1 surround sound option, but the standard definition disc lacks one as well, so the DTS HD Master Audio 2.0 track does fine here. The film occasionally lacks the subwoofer for scenes involving explosions or helicopters, but it does include some moments of channel panning from left to right and vice versa for said whirlybirds. Dialogue is consistent and requires little adjustment and the soundtrack is a good performer throughout the film.
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of The Killing Fields, Warner has brought over most of the extras from the standard definition disc with a change here and there. Gone are the cast and crew bios and production notes from the disc, but they are reconstituted into a 36-page Digibook that includes photos from the film and production. The trailer (2:29) is here, along with Joffe's commentary, which is active throughout the feature and includes his thoughts on the times and those real-life personalities from it, along with his opinions on the performances and on the cast. He has got a decent amount of recall about the principal photography and how he came to the project and overall, the track is decent.
The unfamiliar with The Killing Fields should not only learn more about the events in Cambodia during that time, but in this film will witness a bit of history by one of the cast (Ngor and Harold Russell remain to my knowledge, the only two ‘non-actors' to win Oscars). Technically the disc is decent though a little surprising, and while the supplements lack, the Joffe commentary and digibook are nice touches. The film is absolutely worth viewing.