Sunday, October 12, 2008

Film Ignorance #19: The Killing Fields

Film: The Killing Fields
Rating: A Good Movie
Director: Roland Joffe
Stars: Sam Waterston, Dr. Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich
Year: 1984
Reason for Ignorance: Dunno...

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

The Killing Fields is a highly disjointed movie, largely plotless, with no clear protagonist. I can't tell you whether or not this was intentional (I can tell you that this was director Joffe's first film and that he never made another film with an allmovie rating above 3). I can also tell you that it doesn't serve the film well. It's divided into roughly three portions: the first is a journalist in wartime tale, ala Joe Sacco's Palestine, the second is a story of hopeful and fearful waiting, and the third is a prisoner-of-war tale that finally introduces us to the titular fields.

But if the film's lack of cohesion doesn't serve it well, its story of friendship is almost overwhelmingly moving. Sam Waterston plays Sydney Schanberg, a New York Times journalist who is reporting on the Cambodia conflict with the aid of a Cambodian journalist, Dith Pran. Schanberg and Pran's collaboration resulted in a number of awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, but the film de-emphasizes their success in favor of examining their relationship.

The two men are a study in contrast: Waterston, as Schanberg, is fierce and principled, a lanky figure with a left-wing beard who intimidates US and Cambodian figures with his passport and his prestigious credentials. Dr. Ngor, a Cambodian refugee who was not a trained actor, plays his earnest sidekick, whose life is in danger for most of the film; as a Cambodian citizen, he's never certain of respect from the Cambodian military or of aid from US or European officials.

What drives these men is their desire to share the atrocities committed against the Cambodian populace with the world. When Sydney gets Pran's family out of the country as the US pulls out, the Cambodian is insistent that he's remaning. "I'm a journalist too!" he repeats, over and over. This desire to tell the truth, and by doing so help the people of Cambodia, unites Sydney and Pran. Ultimately, the film turns on the fact that Pran must suffer for doing so, while Sydney receives nothing but accolades. Although others suggest that Syndey didn't act in Pran's best interests, Pran will hear nothing of it. He, unlike the naysayers, knows that they were in it together. The film reflects this - although we see Pran suffer immense physical and psychological torture, it's Sydney, helpless to aid his friend, who seems most emotionally burdened by it.

Ultimately, The Killing Fields is exactly the right kind of historical message movie. I didn't know that much about the Cambodian conflict or the horrors of the Khmer Rouge before I saw the film, and I didn't emerge from it with some sort of didactic understanding of the "issues" at hand. I emerged instead with a ground level of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and those that opposed them. Both Dith Pran and Dr. Ngor (both of whom are no longer with us) devoted their lives to shedding light on and alleviating the suffering of the Cambodian people. The Killing Fields is a document worthy of their lives, and of their service.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.


MovieMan0283 said...

I have never seen this movie (so I guess you can add that to the ignorance rating).

I like the fact that you defend message movies, after a fashion. It's easy to sneer at a movie with its heart in the right place, and God knows I've been tempted to hurl the "Get Western Union!" bromide at the more egregious examples. But movie's aren't just an art form, they can also do exactly what you just described, and are valuable for that purpose as well.

Graham said...

This movie was something of a disappointment - it's just so disjointed and unfocused. But yeah, it educated me about the killing fields, and in that way, it worked.

I wouldn't agree with you, however, that that's for some reason outside it being an art form. One of art's many purposes, as I see it, is education and edification. Frequently this is left out of a definition of art, but it's tied into so many of our great works of art that I personally see it as a crucial. Which is not say at that a movie has to have a didactic message, but I wouldn't put didacticism outside the realm of art.

aa said...