The Killing Fields (1984)

(On Cable TV, April 2017) I wish I could like The Killing Fields a bit more than I do. It is, after all, serious filmmaking the sorts of which are rarely attempted nowadays—a depiction of the rise of the Pol Pot regime in 1970s Cambodia, and the heroic efforts of a good man in trying to escape the nightmare. It’s an effective gateway to a history lesson, an intriguing look at a specific time and a place and a harrowing experience. Non-actor Haing S. Ngor delivers a terrific performance that required him to re-create several of his real-life experiences at the time, while John Malkovich pops up in a secondary role as an intense photographer. But a few things don’t work as well. There’s a strange shift of protagonists between the two halves of the film, as the focus goes from a western journalist to a Cambodian escapee as the film advances. It goes without saying that much of the film’s second half, as a story of oppression and dangerous escape, is filled with uncomfortable moments, human cruelty and tragic death. Finally, there’s the role held by the western journalist who’s supposed to be our entry character into the story—he spends much of the second half wracked by guilt, ineffectively trying to help his friend stuck behind enemy lines. Trading the white saviour narrative (since he’s unable to affect the events, and in fact his friend is the one who engineers and succeeds in his escape) for an extended white-guilt sequence doesn’t strike me as an improvement, but on the other hand this is a 1984 film and it does get points for tackling the topic at the time, in a way that does allow (save for an overdone reunion at the end) for the non-white character to be presented as an equal. On the other hand, maybe it could have been fairer to let that character be the hero of the entire film, rather than a supporting one in the first half? Still, despite those issues, The Killing Field does end up a decent film. It’s harsh and rough and can be a lot to take, especially for those relatively unfamiliar with the atrocities of Pol Pot’s Year Zero.

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