As helpful as it can be to think about movies in the context of their creators’ careers, the truth is that some good films are essentially anomalous. The Killing Fields was released in 1984 to great acclaim, and at the time seemed to be a likely launching point for several future greats: for director Roland Joffé, making his feature-film debut after a decade of working in television; for screenwriter Bruce Robinson, transitioning to a new discipline after working off and on as an actor since the late 1960s; and for star Sam Waterston, a respected character actor taking his first big lead. Each has done good work since The Killing Fields—and Robinson went on to write and direct an even better film, Withnail And I—but this isn’t the kind of movie people generally think of “a Roland Joffé film,” or “a Sam Waterston film.” The real star of The Killing Fields is its story.
Waterston plays real-life reporter Sydney Schanberg, who in the early 1970s worked as a New York Times war correspondent in southeast Asia, where he met Dith Pran (played in the movie by Haing S. Ngor, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role), a Cambodian journalist who helped Schanberg and his colleagues communicate with the locals, while tipping them off to all the juicy stories of illegal U.S. military maneuvers that the American government was trying to bury. Schanberg stuck around to document the departure of his countrymen and the ascendancy of the Khmer Rouge, with Pran’s help. But when the situation in Cambodia became too volatile, Schanberg had to leave, without Pran. While Schanberg was back in New York winning awards for his coverage, Pran was toiling away in work camps, posing as a peasant to avoid the new regime’s purge of intellectuals.
The Killing Fields has a bifurcated structure: The first half is mostly about Schanberg, while the second half is mostly about Pran. Joffé and Robinson weren’t attempting anything radical with the film. It’s pitched as a middle-of-the-road prestige picture, with lovely Chris Menges cinematography and a stirring Mike Oldfield score. But the decision to dedicate a substantial amount of The Killing Fields to Pran’s experiences—rendered with minimal, sometimes untranslated dialogue—was a bold one, recognizing that it would be unfair to the subject to frame Pran’s waking nightmare through someone else’s eyes. In fact, one of the most poignant scenes in the movie acknowledges that after Schanberg returned home, he couldn’t really be an active participant in the story anymore. As he’s reduced to watching watered-down TV news reports about Vietnam and Cambodia, rather than finding out the truth himself, Waterston’s Schanberg looks lost, and feels powerless to rescue the man who saved his life.
Waterston and Ngor are terrific together, as well as alongside the journalists played by John Malkovich and Julian Sands. The foursome’s sense of camaraderie makes the first half of The Killing Fields feel like a tale of crusading adventurers, risking their lives in the name of truth and justice. But then they all get blindsided by the savagery of the Khmer Rouge, and The Killing Fields changes dramatically too, becoming a story of raw survival, akin to one of the better Holocaust dramas, or 12 Years A Slave. (The Killing Fields even shares a last line with 12 Years A Slave: the seemingly redemptive but actually ambiguous, “There’s nothing to forgive.”) Ultimately, what makes The Killing Fields so effective is that it’s so sneakily unassuming and matter-of-fact. One minute, Schanberg is cockily telling off U.S. Army officers; the next, Pran is eating cold soup in the driving rain, and scavenging a tiny lizard out of the mud to eat later. Every scene of The Killing Fields (and every participant in its making) is in service of showing how abruptly a seemingly safe and vital individual can have everything essential stripped away.
The lone extra on the new Warner Bros. Blu-ray is a carry-over from an earlier DVD edition: a detailed commentary track by Joffé, who talks rapidly and unflaggingly from the opening credits to the end. Joffé is full of behind-the-scenes insight into how he landed such a high-profile job (by telling producer David Puttnam that he saw the film as a love story, not a war story), and how his cast developed chemistry (by spending two weeks together role-playing in Thailand before the shoot began). Mostly, though, he talks about the pains he took to get the story right—not just factually, but emotionally. He says the highest praise he received was from a journalist who now tells anecdotes of his time in Cambodia using imagery from the movie rather than his own memory. “The film is what it felt like,” he explained to Joffé.