Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 31, 2013)
Unlike most films of its genre, 1984’s The Killing Fields focuses on a 1970s Asian conflict that took place somewhere other than Vietnam – though it does connect to that location. When the war there spills over to neutral Cambodia in 1973, American journalist Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) covers these events. To assist him, fellow journalist Dith Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor) acts as his guide and interpreter.
We follow their actions during the conflict in Cambodia and beyond. Even after most Americans leave in 1975 – and Pran sends away his family – the two friends remain to cover events. Eventually the insurgent Khmer Rouge detains them and the foreign journalists must leave Cambodia. While Schanberg goes, Pran stays, and we observe the American’s attempts to rescue his friend.
As I’ve mentioned in the past, I like movies that examine major historical events through a small personal prism. I find it easier to engage myself in these tales when they come to us via this character-centered scope and I think the drama of the situations evolves better in those situations.
This means I should find myself pleased with Fields, as it gives us a look at the conflict in Cambodia through the eyes of Schanberg and Pran, and it attempts to maintain our attention through their bond. As the film progresses, it relies more and more on their personal connection than on the telling of historical events.
Surprisingly, this becomes a flaw at times, as the movie simply doesn’t develop its two leads in a particularly compelling manner – at least in its initial hour or so. Actually, during its second half, it does better, mainly because it separates the two and puts them in starkly different circumstances; the roles display more obvious differences during those scenes, so they can more obviously progress.
I suspect those sequences are what earned Ngor his Best Supporting Actor Oscar. In truth, it was inaccurate to classify him in that category, for he’s as much a primary actor – and probably more – than Waterston, who got nominated as Best Lead Actor. Ngor’s work during the first half lacks much breadth, but as the film demands more from him, he proves himself up to the task and handles his scenes as a prisoner with depth and aplomb.
This allows the movie’s second half to become notably more dramatic and involving than the first, but unfortunately, it feels like this growth occurs a little too late, as the mediocrity of the first half leaves us a bit distant from the characters. Truthfully, the long section in which Schanberg and Pran work together probably could/should have been substantially shortened. We don’t need to see as much as we do; all we need to observe is some of the threat to the journalists and some of the bond between the leads and we’d be fine.
If the movie used the segments with Pran and Schanberg together to strongly develop the characters, I wouldn’t feel this way, but I don’t think they do much more than give us a loose sketch. We see that they care about each other but the film doesn’t really demonstrate why; we’re told they’re close pals but not shown this in an adequate manner, so their tight bond becomes theoretical more than obvious.
Given the weakness of the opening half, I think the film would’ve benefited from the trimming I mentioned. Fields only comes to life when it focuses on Pran’s ordeal; make that the primary focus of the movie and it becomes a consistent winner. Schanberg makes more sense as the supporting character he becomes in the second half; only when we concentrate on Pran does the story soar.
Unfortunately, we get too much of the lackluster Schanberg material along the way, and those sequences inflict some damage on the film. This doesn’t become fatal, especially given how often the movie leaves him as it progresses. However, the film still suffers from a tendency to take us away from the useful action with Pran to remind us of Schanberg, and that doesn’t work.
These complaints aside, I do find merit in Fields, almost wholly from the successful second half. As I watched the film’s first hour, I expected to largely pan it, but it develops well enough as it goes to do a lot to redeem it. This remains a flawed movie, but it’s one that gets better as it goes.