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The Killing Fields (1984)

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I was just rewatching this amazing film today. IMO, it’s one of the best of the Vietnam War-era movies. What I love the most about it is that it starts out looking like another White Savior film, with Sam Waterston’s Sid Schanberg being our entry in the conflict in Cambodia. Halfway through, though, it changes into a film of survival, told almost completely in a different language, featuring the true star of the movie, Haing S. Ngor as Dith Pran. 

Ngor is riveting in his first acting role. His personal story parallels the horror of Pran’s (as an obstetrician, he was unable to help his wife give birth, because it would have exposed them all as intellectuals and had them killed; she and their child died). His fast-talking the Western journalists’ safety is a terrific demonstration of his intelligence and ability to adapt. When Al blurts out that Pran “won’t last five minutes” with the Khmer Rouge, he severely underestimated the man. (John Malkovich is great as the photographer Al Rockoff. I love that the first time we see him is with a pad on his head. His agony over not getting a photo for Pran’s fake passport is so well done.)

Roland Joffe’s direction is, to me, unique. In addition to the shift of focus, his ability to capture landscapes of beauty and devastation, the shifting tides of war, and the more intimate moments of Pran’s life while escaping is all just unforgettable. 

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While the first half is really good, the second half is just fascinating for me to see how things were like under the Khmer Rouge regime. The child guards are chilling. I wish I could show it in class, but my students would find it boring or not be able to understand what is happening.

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You might be surprised by your students. I first saw it a few months after its release, when my college showed it as the Friday night film at the theater. Since that slot usually went to either current hits like Fatal Attraction or comedies like Ghostbusters or Monty Python, the crowd was a bit rowdy at first. Within ten minutes, though, it was dead silent, with only occasional sobs heard.

The political stuff in the beginning wasn’t really necessary to follow entirely. We just had to follow that the US accidentally bombed there, civil war followed in the wake of unrest, the US bugged out after screwing them over utterly, leading to hatred of the West and “Year One.”

I forgot to mention my fascination with the movie’s score. The two scenes that stand out to me are when they are captured by the Khmer Rouge and Pran is frantically talking them out of trouble and the helicopter evacuation. The first has these jolting, shrieking notes that add to the danger, and the second has this propulsive driving beat that really fits. 

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Random anecdote: The year was 1991. A group of high school seniors are on an overnight bus ride from Tucson to Los Angeles. One of the movies that played that night on the bus was The Killing Fields. Who in the world chose that to entertain a bunch of teens on their senior trip?

Years later I watched it again and it's a deeply moving film. But in my mind it's linked to a bus trip to Disneyland, which feels so weird.

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