This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
The 1984 film The Killing Fields, set during the 1970s Khmer Rouge revolution in Cambodia, has great passages. The director, Roland Joffé, working with the superb cinematographer Chris Menges, does an awe-inspiring job of depicting the chaos of the fall of Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital. The images of the country in the years that followed, when the Khmer Rouge turned it into a nationwide reeducation camp and killed between one-third and one-half the citizenry, go beyond the horrific into the hallucinatory. There are moments that invite comparison to Bosch and Doré. The recreation of the story’s setting is a work of visionary imagination, but the story the movie tells doesn’t begin to live up to it. The poorly developed script, credited to Bruce Robinson, focuses on the real-life friendship of New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) and Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor). The first half follows their time together covering the civil war; the second juxtaposes their experiences afterward, with Schanberg in the U. S., and Dith trapped in Cambodia. One may feel as if the first half-hour of the movie is missing. The camaraderie between Dith and Schanberg seems to come out of nowhere, and Schanberg is portrayed as such an insufferably self-righteous jerk that one can’t understand anybody dealing with him more than they had to. The film also takes an offensively patronizing view of Dith. He is clearly an equal among Schanberg and the other Western journalists, but the picture insists on treating him as their subordinate. And several of the scenes, particularly early on, have no discernible dramatic point. The script does have its moments, particularly in the tense sequence involving the efforts to fake a passport for Dith, but overall it’s shallow and not terribly well thought out. The film is a frustrating mixture of grandeur and ineptitude. The distracting, heavy-handed electronic score is by Mike Oldfield.