Oscar Vault Monday – The Killing Fields, 1984 (dir. Roland Joffé)
This is one of the most harrowing films I have ever seen. I think director Roland Joffé handled the film deftly, not being too sentimental or too hard. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning three: Best Cinematography (won), Best Film Editing (won), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor Haing S. Ngor (won), Best Actor Sam Waterston, Best Director and Best Picture. The other films nominated for Best Picture that year were A Passage To India, Places In The Heart, A Soldier’s Story and winner Amadeus.
You can read about the two journalists (Cambodian Dith Pran and American Sydney Schanberg) on which this film is based on their Wikipedia pages. This is a time in history that is not often talked about, but definitely deserves not to be forgotten.
Sam Waterston is probably best remembered as Jack McCoy on NBC’s Law & Order (he played the character for 333 consecutive episodes from 1994 to 2009). In this film he portrays journalist Sydney Schanberg, whose time in Cambodia, relationship with Cambodian Dith Pran and subsequent guilt over Pran’s disappearance makes up the bulk of the film. Schanberg’s personal journey, from driven journalist to guilt-ridden friend is heartbreaking and Waterston shows a range that he rarely got to use on Law & Order. What I like about Waterston’s portrayal of Schanberg is that he’s flawed, but in a way that feels very real, not manufactured for film. His relationship with Ngor’s Pran is one of the most natural relationships I’ve ever seen. The mutual respect is palpable. The very last scene is as heartbreaking as it is uplifting. Pure perfection.
Though Waterston got top-billing for the film, it is non-professional actor Haing S. Ngor, who was a doctor in Cambodia before Khmer Rouge’s ‘Year Zero‘ and had managed to survive their labour camps, that owns this film. Having lived through the same events as Dith Pran, Ngor’s performance transcends beyond its celluloid walls and rings truer than pretty much any I’ve ever seen. Ngor won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance, and rightfully so.
Rounding out the film’s supporting characters are Julian Sands as journalist Jon Swain, and John Malkovich as journalist. Al Rockoff. Like Waterston and Ngor, the two bring amazing realism to their performances. I think it is this realism by all four principal actors that really helps elevate this film to something really special. Although Malkovich wasn’t nominated for his performance in this film, he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in fellow 1984 Best Picture nominee Places In The Heart.
I wanted to share a shot of the gruesome titular “killing fields,” though this shot hardly captures that horror of this scene. It’s terrifying to think this isn’t just some horror film or something, but a recreation of actual events. I’m sure similar scenes of an utter disregard for human life are still taking place to this very day.
I also wanted to share a couple of shots of Chris Menges‘ breathtaking cinematography. Menges has been nominated for his cinematography four times, winning for this film and 1986’s The Mission.
Don’t forget to check out our newly re-opened Oscar Vault Monday shop.