So many historical films 'based on a true story' detour away from the truth for purposes of storytelling that it's hard to know how much of what one is watching actually happened and how much has been manipulated for entertainment value. 'The Killing Fields', however, is a true story that more or less sticks to the facts, even to the detriment of its lead actor, who takes on a supporting (almost cameo-like) presence in the movie's second half since he's no longer as important to the film.
The movie tells the tale of New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterson) who went to Cambodia in the mid-1970s to cover the conflict between the established government and the revolutionary Khmer Rouge – which was basically a Communist extension of the North Vietnamese army. While in Cambodia, Schanberg worked closely with Cambodian journalist Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor in his first role, which won him the Academy Award). Schanberg uses Pran as an interpreter, a lead for stories, and a cultural guide, and the two build a close friendship with one another.
When Schanberg first arrives in Cambodia, he's there to cover a bombing-gone-wrong by the American military, the result of which has killed a number of civilians. However, a few years after this event, the United States decides to pull out of Cambodia when it becomes obvious that the Khmer Rouge is establishing a stronghold, and both Schanberg and Pran must decide if they want to stay or not. They both decide to remain in the country, although Schanberg makes the necessary arrangements to get Pran's wife and children to America. Not long afterwards, Schanberg, Pran, and a number of other remaining journalists are arrested by the Khmer Rouge. Pran, being the only native Cambodian of the detained, is able to convince their captors that they are all French journalists, and they are all turned over to the French embassy.
Up until this point in the movie 'The Killing Fields' seems to be more of a political film than a personal one, as the film takes care in making sure the viewer understands what the situation is in Cambodia (something, sadly, even after the popularity of this movie I'm guessing the average American doesn't know all that much about) before really diving into the drama. It's also a point in the movie where newcomers to the film might be asking themselves why Ngor won an Oscar, as up until this point, his character hasn't done all that much. However, from the embassy situation onward, Ngor more than earns his accolades, starting with the journalists having/hoping to make him a fake passport when it's learned that they are required to leave the country.
Without giving too much of the second-half of the movie away (for those few who have yet to view the film after 30 years), the attempt at a fake passport fails, meaning Schanberg will return to the United States without his friend and Pran will be left in the hands of the Khmer Rouge – who have been using the civilian population (those that they aren't killing, at least) in agricultural-based prison camps. By splitting up its two main leads, the second half of 'The Killing Fields' covers both the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge (as seen through the eyes of Pran), as well as the guilt felt back at home by Schanberg, who – despite sending out hundreds of letters upon his return – wonders if he has done all he can to try and save his friend.
There are a number of scenes and images in the movie that will stay with viewers long after their first time through the film. For me, the most unnerving ones weren't the various scenes of needless execution or the shots of numerous corpses, but scenes that showed young children – some no older than six or seven – being brainwashed by the Khmer Rouge into being ruthless, emotionless killers. In one scene, we see a class being taught by the revolutionaries where a young child is applauded for going up to a chalkboard drawing of a stick-figure family and crossing an 'X' through the figures representing the mother and the father.
I'm not sure how re-watchable a movie like 'The Killing Fields' can be – movies that deal with the dark side of history don't exactly lead to a lot of repeat viewings – but by focusing on the friendship between Schanberg and Pran, I will say this film proves more rewatchable than most films that deal with topics of this nature. At the very least, this is one of those 'important' movies that every film buff needs to see at least once.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Bros. has released 'The Killing Fields' on Blu-ray in the digibook design, with the disc housed inside a cardboard booklet with a plastic holder glued to the back inside cover. The 36-page booklet inside the cover consists of historical background, bios of the actors, trivia, and a few quotes about the movie from notable critics – along with both color and black and white photographs. The inside front and back cover of the digibook consists of a montage of black and white photos from the movie. The back of the digibook includes a glued-on (and easily removable) slick with a synopsis of the movie as well as all the technical specifications for this Blu-ray release.
The 50GB dual-layer Blu-ray isn't front loaded with any trailers and, after the Warner Bros. logo, goes straight to the main menu, which consists of the same still that is on the cover of the digibook, with menu selections along the bottom of the screen. Part of Mike Oldfield's score for the movie plays over the menu.
Warners delivers a wonderful new transfer of 'The Killing Fields' to Blu-ray – free of any obvious dirt or defects, yet still maintaining a very film-like look to the presentation. Colors don't pop here, but the look almost certainly retains the original intent of the filmmakers. While some scenes (usually interiors) seem a little softer than others, overall the movie has a wonderful level of detail without suffering from overuse of DNR. Grain is present, but never obtrusive. Black levels are far from inky deep, but they're still solid for the most part, and crush never is a real problem. I've been very pleased with most of the work Warners has done in the past several years on new transfers of catalog titles, and 'The Killing Fields' lives up to my expectations – a very good, if not an excellent, job.
Instead of getting fancy with a new (and unnecessary) 5.1 track, Warners instead provides a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track that provides an audio experience that best represents what 'The Killing Fields' sounded like in theaters, while still taking advantage of today's audio technology. So while the mix is presented solely through one's left and right front speakers, the audio is crisp and clear with no dropouts and no hint of 'muddiness' or 'murkiness' that often occurs with an older movie.
A Spanish Dolby 2.0 track has also been provided, as have subtitles in English SDH, Spanish, and French.
Given the content, 'The Killing Fields' could have been either very preachy or very hard to sit through (given the violent nature of the events), but by focusing on the friendship between the two leads, Roland Joffé has provided a history lesson via a much more personal story. Because the movie makes us care about the characters, it also makes us care about the plight of the Cambodian people in the process. Even 30 years later, 'The Killing Fields' remains a powerful, moving story. It's recommended for any serious film collector's library.