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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 11/2/01

The Killing Fields
1984 (2001) - Warner Bros.

review by Dan Kelly of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Killing Fields

Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B-/C+

Specs and Features

141 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, dual-layered (layer switch at 1:11:32, in chapter 23), Snapper case packaging, theatrical trailer, audio commentary by director Roland Joffé, cast and crew filmographies, production notes, film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (47 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: English and French, Closed Captioned

The true story of Dith Pran is one that no author of fiction would ever dare dream up. His is a story of profound loss, unimaginable grief and, ultimately, it becomes a tale of hope and persistence in the face of tragedy. It's not often that a film's subject matter is as uplifting as it is heartrending. Finding inspiration in a story whose underlying theme centers on the loss of human dignity, and indeed the incalculable loss of human life, is no easy feat. But The Killing Fields provides the tools for a great film - compelling material, a strong script, excellent acting and competent direction. It is extremely difficult to watch at times, but it's hard not to get involved in a movie like this: one that explores the lengths to which people will go to survive.

The Killing Fields, based on a story by Sydney Schanberg, tells the story of Dith Pran and the communist occupation of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. Journalist Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) works for the New York Times and is there as a war correspondent. Pran (Dr. Haing Ngor) also works as a correspondent and acts as Schanberg's interpreter. In April of 1975, they take to the streets of Phnom Penh with the residents of the capital city, under the impression that the years of civil war are over. In actuality, the Khmer Rouge were storming the city to evacuate it. Pran makes the decision to send his family out of the country to safety while he stays on with Schanberg to cover the war. Pran, in an effort to save the lives of Schanberg and his compatriots (John Malkovich and Julian Sands), tells Schanberg not to speak as he convinces the Khmer Rouge that the three of them are actually French journalists. He is able to save their lives, and they soon take shelter in the French Embassy. Not long thereafter, Pran is captured by the Khmer Rouge and forced to labor in the fields of the country.

From there, the movie splits into two separate narratives that are cut back and forth between each other. Initially, the focus is on Schanberg's return to the United States and his search for Pran. But the majority of the story, and the most engaging sections, are those that deal with Pran's time in the work camps. Told mostly by voice-over narration, Pran tells of the changes that the Khmer Rouge were trying to bring about and the personal sacrifices he made with only the hope of making it out alive to guide him. What first-time director Joffé is able to convey, sometimes in graphic detail, is the horrific life of working the fields for the Khmer Rouge. Food rations are sparse and any attempts to take more than your share of food will result in torture or even death. From sun up to sun down, Pran spends his days working the fields under extreme conditions. When not in the fields, he and the other prisoners were subjected to hours of communist propaganda and their plan to return Cambodia to the year zero. It's a brutal existence and one that would make you wonder how anyone could make it out alive.

When award season rolled around, The Killing Fields picked up its fair share of statues. Of all the awards given the film, the most consistently appraisal was bestowed upon Haing Ngor. Here is someone who had no previous acting experience prior to his role in this film, yet his time on screen is remarkable. His convincing portrayal of Pran can be attributed, no doubt, to his own internment in, and eventual escape from, the work camps of the Khmer Rouge. The similarities between their respective stories are extraordinary and provide an entire new level of poignancy to an already touching film.

Warner has prepared a decent-looking DVD image for The Killing Fields. This is the first time it's been offered in its original 1.85:1 widescreen format. The anamorphic picture is, generally speaking, good. Colors and flesh tones are correct, and there are no evident instances of color over-saturation. Black level is satisfactory, but could certainly have been better to add more dimension to the picture. The source print is mostly good and keeps age-related blemishes at a minimum. The most noticeable defect to the picture is some heavy grain, which is obvious in some of the darker scenes (look at the 31:15 mark for a good example of this). It really only becomes an issue in these darker scenes, but it does present itself as a blatant distraction during these scenes.

The audio is a basic, 2.0 English surround mix. It too is satisfactory, but suffers from a very dated sound. Bass response is weak and comes into play on only a handful of occasions. There are some separation effects on the front end, but they have a tendency to sound a bit on the shallow side. You'll also hear some action from the surround channel. At times, it sounds rather random and there are a few odd echo effects that pop up once or twice. Dialogue is fine, so you should have no troubles following the on-screen happenings. Not a bad track, but nothing to write home about.

You'll find a tidy but effective set of features on the DVD as well. The main attraction is the running commentary by Joffé. He's got tons to say about the movie, and barely takes a breath from the time he starts talking till the movie ends. This was his first feature film, and he pays a good deal of attention to the technical aspect of getting this film made. Joffé has nothing but praise for the entire cast. He talks openly and with lots of affection about the late Haing Ngor in particular. He also talks sporadically throughout the track on the history of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. It's a good track and well worth a listen for its entire running time. You'll also get the theatrical trailer, in anamorphic widescreen and looking good for a 15-year-old promotional spot. The usual cast and crew filmographies make an appearance on this disc, as do a few small pages of notes about Dr. Haing Ngor and a list of awards that the film racked up.

If The Killing Fields is the story of one man's survival of the Cambodian holocaust, then the life and death of Haing Ngor is the punctuation on that sentence. Though his murder in front of his California home was completely unrelated to the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia, it somehow seems like the final chapter to an already sad story. On Joffé's commentary, he talks of the importance of The Killing Fields to Ngor. The film, and his participation in it, meant so much to him that his Oscar statue began to lose its gold finish from all the time he spent holding it in his hand. The great movies and performances are able to stand the test of time: the impact of The Killing Fields and the personal story of Dr. Haing Ngor have left a lasting impact on those who've seen the film. I can't recommend the film enough and this DVD is, without a doubt, the best way to enjoy it. It's not a perfect DVD, but the power of the film will make you overlook some of the DVD's less than stellar points.

Dan Kelly
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