Although The Killing Fields was a high profile film in 1984, its reception by the critics was not an outpouring of laudatory praise and support. Reviewer’s opinions were mixed, at best. Many people praised its historical content as important in that many Americans were quite unaware of this “Cambodian Holocaust.” Still others focused on the political statements, specifically the harsh, though mainly substantiated, accusations made on Nixon and the United States government, implicating both in the Cambodian tragedy. But, mainly, critics and the general public felt disappointed. Schanberg and Pran’s relationship was not thoroughly developed. The true nature and impact of this massive genocide was only slightly touched upon. And the complex political arena surrounding this war was grossly oversimplified. Unfortunately, even with the makings of a great film, The Killing Fields could not and did not live up to the expectations of effectively dealing with such a profound topic.
Boyd, Lindsey. Rev. of The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffe. Monthly Film Bulletin Dec. 1984: 383.
Boyd, while esteeming the important historical content of this film, points to many flaws in the narrative that left her “unsatisfied.” She feels the “film’s basis in fact” and its “close adherence to the Schanberg/Pran story” while “failing to explore” their relationship are to blame for why The Killing Fields is “so fundamentally unsatisfying as a dramatic narrative.”
Coleman, John. Rev. of The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffe. New Statesman 23 Nov. 1984: 33.
Coleman, in a flattering review, speaks of how “Bruce Robinson’s spare, tough script, extracting what gallows humour it may from horrors, inevitably bends a few facts and invents other incidents; but there is no sense of its betraying the essential spirit of a remarkable, agonized relationship.” Coleman opines that the altering of some factual information in no way detracts from this moving tale and even proposes that the “largely authentic tale” may have a “certain awkwardness” because it too closely follows the facts. Includes an interesting segment juxtaposing Nixon and Cambodia with Schanberg and Pran, as two American entities wrecking “Cambodia” with “interference and promises” neither Nixon nor Schanberg could keep.
Denby, David. Rev. of The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffe. New York 12 Nov. 1984: 121.
An unfavorable review, Denby’s main critiques are Waterson’s overdramatic, “even hysterical” performance and the omission of much of the “character detail” Schanberg included in his New York Times Magazine article, “The Death and Life of Dith Pran.” For example, Robinson represents Pran as “stiff” and “never suggests that Pran resented his overbearing American friend at all or held any of himself back,” which was, in actuality, the case. Denby also speaks of a link between America and Shanberg in the film: “After a while, one realizes that the filmmakers want Schanberg, who used Pran, to represent all of America---a needy superpower that brought a tiny country into war and then abandoned it.”
Jhirad, Susan. Rev. of The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffe. Cineaste Jan.-Feb. 1985: 50.
A mixed review, Jhirad asserts that while The Killing Fields does “create an extraordinary visual impression of Cambodia’s suffering,” its “assault of images” also leaves the audience with a “certain confusion.” In particular, Jhirad notes that the Cambodian conflict is greatly simplified, and, without any prior knowledge of Cambodia’s history, we are “often at a loss as to why they [the Khmer Rouge] act as badly as they do.” Jhirad attempts to clarify some of this “confusion.”
Kissel, Howard. Rev. of The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffe. Women’s Wear Daily 1 Nov. 1984: 16.
Kissel focuses on two “troubling” scenes in what he feels to be an otherwise “extraordinary” film. Significantly, instead of noting sections of Schanberg’s Times article that were not included in the film, Kissel comments on a scene in the film that introduces a topic not mentioned in the Schanberg article--namely, “why he [Schanberg] did not urge Dith to leave with his family when the Americans were taking steps to assure the safe removal of their friends.” The film attributes selfish motives to Schanberg’s “persuasion” of Pran to stay in Cambodia, “giving a sharp edge” that may or may not have existed, to this otherwise “sentimental story of friendship.”
Kopkind, Andrew. “Films: The Killing Fields.” Rev. of The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffe. Nation 1 Dec. 1984: 594-95.
The politics of The Killing Fields was of great interest to Kopkind, observing that this film gives the impression that “the Cambodian revolution was both produced and shaped by the U.S.” To Kopkind, this type of assumption is “dangerously simplistic” and greatly detracts from the complicated nature of the Cambodian struggle. In effect, Kopkind feels that The Killing Fields suffers because it ignores the Cambodians themselves, focusing more on some sort of political agenda and placing blame for this tragedy on the unsympathetic U.S. government.
O’Brien, Tom. “In Cold Bloodbath: The Killing Fields et. al.” Rev. of The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffe. Commonweal 14 Dec. 1984: 686.
In addition to summarizing the plot of this complicated film, O’Brien attends to the harsh political accusations made in The Killing Fields. In regard to Nixon’s role in the Cambodian revolution, O’Brien points to various historical “facts” that the film ignores, specifically the “intense irony that Nixon bombed Cambodia to stave off a ‘bloodbath’ that never happened in Vietnam.” In effect, the politics behind the bombing of Cambodia were not as black and white as this film contends, and the true “bad guy” more ambiguous.
Also reviewed by:
Ansen, David. Rev. of The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffe. Newsweek 5 Nov. 1984: 74.
Bemrose, John. “Enduring Human Cruelty.” Rev. of The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffe. Maclean’s 26 Nov. 1984: 77-78.
Benson, Sheila. Rev. of The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffe. Los Angeles Times 15 Nov. 1984, calendar: 1.
Blake, Richard A. “Film: War Images.” Rev. of The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffe. America 23 Mar. 1985: 236.
Canby, Vincent. “Screen: Tale of Death and Life of a Cambodian.” Rev. of The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffe. New York Times 2 Nov. 1984: C10.
Forshey, Gerald E. “Current Cinema: The Killing Fields.” Rev. of The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffe. Christian Century 30 Jan. 1985: 105.
Gelmis, Joseph. Rev. of The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffe. Newsday 2 Nov. 1984: C3.
Hoberman, J. Rev. of The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffe. Village Voice 13 Nov. 1984: 57.
Kauffman, Stanley. “Stanley Kauffmann On Films: A War; a Farewell.” Rev. of The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffe. New Republic 26 Nov. 1984: 24-25.
Kissin, Eve. Rev. of The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffe. Films in Review Jan. 1985: 47
Musto, Michael. Rev. of The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffe. Saturday Review 1-2 Jan. 1985: 82.
Reed, Rex. Rev. of The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffe. New York Post 2 Nov 1984: 43.
Schickel, Richard. Rev. of The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffe. Time 5 Nov. 1984: 81.
Simon, John. “Film: Automata.” Rev. of The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffe. National Review 28 Dec. 1984: 47-48.
Sterritt, David. Rev. of The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffe. Christian Science Monitor 8 Nov. 1984: 27.
Copyright (c) 1999 by Wendy Elizabeth Kuhn, Undergraduate at Lehigh University.
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