Best Director Final 50: Roland Joffé – The Killing Fields

ROLAND JOFFE FOR THE KILLING FIELDS (1984)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Milos Forman for Amadeus

Woody Allen for Broadway Danny Rose

Robert Benton for Places in the Heart

David Lean for A Passage to India

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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From a certain perspective, The Killing Fields seems like the quintessential Oscar film of the 1980s, combining the phenomenal cinematic spectacle of Gandhi and Out of Africa with the urgent social message of Missing and Platoon. For a while now, I’ve been waiting to get to the colossal one-two punch thrown by Roland Joffé, who scored Best Director nominations for both of his first two films and put himself in the exclusive company of Mike Nichols, Warren Beatty, and the inexplicable Stephen Daldry. Unfamiliar as I am with M. Joffé’s oeuvre (apart from his involvement with the perversely wondrous Super Mario Bros. movie; his take on The Scarlet Letter has long been on my list of must-see flops), I’ve long been curious to see whether his initial Oscar success was the product of the Academy’s bias toward such Important Filmmaking or the genuine (if unsustainable) merit of his directorial vision. With one movie down and one to go, my conclusions about Joffés directorial voice remain provisional, but he seems to live up to the brag. Both on the level of craft and story, The Killing Fields is a substantial and powerful feat of filmmaking, even if it doesn’t quite live up to its own earnest standards.

I’m not entirely sure to what extent Joffé deserves the credit for eliciting the standout qualities of this film, but the Academy deserves credit for singling out the greatest contributors both behind and in front of the camera for statuettes. Behind the camera, Chris Menges’ first Best Cinematography win for a collaboration with Joffé couldn’t be worthier, as I’ve seldom had a harder time choosing from such a wealth of images for this post’s screenshot. The cliché for this kind of film would be the DP winning for his second unit’s hard work, but while there are certainly abundant panoramas of the Southeast Asian countryside and glimpses of local culture, Menges enriches every frame of the movie’s two-and-a-half hours. At various times in Hollywood history, Murnau, Welles, Ophuls, and Spielberg would all surely have gone to war for this man’s ability to capture with such grace the refugee-filled hallways of the American embassy or the sudden, horrific reveal of the title image (where is this film’s Art Direction nomination, I’d like to know?) Regarding the work in front of the camera, the beating heart of the story resides in Haing S. Ngor, among the most celebrated of Best Supporting Actor winners, drawing on his own autobiography of suffering at the hands of the Khmer Rouge to convey journalist Dith Pran’s desperate determination throughout the hellish rise of Kampuchea. While Ngor’s tragically violent death foreclosed a sporadic but superb career much to soon, his performance here is a monument to his country’s story of loss and endurance. Examining Pran’s naiveté alongside his resourcefulness, his courage as well as his fearfulness, the film is at its strongest in the second half when it pairs Menges’ dynamic camera with Ngor’s fortitude in the story of the journalist’s harrowing escape from Cambodia and his the Khmer regime.

Elsewhere in the film, though I could feel the weight of an excess of righteous outrage from the perspectives of the American journalists played by Sam Waterston and John Malkovich (nominated for a baitier performance that year in Places in the Heart). The film’s myopic focus on Waterston’s cynical American reporter undercuts the film’s message, and a crowded attempt later in the film to expurgate of his liberal guilt only exacerbates the weakness of his role. The one thing that truly sticks out in sore thumb fashion, though, is the Mike Oldfield score. I have great respect for Oldfield, and cinema already owes his music one great scene (the use of his Tubular Bells in The Exorcist), but this soundtrack, composed in the mid-1980s at the height of the film industry’s faith in the synthesizer, intrudes throughout the film to trample on the scene with impersonal and unsubtle commentary on the action. Burdened as it is by a few conspicuous weaknesses, though, this is still a very affecting movie and one that, thanks to the arresting images of Dith Pran’s story, will linger with me for a long time to come.

 

THE VOTE

1984 was a year for the history books, both in the sense that all of the major nominated films looked back to some point in the fictional or actual historical past, and that the nominated filmmakers themselves harkened triumphs of Academy Awards gone by. In addition to newcomer Joffé, four past winners returned to the Best Director ring. David Lean returned for a seventh(!) and last hurrah with the lumbering A Passage to India, Robert Benton made a sophomore bid with his hardscrabble Depression Era tale Places in the Heart, and Woody Allen came back for a third nomination for his black & white shaggy dog story Broadway Danny Rose. Despite multiple major Oscar wins for each of Joffé’s, Lean’s, and Benton’s films, however, all bowed down before the one period piece to rule them all: Milos Forman’s Amadeus. I daresay that nobody (even Lean himself) has a more impressive brace of Best Picture & Director wins than the audacious Czech received for One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and this other study of the mortal yet unconquerable trickster. There’s no more unambiguous winner than the portrait of the sublime Mozart through the eyes of the inferior Salieri, a profound meditation on genius that I hope will outlast all of the many, many Oscar mediocrities.

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