Since when did they let British people make movies about the Vietnam War? Man, a year before this film alone, they were iffy about Oliver Stone, an red-blooded American veteran from the war, making "Platoon"; but hey, in all fairness, the guy is so crazy and offensive that you could sense it before he even really got his career moving. Maybe the Brits fooled everyone with that poster, because with this film's name and that old West-lookin' poster, you'd think that this is the most tobacco-spittin'-ist, gun-shootin'-ist Western that we've ever seen, and I know that sounds like yet more American territory, but really, if they'd let the Spanish and the Italians be icons of the Western film genre, I think that we could at least cut the Brits some slack. Of course, we're not talkin' Westerns; we're talkin' about 'Nam, and everyone knows that it's only the Americans' job to go to war with most every major Asian nation. It's no place for the Brits, unless they're planning on having a war with the Vietnamese to see who is more obnoxious, and even then, it would be kind of underwhelming, seeing as the Brits would lose by lunch, because the Vietnamese had to have been the most obnoxious people on Earth in the '60s. Yeah, I know that's very offensive, but really, although a lot of them weren't that bad back then and certainly aren't that bad now, let's see you come back and be totally tolerant after they've thrown you're buddies on fecal matter-covered spikes, sent children out with grenades and robbed you, all while yelling at you in the most obnoxious jibber-jabber... you bunch of Brits. Still, I must admit that although you weren't really there, y'all know how to still make some pretty decent Vietnam war films, though not quite good enough to drown out the missteps that tragically triumph over potential yet again.
With this being a British Vietnam War drama from the mid-80s, it should almost go without saying that this thing is dry and even kind of dull, dragging along very quietly with a loose grip on both editing and tension. This of course damages the film's compellingness, which was already tainted from the get-go by offering very little immediate development, and as the film continues, it fails to make up for that immediate lapse in development by providing very little exposition. The two aspects of slowness and a lack of exposition, when combined with the kind of repetition that plagues this film, form a dreadful mix that often means one thing: Nothing. Well, sure enough, for long periods in the film, absolutely nothing happens, and when something does happen, it's so messily tacked on the shaky line that is this film's storytelling. This concept of portraying the horrors of the Vietnam War through the eyes of the innocents caught in the middle, as well as the journalists that went to find something unthinkable brutal, only to find far more than they ever could have expected, is wildly inventive and potentially stellar, but in execution, the unique concept is done an injustice by a tone that's both dry and unrefreshing. However, for every misstep this film makes in executing its ambitious concept, it will pull a right move. It may not always be a smooth film, but it is one that will make you think, because although the film is not as provocative as it could have - nay - "should" have been, you'll still walk away with plenty to chew on.
As much as I joke about how everyone is portraying the enemies of the Vietnam War as wildly obnoxious and evil, there were plenty of victims on both sides, and even between the battlefields, and when this film removes the reigns and tells it like it is, things get pretty hardcore. Whether it be a shot to the face, cries of fear, dismemberment, children taking shrapnel or all-around pandemonium, Roland Joffé doesn't shy away, but neither does he focus so deeply on the brutality to where it's manipulative. The film is harsh, violent and ultimately effective, which isn't to say that Joffé only nails the brutality of the situation, because there will be points where the fine score, lovely cinematography and sharp editing all supplement Joffé's tender, thoughtful atmosphere and create sharp emotional resonance that may not be in the film enough, but really wake you up, if not just plain break your heart. Joffé may be the very man that keeps this film from being truly powerful, but when he delivers, he knocks you cold, being matched in resonant skill only by his performers, all of whom are excellent, with leads Sam Waterston and Haing S. Ngor standing out the most. In the beginning of the film, Waterston's Sydney Schanberg character is a charismatic, professional one, but as he walks through the most horrifying sights that no man should see, defeat and anguish falls upon him little by little, a fact emphasized particularly well during a scene in which he's looking through unspeakably horrible footage and listening the operatic music in the midst of it all, and with all of the jaw-dropping, real gore and sweeping music, the thing that catches your eye the most in that sequence is Schanberg's cold, broken and lifeless face, racked with anguish in one of the many definitive testaments to both the Sydney Schanberg character and Sam Waterson's acting abilities that you can find throughout the film. The same, if not greater amount of praise goes out to Haing Ngor, who's portrayal of a clever and skilled, yet still very civilian and honorable man caught in the most dangerous of situations is believable, emotional and haunting. These two men, and others, go through the most senseless, godless of horrors, and while the flaws in the final product keep it from being a truly impacting portrait on war, the performances are among the most key aspects that make this film as effective as it ultimately is.
When the horrors die down, there's still much to be desired in the execution of this should-be distinctively brilliant, very unique concept, as it is plagued by limited exposition, as well as some repetition and storytelling that's both unrefreshing and often fairly dull, yet the film will often make up for some its mistakes with glowing moments carried by an assured and appropritately disturbing, when not deeply emotional atmosphere set by both the imperfect Roland Joffé's and his consistently stellar cast, headed by the hauntingly powerful Sam Waterston and Haing S. Ngor, both of whom play two of the biggest parts in making "The Killing Fields" a generally compelling and ultimately provocative portrait on the brutality of war through the eyes of the mere observers caught in the middle.
3/5 - Good