Saturday, September 28, 2013

YOU WANT SUBMARINE CLICHES? U-571 (2000)



                If you want to see every WWII submarine movie wrapped into one, you should watch “U-571” and you will be an expert on the subgenre.  Released in 2000, the screenwriters must have thought the time was right for a summary of all the clichés that had accumulated in this type of war film since the first WWII sub movie came out during the war.  It was directed by Jonathan Mostow who wrote the story and was one of the screenwriters.  The film was shot in the Mediterranean near Malta and Rome.  It did pretty well at the box office and with the American critics (we’ll talk about the British critics later).  It won the Academy Award for Sound Editing.

Cliché ahead!
                The movie begins with a crawl informing us that it is 1942 and u-boats are threatening to cut the Atlantic supply lines.  It essential that the German naval code be broken and that means stealing an Enigma machine.  One becomes available when U-571 sinks a cargo ship, but gets damaged by the subsequent depth charging and signals for a supply/repair sub.  The SOS is intercepted and a special mission is planned to take the u-boat and thus acquire an Enigma machine.  Meanwhile the sub resurfaces and the captain orders the machine-gunning of survivors from the cargo ship.  He is an evil Nazi.

                The obsolescent S-33 is given the task.  4  It is disguised to pass for the supply u-boat and a special operative named Maj. Coonan (David Keith) is added to lead the boarding party.  The captain of the sub is Lt. Commander Dahlgren (Bill Paxton).  There is a command conflict because he squelched his exec Lt. Tyler’s (Matthew McConaughey) promotion because he believes Tyler cares too much about the crew and would not be willing to sacrifice lives.  1

                The S-33 arrives at the site of U-571 on a dark, rainy night.  Coonan and his boarders are disguised as German sailors.  He takes the sonar man, the executive officer, the chief of the boat, and the radio man with him.  (You know, all the essential personnel that Dahlgren can’t afford to lose.)  The capture of the u-boat goes smoothly.  Just kidding.  The taking of the u-boat is action-packed and well-staged.  The Enigma machine (an actual one) is acquired.  Ensign Larson is killed because he wrote a letter to his new wife and had a portrait of her.  (Not just a sub cliché.)  The boarding team is headed back to the S-33 when the real supply u-boat arrives and without bothering to identify either sub, puts a torpedo into the S-33.  It blows up real good.  Tyler and the surviving boarders return to U-571 and he dives the boat as Dahlgren urges him to be a man and sacrifice his floating comrades.  3 Tough way to gain a job referral.

What's that black dude doing outside the galley?
                Tyler and his intrepid band are able to operate the u-boat and win an underwater duel with the German boat that includes a torpedo that scrapes the side of U-571.  You don’t get any closer than that.  Tyler resurfaces to look for survivors and they pick up two – the black mess mate  7  and the German captain masquerading as an ordinary seaman.  Tyler has a little trouble adjusting to Dahlgren’s admonition that a good captain has to be a horse’s ass.  Seaman Mazzola (Erik Palladino) questions Tyler’s authority and encourages firing on an ME-109 that is scoping them out.  Don’t ask what a short range fighter is doing in the middle of the Atlantic because then you will have to ask what that German destroyer is doing out there.

What's that ME-109 doing
in the middle of the Atlantic?
                They take out the German destroyers radio antenna with an incredibly accurate deck gun shot and then dive under the ship missing the keel by inches (at least they didn’t scrape by).  Here comes the depth charging.  This is one of the best of this trope.  Intense with good effects.  We get to know all their facial features.  It’s quality plus quantity as the Germans drop about eighty explosives and at one point about twenty explode in a ten second span.  Many of them right alongside the hull.  They are forced down below “hull crush depth”, but that German engineering belies that depth gauge.  2  That doesn’t mean we don’t get leaks and rivets popping to make us wonder.  To throw off the Germans, Tyler has the corpse of Mazzola (conveniently killed by the German captain) and debris fired out of a torpedo tube.  5

                Tyler orders “Trigger” (Tom Guiry) to sacrifice himself for the good of the boat.  Now he really is a skipper and a damned good one.  When the sub resurfaces, the destroyer is chasing and straddling the sub with each salvo.  Apparently trying to sink the sub by swamping it.  There’s only one chance and it’s a one in a million bow shot with their last torpedo.  If they don’t hit their target, the Enigma machine will be lost and so will the war.  We’re here today so guess what happens.

What's a rock star doing in a
WWII submarine movie?
                “U-571” is historically inaccurate in an offensive way.  The movie assigns credit for getting the Enigma machine to the U.S. Navy because an American audience would never see a movie where the heroes are not American, right?  Like “Braveheart”, “Breaker Morant”, “Cross of Iron”, “The Train”, “Schindler’s List”, etc.  At least William Wallace was Scottish.  Here are the facts.  The first naval Enigma machine was captured by the HMS Bulldog from U-110 in May, 1941.  In 1942, additional Enigma code books were taken from U-559 by HMS Petard.  Neither incident involved Americans.  If the producers thought noone would notice, they did not take into account people like me and the entire Royal Navy.  Even Prime Minister Tony Blair called it an affront to British sailors, which was an accurate statement.  The outcry caused the studio to add a postscript crediting the Bulldog and the Petard.  U-571 did exist and was sunk by a depth charge dropped by a plane.  S-33 was stationed in the Pacific.

                There are a few “based on an actual incident” fudges in the film.  There was one example of a sub torpedoing another submerged sub, but that was one incident in the entire war.  There was also one incident where a German u-boat attacked survivors from a Greek ship, but that sort of atrocity was extremely rare.

                The movie assumes the viewers do not care about historical accuracy and that they have not seen very many submarine movies.  The ridiculous pile of clichés might seem fresh to non-war movie buffs, but if you’ve seen more than a few WWII submarine movies, you’ve seen this movie.  There are also a lot of implausibilities that are grating, starting with that supply u-boat arriving in the middle of the Atlantic at just the right moment and then firing a torpedo (that it did not have because those type of subs were not armed with them) under one sub to sink another.  However, if you are of a generation that did not grow up with the Old School WWII movies, “U-571” is a nice throwback.  The acting is good.  McConaughey is solid and the supporting cast led by Harvey Keitel as the chief is fine.  Not counting Jon Bon Jovi.  The action is consistent and suspenseful.  It has a kitchen sink aspect to it.  It is technically proficient with great sound and good special effects.  The interiors are authentic looking.  The plot tries to class up the action with the theme of Tyler growing into command and the sacrifices a commander must make.

Band of Brothers - they ain't
                “U-571” is the “Memphis Belle” of submarine movies.  In both cases, you can see an entire subgenre of clichés in one viewing.  It has a record 7 out of my nine (see below).  This is okay if you don’t watch many war movies and you like your entertainment brainless with hunks (Jon Bon Jovi / Harry Connick, Jr.)  Here’s another movie of that ilk – “Fly Boys”.  If you liked two out of those three – see the other one!

grade =  C+

WWII SUBMARINE MOVIE CLICHES

1.  There are two strong personalities on board that butt heads.  Usually it’s the captain and his exec.

2.  The sub has to go below the “hull crush depth” causing leaks and rivets to pop.

3.  Someone gets left on deck when the sub has to make an emergency dive.  Usually it’s the captain who is wounded and. orders the boat to dive.

4.  The sub is sent on an emergency operation.

5.  The boat releases oil, debris, and/or a corpse to make the enemy think it has been sunk.

6.  The captain is an Ahab who is obsessed with a certain target.

7.  There is one black on board – he is a mess mate.

8.  The sub undergoes a depth charging.  Often the depth charges explode right alongside the sub, but never crush the walls of the sub.

9.  The sub lands commandoes.   Usually this results in things being blown up.

10.  The sub captain attains redemption for a previous action that haunts him.

OTHER WWII SUB MOVIES

UP PERISCOPE  (1959)   The mission is to land a frogman on a Japanese island to steal a code book.  4  The captain is not thrilled to have the commando on board  and is a by the book type.  He does not want to risk the boat by taking dangerous risks.  1  On the way there, the sub is strafed and the exec is caught on deck, wounded, and orders the boat to dive.  3  When a destroyer chases them, the captain releases diesel oil and bubbles to fool their sonar.  5  The frogman swims ashore and steals the codes.  9  There  is a black mess mate on                                    board.  7   # of clichés =  6   grade =  C

TORPEDO RUN  (1958)  A captain whose family was left in the Philippines is sent to sink a Japanese aircraft carrier.  When the carrier is spotted, a ship carrying his family is screening it.  He takes the shot anyway.  6  He and his exec disagree about how far he should go to carry out a mission.  1  The captain gets a second crack at the carrier in Tokyo Bay, but fails again.  There is a black mess mate.  7  When the carrier is spotted in the Aleutians, the sub is sent on an emergency mission to get it.  4  Number of depth chargings = 3.  # of clichés = 5  grade =  C-

WE DIVE AT DAWN  (1958)  A British sub crew is recalled early to track down a German battleship.  4  During a depth charging, they release a dead German corpse, oil, and debris.  3  They sink the battleship, but have to go ashore to get fuel and food and to blow things up.  9   One depth charging.  # of clichés =  4  grade =  B-

CRASH DIVE  (1943)   The mission is to land a commando team to destroy a Japanese Q-Ship base.  9  The confict between the captain and the exec is due to the exec putting the moves on the captain’s fiancé.  1  There is a black mess mate on board.  7  During a depth charging, the captain releases debris.  5  When the periscope gets hit, the captain stays on deck to act as the eyes of the sub.  3  Number of depth chargings = 1   # of clichés =  6    grade =  D+

HELLCATS OF THE NAVY  (1959)  The captain has to dive while a frogman is still missing.  The frogman was dating the captain’s girl, so the exec and the crew suspect ulterior motives.  The mission is to launch a commando raid on a Japanese island.  9  When they return to base, the captain gives his exec a bad evaluation because he feels he is not willing to make tough decisions.  1  The next mission is to join a wolf pack going into the Sea of Japan.  When the sub’s propellers get caught in a net, the captain goes to release them and orders the sub to dive when it is threatened.  3  Number of depth chargings = 2.  # of clichés =  4   grade =  F

RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP  (1955)  A desk captain is placed over an exec who was expecting to be promoted to command of the sub.  1  The captain is obsessed with getting a Japanese destroyer called Bungo Pete which had earlier sunk his sub.  6  A crew member is left on deck during an emergency dive.  3  There is a black mess mate.  7  During a depth charging, they release debris and bodies.  5  They sink Bungo Pete and then duel a Japanese sub.  Number of depth chargings =  2  # of clichés =  6   grade =  C

OPERATION PACIFIC  (1951)  The captain is wounded by a Q-Ship and orders a dive while sacrificing his life so John Wayne (his exec) can take command of the sub and the movie.  3  The sub has to deal with the problem of faulty torpedoes.  They work to fix this problem.  They participate in the Battle of Leyte Gulf where they are tasked to rescue downed pilots, but also get to sing some ships.  Number of depth chargings =  2.  # of clichés =  2  grade =  C

DESTINATION TOKYO  (1943)  The emergency mission is to drop off a commando team to report on weather conditions for the Doolittle Raid.  4 / 9  They sink an aircraft carrier that is launching planes to attack the Raiders.  They survive a depth charging.  8  A bow shot sinks a chasing destroyer.  # of clichés =  3  grade =  C 

SUBMARINE COMMAND (1951)  A sub skipper is torn by the loss of his previous commander at teh end of WWII in the Pacific, but gets a chance for redemption on a commando raid in the Korean War.   3  The captain is left on deck by the exec in an emergency dive.  The sub is part of an operation to liberate a POW camp.  There is a black messmate, but he has a small role.  The sub lands two commando teams to take out phone and radar stations.  10  The commander gets a chance to sacrifice his sub instead of a crew member.  Number of depth chargings = 1  # of cliches =  5 
grade =  C     
 
I know I have not included "Das Boot".  It's upcoming as one of the top ten.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

#11 - Wings (1927)


 
 
BACK-STORY:  “Wings” was a movie that was loaded with firsts.  First aerial combat movie.  First male kiss.  First Best Picture (and the only silent movie until “The Artist”).  It set the template for future air combat movies.  The director was William “Wild Bill” Wellman (“Beau Geste”, “The Story of G.I. Joe”, “Battleground”) who had been a pilot with the Lafayette Escadrille in WWI.  He had three confirmed kills, survived a crash landing that left him with a limp, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre.  Sadly, he is one of the few directors who were not even nominated for his Best Picture efforts (tell that to Ben Affleck).  The movie was filmed at Kelly Field in San Antonio with full cooperation of the U.S. military.  The planes provided were mainly Thomas-Morse MB-3s and Curtiss PW-8s.  The German fighters were played by Curtiss P-1 Hawks.  One stunt flier broke his neck in a crash and another was a fatality.

OPENING:  The movie is dedicated to the air warriors of WWI.  Jack Powell (Charles Rogers) dreams of flying.  The girl next door, Mary (Clara Bow), dreams of kissing him.  They rebuild a car together and she suggests he name it “Shooting Star” and hints that when you see a shooting star you should kiss the one you love.  She puckers up but he is lusting after the new girl in town, Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston – Rogers’ future wife).  Unfortunately (or fortunately for the plot), she is in love with David Armstrong (Richard Arlen).  War comes and the two men enlist.  Sylvia gives Jack the impression she is in love with him by allowing him to mistakenly take a picture locket intended for David.   Mary goes off to France as a truck driver.

the girl next door
SUMMARY:  There is a brief training montage that leads up to a frenetic boxing match between Jack and David.  They throw more punches in two minutes than a normal fifteen round bout.  The result of the match is respect and friendship, naturally.  It’s off to their first billet where they are bunked with a veteran named White (Gary Cooper in his very brief, but star-making turn. Added bonus – he started an affair with Clara Bow).  White goes off to do his quota of figure eights and does not return.  It’s a dangerous game.

                A nifty split screen reminds us there’s a war going on in Europe and suddenly Jack and David are in the thick of it at an air base.  It’s time for their first dawn patrol and thus their first dog fight.  The audience gets the iconic front cowling view of the pilots.  Their death throes are creepy and unforgetable.  The other thing that stands out is the colorized flames.  One of the themes that emerges is that the air war is clean and chivalrous (a German ace named Kellerman lets Jack live when he sees that the American’s guns have jammed) and the ground war is dirty and gruesome.  Jack crash lands in no man’s land in the middle of a battle.  It seems that it is better to be in the air than on the ground.

Jack, Mary, and David
                The next scene is a Gotha (large German bomber) raid on a French village.  David and Jack scramble.  The bombing raid is well done with cool aerial views of the bombing, including shots through the bomb bay doors.  The explosions are realistic.  Mary gets caught in the raid and hides under her truck.  She does not realize it is Jack who is shooting down the bomber.

                Jack and David get leave in Paris.  They go to the Folies Bergere and get drunk.  Jack is so sousled that he is seeing imaginary bubbles.  (Check out these special effects, 1920s audiences!)  At first this is a cute effect, but it becomes interminable as the scene drags.  Mary arrives (it’s a small world … war) and finds Jack with a floozy.  Jack does not recognize Mary because he is only seeing bubbles.  She manages to get him into bed, but he passes out and she gets caught by MPs while changing clothes (use the pause button if you want to see the “It Girl’s” its) and they ship her back to America for being sexual.

the "it" girl
                Back at the front, Jack and David have a falling out over the locket picture.  David is so flummoxed that he forgets his lucky stuffed bear when they are scrambled to attack some observation balloons.  David takes on four German fighters to protect his wing man Jack.  Jack shoots down two balloons in an excellent scene.  David is hit and crashes in a stream.  German infantry opens fire on him and presume they have killed him.  Kellerman delivers a note to Jack’s base to let him know that David is dead.  Jack vows revenge, not knowing David is actually on the lam.

                The “big push” comes and Jack takes off intending to take on the enemy all by himself.  The movie blends the ground attack by American infantry with Jack’s one man air war.  There are realistic aerial views of the trench systems.  Doughboys assault the Germans across no man’s land with the help of tanks.  The deaths are tepid, but accurately random.  There is a really keen shot of a tank crushing a German machine gun bunker.  Jack is on a strafing rampage which includes an incredibly accurate swoop on a German machine gun nest that has American soldiers yards away.  A dying Yank (played by Wellman himself) yells skyward:  “Atta boy.  Them buzzards are some good after all.”

                Meanwhile David is sneaking through the swamps until he reaches a German air base where he incredibly steals a plane and shoots down a German fighter attempting to take off.  The German airman’s death is laugh out loud funny.    On the battlefield, the Germans are literally running away from the Amis while fighters strafe them.  Jack takes time off from strafing to stalk a lone German plane.  Guess who is flying that German plane?  No, it’s not Mary!  Arlen finally gets into the flow of the silent movie emoting as his David tries to identify himself.  He even yells “Fuck the Kaiser!”  (I think I read his lips correctly.)  Actually, one subtitle is “Jack – don’t you know me?!”  Jack stitches David’s plane which means bullets in the back are next.  David crashs into a house (owned by French played by Wellman’s wife and kid).  Jack lands to back-slapping in the yard.  Hey, Yank, come be chivalrous and say good bye to the guy you killed.  There is a tearful reunion and reconciliation where the actors are so intimately close you swear they are about to kiss.  Holy crap, that’s exactly what they do!  Cut to a propeller coming to a stop.

you don't think they're going to...do you?
CLOSING:  In packing up David’s kit, Jack learns that Sylvia was actually in love with David.  His bad.  Jack returns home as a “conquering hero”.  He goes to David’s parent’s home to bookend the painfully melodramatic scene of David going to war.  Even the family dog is pissed at him, but Mother Armstrong forgives him because it was the war that was to blame.  Unlike the earlier scene, this one is effectively tearjerking.  That stuffed bear is powerful.  Jack passes Mary on the street and does not even recognize her.  Just kidding.  He has finally come to his senses and decides he will hook up with the sexiest woman in America.  The movie comes full circle with a kiss as a shooting star sweeps across the sky.  Awwwww.

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  Certainly.  It has a heavy dose of romance.  Bow plays the girl next door so her sexuality is not intimidating.  She is very likeable.  Surprisingly, the Sylvia character is not a vamp.  The romance subplot almost did not come off because Bow was not happy with her role.  She felt the character was shoe-horned in to create a romance.  Wow, imagine that. 

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  Obviously the movie is fictional so accuracy is not an issue.  The “big push” is supposedly the St. Mihiel Offensive although it is not identified by name.  The movie clearly indicates that the attack finishes off the Germans (which would more accurately have been the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.)  The combat is as realistic as could be expected for a 1927 film.  Not on the level of “All Quiet on the Western Front” mind you, but the overhead shots are actually quite extraordinary.  The use of tanks stands out.   Amazingly, the movie depicts the use of Bangalore Torpedoes to blast holes through barbed wire.  I am pretty sure this is the only WWI movie to show their use.

                The aerial combat is accurate, which is to be expected from a Wellman film.  The balloon attack is particularly well done.  The balloons are on cables.  The observers are in a basket with a telephone link-up.  The balloons are protected by anti-aircraft guns (but no fighters).  The observers parachute out.  The balloons go up in flames.  The strafing is a bit too perfect, but that is de rigeuer for war movies.  Jack even gets to kill a German general in his car.

CRITIQUE:  “Wings” probably deserved the Best Picture award, although I don’t have the foggiest notion of the other contenders.  It is epic in scale and execution.  Wellman had access to 60 planes and 3,500 extras.  He also had a bevy of intrepid stunt men who were willing to risk life and limb to depict the thrills of air combat.  The acrobatics of the doomed planes are particularly impressive.  In this film even the planes ham it up.  The restored 2012 version has a crisp look to it and one can see why audiences would have found it rousing.  The use of the Handsghiegel Color Process to add flames adds some pizazz to the black and white.  The cinematography is classic with some bells and whistles in the form of the split screen scene and the neverending bubbles.  POV enhances some of the cockpit scenes.  Speaking of which, the air combat shots seem to be either close-ups or far range.

                The acting is problematical.  Clara Bow dominates when she is on screen.  I know our perceptions of what is hot has changed greatly from the 1920s, but she has “it” even in today’s climate.  I can’t think of too many other actresses from that era that I stare at when they are on screen.  Unfortunately, she is off screen for much of the film.  The movie is more of a bromance than a romance.  Charles Rogers does the typical emoting expected of a silent movie star.  His drunken Folies Bergere scene is not cringeworthy, just tedious.  It’s probably best that we can’t hear his cockpit rantings (or read most of them).  The biggest problem in this area is with Arlen.  He is a stiff.  Plus he is way too old looking for the part.   The supporting cast is adequate.  The movie throws in a German-American mechanic with an American flag tattoo for some hammy comic relief.  Armstrong’s mother and father look like they belonged in the Addam’s family, but the stuffed bear requits itself admirably.

make this man a star!
                The plot eschews a love triangle for the rarer love quartet.  More unusually, all four characters are likeable.  It is obvious that Jack and Mary will end up together, but the rest of the arc is not so predictable.  It’s a nice touch that Mary is sent all the way to France and then does not really hook up with Jack.  The whole locket thing was a classic contrivance, but you see that sort of thing all the time in old movies (like “Beau Geste”).  Not to mention the shooting down of David by Jack.  Ridiculous, but inevitable.

                The movie is melodramatic and patriotic, especially in the title cards, but not overly propagandistic.  It does not demonize the enemy.  Kellerman is not a villain.  The enemy is faceless as are the squadron mates.  Cooper gets his fifteen seconds, but no one else makes a dent.  The plot is rife with contrivances to push it to the happy ending, but the contrivances are mostly endearing.  The buttons are pushed effectively.  I did not throw up in my mouth even once.  I can not say the same for the similar “Pearl Harbor”.

                The movie is justifiably famous for its aerial sequences.  They are among the best from that era.  Better than most, but not superior to “Hell’s Angels” (which was greatly influenced by it).  Amazingly, the trench sequences are actually stronger than the air combat and they get much more coverage than in similar films.

CONCLUSION:   I wasn’t sure going into this movie and the first half tended to confirm my suspicions that it would be too Old School to hold up.  If it weren’t for Bow, the romance would be a loser.  The movie is slow paced and the Folies Bergere scene brings the movie to a thudding halt.  Surprisingly, the movie takes off (get it) when Mary goes home and the boys have their falling out.  The balloon scene foreshadows the kick-ass St. Mihiel third.  The pace picks up considerably and the blend of air combat and trench warfare is deft.  The resolution of the quartet is pleasing, if predictable.  It’s one third of a very good movie.  Overall, I would have to say it may belong at #11 if you are basing the ranking on importance of the film.  However, if you are basing rankings simply on how good the film is, it is far from being the 11th best war movie ever made.  I can see it making my 100 Best, but not in the top fifty.  It’s definitely a must see and I must admit embarrassment at having seen it for the first time for this project.  
 
RATINGS:
Action                    8/10
Acting                     C
Accuracy                C
Realism                  C
Plot                         B-
OVERALL  =  C+
 
 
 
 
    
 
 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

CRACKER? The Killing Fields (1984)




                “The Killing Fields” fits into the journalists-at-war subgenre.  It is the true story of the friendship of American journalist Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) and his Cambodian aide Dith Pran (Haing Ngor).  They were caught up in the Khmer Rouge takeover in Cambodia.  The movie was Roland Joffe’s directorial debut.  The screenplay was based on Schanberg’s article in the NY Times entitled “The Death and Life of Dith Pran”.  The movie was a critical and box office success.  A British film, it did very well at the BAFTAs winning Best Picture and Actor (Ngor) among other awards.  It was nominated for Academy Awards for Picture, Director, Actor (Waterston), and Adapted Screenplay.  It won for Supporting Actor (Ngor), Film Editing, and Cinematography.  It is #30 on AFIs list of “Most Inspiring Movies”.

                The movie begins in Phnom Penh in 1973.  Schanberg meets photojournalist Al Rockoff (John Malkovich) in an outdoor café.  A bomb explodes and Rockoff does the jaded, war junkie routine of taking pictures.  Be careful what you wish for.  Schanberg is cut from the same cloth as he goes with his interpreter/Man Friday Pran to a village called Neuk Leung that had been accidentally bombed by American B-52s.  The set is appropriately rubbleized with craters abounding.  The Army also arrives to “sanitize” the scene.  They bring their toadies from  the press corps.  “Truth is the first casualty in war”.  Not if Schanberg and Pran can help it.  They get arrested when they try to take pictures of the execution of two rebels.  Two themes are established in this scene.  Friendship in times of turmoil and the competition between journalists.  Add the competition between the media and the government which is stock for this subgenre.

                The film suddenly jumps to the year 1975 and the Khmer Rouge are on the outskirts of the capital.  We get the chaotic “caught in the crossfire” scene.  Everyone with a brain and connections is evacuating.  This includes Pran’s family sans Pran who decides to stay with Schanberg.   The American doesn’t exactly talk him out of this act of suicide.  Pran apparently has a dream of someday being an insane journalist like Schanberg and his buddies.

                The Khmer Rouge arrive to cheering crowds.  Yippee, this has got to be an improvement over the previous government, right?  How could it be worse?  Pran’s decision to stay behind pays off big time for his friends as he rescues Schanberg and Rockoff from an impromptu firing squad.  The group takes refuge in the French Embassy, but soon it becomes apparent that all Cambodians will be forced to leave and it’s not because the Khmer Rouge want to give them ice cream.  Our heroic journalists concoct a plan to forge a passport for Pran, but it’s a major fail and it’s off to a labor camp for him.  Meanwhile, Schanberg returns to the labor camp known as the NY Times.  He does not forget about Pran and works to locate his friend by valiantly writing letters.

                The last third of the film has Pran trying to survive in the work camp.  He feigns subpar intelligence to fly under the “find the intellectuals” radar.  The prisoners are being indoctrinated to believe the Khmer Rouge’s brand of extreme communism.  Chillingly, the brainwashing is very effective with the children.  Besides classes that are more mind-numbing than trigonometry, the prisoners have the usual POW camp problems like starvation.  At one point, Pran is punished for sucking the blood of some cows.  Coincidentally, Schanberg is eating steaks. 

                Pran makes an implausibly easy escape, but stumbles into the “killing fields” which are basically a human broth.  Money scene!  The escape is not successful, but gives Pran a good idea for a name for the atrocities committed by the Pol Pot regime.  (He coined the term.)  Meanwhile, Schanberg receives the Pulitzer Prize for his Cambodian coverage.  He makes an impassioned anti-government speech, but is confronted by Rockoff who accuses him of influencing Pran’s decision to refuse evacuation because Schanberg wanted to get the story.

                There is another time jump and now Pran is inexplicably the servant of a Khmer Rouge official.  Although suspicious of Pran’s feigned ignorance, the official makes Pran guardian of his son.  The camp is bombed by Vietnamese planes which (this being a war movie) are fighter planes without bombs dropping bombs.  It’s a miracle!  The attack convinces the official that his son would be more likely to carry on the family name if he escapes with Pran and a few other prisoners.  Pran makes it to Thailand, but the boy has an unfortunate encounter with a mine.  Schanberg excitedly (and nervously) rushes to Thailand with his four year old apology.  Does Pran kick him in the crotch?  You’ll have to watch the movie.  Hint:  John Lennon’s “Imagine” provides background music.

                The movie is entertaining.  It is well acted.  Waterston and Malkovich had breakout performances.  Ngor became the second non-professional actor to win an Oscar in their debut role.  (The other was Harold Russell in “The Best Years of Our Lives”.)  He did not have to act too hard since he had been in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge took over.  He and his wife were sent to a labor camp.  Although he was a doctor he could not minister to his wife who died in childbirth because revealing his identity would have meant death for all of them.  After four years, he escaped to Thailand.  He eventually made it to America.  He was discovered at a Cambodian wedding in Los Angeles by the film’s casting director.   Ironically, there is a scene in the movie where Pran gives some Khmer Rouge soldiers his watch as a bribe.  Ngor was killed in his driveway by gang members who accepted his Rolex, but still murdered him.

                The plot is solid.  The theme of friendship is not maudlin.  The final reunion is touching and believable.  The movie does a good job of leaving doubts about Schanberg’s motives.  His guilt feelings come out and there is an element of redemption, but I felt he was something of an ass hole.  This ambiguity added to the depth of the character.  The theme of the perseverance of the human spirit as exhibited by Pran’s survival and escape is the main reason the film is rated as inspirational.  The camaraderie and competition between the journalists and their love/hate relationship with war is not ground-breaking, but well handled.  The government as cover-upper is also stereotypical, but Joffe does not rant.

                The movie is technically sound with Joffe eschewing bells and whistles.  Cinematographer Chris Menges gets the most out of the Thailand locale.  The music is interesting in its bizarreness.  Someone had the idea of using Mike Oldfield of “Exorcist” fame.  The chaotic evacuation scene uses weird synthesizer music and a strange hymn.  The use of “Imagine” is a groaner, however.

                As far as accuracy, the movie relies on Schanberg’s account which Is problematical.  Rockoff was particularly incensed by how he and some of the Embassy events were depicted.  He believes Schanberg was  a lying coward which I could see how that could be true.  He insists that the passport was not rigged in a make-shift dark room and in fact was concocted using an old photo of Pran.  Then Pran decided not to use the fake passport and left the Embassy on his own.

                As far as the rest of the story, the movie is better than average.  I assume the café bombing was generic.  The bombing of Neak Leung is well done.  It was an accidental B-52 raid and the village was mostly destroyed with 137 deaths.  The depiction of the Khmer Rouge entry into Phnom Penh has a ring of authenticity.  The evacuation, including specifically of Pran’s family, adheres to the facts.  The Embassy interlude has the correct people, but their actions are in dispute.  The meat of the history lesson comes with the labor camp third.  Here is where the audience gets a good tutorial of the titular topic.  The Pol Pot regime instituted a pogrom against intellectuals (some being identified by wearing glasses) like Pran and Ngor.  “Year Zero” referred to their attempt to clean the cultural slate and restart as an agrarian-based economy based on self-sufficiency (including disastrously the field of medicine).  Millions of city-dwellers were relocated to the labor camps and over a million were exterminated in the “killing fields” that are gruesomely depicted in the film.

                Pran’s post-embassy trials were tweaked by the filmmakers.  The cow blood incident, for instance, was actually Pran stealing some raw rice for which he was beaten by villagers.  I could not determine if an escaping Pran stumbled into the bone broth of the "killing fields"..  It seems unlikely.  A movie entitled “The Killing Fields” had to have that scene.  I do know he did not get out of the camp until after four years  when the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge.  He went home to his village and was chosen village chief, but escaped to Thailand because he feared that his American ties would be discovered.  Schanberg’s efforts to locate his friend are accurate, as is their reunion.  Pran went to work for the NY Times in 1980. 
                “The Killing Fields” is an overrated movie, as are most from this subgenre.  Movie critics like to imagine that because they write for newspapers, they are kin to war journalists.  If they give one of these movies a bad review, they may have to face a collegue who will ask them if they have ever been in the shit.  Plus those guys are fracking crazy and may bash your head with a beer bottle (or put their joint out on your face).  As far as the Academy voters are concerned, they love their screenwriter buddies who are cousins to the war journalists. 

grade = B-