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Joffé, Roland

JOFFÉ, Roland

Nationality: English. Born: London, 17 November 1945. Education: Attended Manchester University. Career: Co-founder of the Young Vic and former member of the National Theater under Laurence Olivier; moved into television and made various documentaries as well as dramatic series; started big-screen production in mid-1980s with emphases on both the grandeur of the visual and the complexity of politics and religion. Awards: Golden Palm, Cannes International Film Festival, for The Mission, 1986.

Films as Director:


The Legand Hall Bombing (for TV); The Spongers (for TV)


No, Mama, No (for TV)


United Kingdom (for TV)


The Killing Fields


The Mission


Fat Man and Little Boy (+ co-sc)


City of Joy (+ co-pr)


The Scarlet Letter (+ co-pr)


Goodbye Lover



Other Films:


Made in Bangkok (pr)


Waterproof (Berman) (pr); Undressed (series for TV) (exec pr)


By JOFFÉ: book—

City of Joy: The Illustrated Story of the Film (A Newmarket PictorialMoviebook), with Mark Medoff, Jake Eberts, and Dominique Lapierre, New York, 1992.

By JOFFÉ: articles—

"Entretien avec Roland Joffé," with M. Ciment, in Positif (Paris), February 1985.

"Light Shining in Darkness: Roland Joffé on The Mission," interview with M. Dempsey, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), no. 4, 1987.

Interview, in American Film, December 1987.

"Entrevista con Roland Joffé: City of Joy, o la India cercana," in FilmHistoria, vol. 3, no. 3, 1993.

On JOFFÉ: articles—

Michiels, D., "The Spongers," in Film en Television + Video (Brussels), December 1980.

Denby, D., "Movies: Blood Brothers," in New York, 17 November 1984.

Kael, P., "The Current Cinema: Unreal," in New Yorker, 10 December 1984.

Jensen, L., "Vietnamkrigen Borte med Blaesten," in Levende Dilleder (Copenhagen), 15 February 1985.

Joyeux, D., "Marknadsforare med sinne for Film," in Chaplin (Stockholm), no. 2, 1985.

Park, J., "Bombs and Pol Pots," in Sight and Sound (London), no. 54, 1984/85.

Le Fanu, M., "Regard Aigu sur un Destin Funeste," in Positif (Paris), February 1985.

Agostinis, V., "Quando l'emozione supera il realismo della politica," in Segnocinema (Italy), March 1985.

Pally, M., "Red Faces," in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1986.

Magny, J., "Conscience Impossible," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), October 1986.

Miller, J., "The Mission Carries a Message from Past to Present," in New York Times, 26 October 1986.

Millar, G., "The Honourable Dead," in Sight and Sound (London), no. 4, 1986.

Mosier, J., "Tramps Abroad: The Anglo-Americans at Cannes," in New Orleans Review, no. 4, 1986.

Lally, K., "Mission Accomplished: Epic Arrives after 15-Year Struggle," in Film Journal (New York), January 1987.

Rodman, H. A., "Director Roland Joffé," in Millimeter (Cleveland), April 1987.

Pinsky, M. I., "The Mission, Junipero Serra, and the Politics of Sainthood," in Jump Cut (Berkeley), February 1988.

Rios, A., "La Pasion segun Roland Joffé," in Cine Cubano (Havana), no. 123, 1988.

Lee, N., "Fat Man and Little Boy: Birth of the Atom Bomb," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), November 1989.

Kael, P., "The Current Cinema: Bombs," in New Yorker, 13 November 1989.

Buckley, M., "Roland Joffé," in Films in Reviews (New York), January/February 1990.

Root, D., "Holy Men in the Wilderness: The Mission and Sainte Marie among the Hurons," in Cineaction (Toronto), Winter/Spring 1990.

Scheck, F., "Fat Man and Little Boy," in Films in Review (New York), March 1990.

Jenkins, S., "City of Joy," in Sight and Sound (London), October 1992.

Romano, H., "Cite de la Joie," in Jeune Cinema (Paris), October 1992.

Welsh, James, "Classic Folly: The Scarlet Letter," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), October 1995.

Filmography, in Segnocinema (Vicenza), March/April 1996.

Dunne, Michael, "The Scarlett Letter on Screen: Ninety Years of Revisioning," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), January 1997.

* * *

Often compared with that of David Lean, the famed epic master of a generation ago, Roland Joffé's filmic career to date has proven to be an uneven one. Despite several noble attempts to render the grandeur of idealism and the complexity of politics, religions, and history, Joffé often falls short of the truly large-scale perspectives and touches of genuine humanity that underline Lean's masterpieces, such as The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. Having worked quite extensively in both theater and television, Joffé made his big-screen debut with 1984's The Killing Fields, produced by arguably the most influential British producer of the 1980s, David Puttnam. A story about an interracial friendship set in the time of the genocide in Cambodia during the mid-1970s, The Killing Fields strives to capture the universal spirit of humanity that binds people, despite their differences. A group of Western reporters are rescued by Dith Pran (played by Dr. Haing S. Ngor). The high drama unfolds when those Westerners realize that they are not capable of rescuing their Cambodian friend, their life saver, in return. The beautifully done cinematography and excellent soundtrack of "Nessun Dorma" from Puccini's Turandot nonetheless fail to save the feeble (when stripped of all its flamboyant superficiality) narrative in its attempt to document one of the most monstrous tragedies in human history.

The highly problematic, revisionist portrayal of South American history during the mid-eighteenth century in The Mission calls for even more scrutiny. Two Jesuit missionaries, played by high-profile Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro, participate in the resistance against the intermingled conflicts with Spain, Portugal, the Pope, and many a merchant whose monetary concerns dictate their actions. The end result is "calamitous . . . : the Battle of Caibale (1756), during which [the two Jesuit leaders], several other Jesuits, and some 1500 Indians die," according to Michael Dempsey. Speaking of the seemingly licensed fictionality of the two key Jesuit characters, Joffé refers to "liberation theology" in saying that "The film in that sense is intimately concerned with the struggle for liberation in liberation theology, and that's why the historical perspective is very important, because what it's actually saying is that these people haven't come out of nowhere" [emphasis mine]. It is then Joffé and his team's historical perspectives that enable them, as Dempsey aptly puts it, to "re-oppress the people with overbearing film technology and appropriate their story for a grandiose prestige spectacle."

The little-noticed Fat Man and Little Boy, a story about the creation of the atom bomb, failed even with the star power of Paul Newman. Following that was City of Joy, a story celebrating spirituality as the link that crosses all boundaries. Set in Calcutta, City of Joy seems to be over-fascinated with the city itself. As Joffé himself enthusiastically confessed in a publicity essay, Calcutta "taught me, in its complexity, its passion, anger and pettiness, that our individual failings are no more or less than the failings of the species; as there are no perfect individuals, there are no perfect races." In this spirit, what is being presented in this movie are two individuals, one American (Max, played by Patrick Swayze) and the other Indian (Hasari Pal, played by Om Puri). What they have in common is that they both are not perfect. The problematized narrative falls into an almost stereotypical treatment of interracial relationships. Max's spiritual fulfillment comes with the ability to help with Hasari's material needs (for example, the medallion which provides for her daughter's dowry), while Hasari, though sometimes distrustful and even jealous, is nonetheless a rescuer for the American, who is easily beaten by and lost in the immense (both human—the oppressive ganglord's son—and natural—the monsoon season) primitiveness of Calcutta.

After tracing Roland Joffé filmic career to date, Steven Jenkins's astute observation particularly rings true. "One has the feeling that in his striving for epic, the 'big picture' indeed, Joffé would like to be David Lean. . . . But the interrelationship between character and backdrop in The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia seems ideologically more complex and rigorously scrutinized than anything here." Despite the consistently stunning visuals in Joffé's films, one cannot help but feel an imbalance, one that tilts between an historical and ideological monstrosity gotten out of hand and a simple-minded heroism blown out of proportion.

—Guo-Juin Hong

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