The Killing Fields
Screenplay : Bruce Robinson
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1984
Stars : Sam Waterston (Sydney Schanberg), Haing S. Ngor (Dith Pran), John Malkovich (Al Rockoff), Julian Sands (Jon Swain), Craig T. Nelson (Military attache), Spalding Gray (United States consul), Bill Paterson (Doctor Macantire)
Based on a true story that is both horrifying and uplifting, "The Killing Fields" is a powerful portrait of how the atrocities of a world gone crazy tested the friendship and loyalty of two men: Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston), a "New York Times" correspondent in Cambodia at the end of the Vietnam War, and Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor), his Cambodian assistant, translator, and friend.
When the film opens, it is 1975 and the Vietnam War is coming to a close. Schanberg and Dith Pran, along with a photographer named Al Rockoff (John Malkovich) and a British journalist named Jon Swain (Julian Sands) are stationed in Phnom Penh, covering the U.S. Army's activities in Cambodia. These early segments of the film develop the characters and show the strong working relationships among the journalists. Like soldiers, they are drawn together by their common experiences in a war-torn country. Side-by-side, they dodge bullets, narrowly escape bombings, suffer through capture and imprisonment, and fight to get the "real story," which is always evading them.
As the U.S. begins withdrawing from neighboring Vietnam, a five-year civil war in Cambodia ends and the forces led by the Khmer Rouge, a far-leftist political group, take over the country. Wearing reddish scarves, they enter the urban areas in armed tanks, rounding up all the civilians. During this section of the film, it is important to know some Cambodian history to fully appreciate and understand what is happening.
In an attempt to create a completely classless society, starting in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge forced all Cambodians, regardless of age or class, out of their homes, stripped them of their belongings, and sent them to re-education camps. Banking, finance, currency, private property, and all notions of religion were abolished in the name of setting up a communal system of forced equality for the masses. The most reliable sources estimate that about 1.7 million Cambodians died of execution, disease, starvation, and overwork during the four years the Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia.
The American journalists are allowed to leave, but because Dith Pran is Cambodian, he has to stay and face an uncertain future. Because he is a journalist and can speak English, chances are high that he will be executed. Schanberg carries a great deal of guilt because he escapes the madness, but he has no choice but to leave his friend behind. He feels especially guilty because before the Khmer Rouge assumed power, there was a chance for Dith Pran to escape with the U.S. forces. Instead, he chose to stay out of loyalty to Schanberg, who wanted to continue pursuing the story. Dith Pran's wife and daughter leave, but he takes the risk by staying behind.
The last third of the film details Dith Pran's four-year enslavement by the Khmer Rouge, how he is stripped of his dignity along with millions of others, starved, and forced to work as a tenant farmer and sit through brain-washing sessions. It is in these segments, especially when he finds himself trudging through a mass grave of hundreds of thousands of slaughtered innocents, that the film takes on an almost apocalyptic tone.
"The Killing Fields" was the directorial debut of Roland Joffé, who has gone on to make other good movies ("The Mission") and real stinkers (the laughable re-writing of "The Scarlet Letter"). Here, with a great deal of help from cinematographer Chris Menges, he shows the skill of an experienced veteran filmmaker as he balances the horrors of war with the intimacies of friendship. Some of the best, most tightly-wrought scenes in the film show the American and British journalists working feverishly to make a fake passport for Dith Pran in the hopes that he can escape with them. Of course, their best efforts fail in the end, and you share in their palpable sense of the defeat.
Sam Waterston puts in a moving performances as Schanberg, a man whose hunger to "get the story" almost forces Dith Pran to pay the ultimate price. The movie is careful never to put Schanberg at complete fault, and it shows that Dith Pran is just as driven as he is, although much of his drive is more out of loyalty to his American friend than desire to make the front page in the morning.
As Dith Pran, Haing S. Ngor gives "The Killing Fields" an added dimension of authenticity. Ngor was a Cambodian-trained doctor who was captured by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and saw his family die at their hands. He spent many years in a concentration camp where he had to keep silent about his medical training for fear that he would be executed. To watch Ngor's incredible, Oscar-winning performance, you would never guess he had never acted before in his life. He's that good.
During Ngor's scenes in the re-education camp, you can't help but be enveloped in the reality of it all, and you have to wonder how painful it was for him as an actor to portray the life-threatening situations that he actually suffered through. How did it feel for him while he pretended to endure pain that was his reality less than five years before? It makes you wonder whether the agony etched on his face during these scenes is simply the work of a gifted actor, or the look of a man remembering a kind of suffering the majority of us could never fathom.
Most likely, it is a little of both.
©1997 James Kendrick