“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-