The Killing Fields

Released:  1984

Cast:  Sam Waterston, Haing S. Ngor, Craig T. Nelson, John Malkovich, Athol Fugard

Oscar Wins:  Best Supporting Actor (Haing S. Ngor), Best Cinematography (Chris Menges), Best Film Editing (Jim Clark)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Picture, Best Actor (Sam Waterston), Best Director (Roland Joffe), Best Adapted Screenplay (Bruce Robinson)

SUMMARY:  In May of 1973, Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) is a New York Times reporter working in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  Sydney is covering the civil war between the Cambodian national army and the Khmer Rouge; the entire conflict started as a result of the nearby Vietnam War (Vietnam and Cambodia share a border).  Sydney is assisted by Cambodian Dith Pran (Hain S. Ngor), a journalist who acts as a translator and assistant.  Several other reporters are covering the war, including photographer Al Rockoff (John Malkovich).  Just as Sydney gets back into Phnom Penh, Pran learns that the Americans (who are not officially involved in Cambodia) have allegedly bombed a Cambodian town.  The military refuses to answer their questions or assist them in traveling to the town, Neak Leung, but Pran manages to hire a boatman to take them.  They learn that the Americans have bombed the town, although they claim that it was a misdrop.  The town is under the control of the national army, but the Khmer Rouge have been in the area.  Two Khmer Rouge members have been captured and are publicly executed; when Sydney and Pran try to photograph the event, they are arrested.  The army holds them for several days, until the U.S. military (which had refuses to talk to Sydney) arrives with the press corps to whitewash the incident.  Two years later, the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh is eminent.  Most foreign embassies, including the U.S. one, are being evacuated.  Sydney intends to remain in Cambodia to cover the story, but arranges for Pran and his family to be evacuated.  However, Pran insists on staying in Cambodia with Sydney.  Very quickly the Khmer Rouge does take over the city, and Sydney, Pran and Rockoff are arrested (the Khmer Rouge is not fond of press agents).  They are taken to an execution site, but Pran — released because he is a Cambodian — manages to talk the guerrillas into releasing his friends.  Realizing that they are no longer safe on the street, the reporters and Pran take shelter in the French embassy.

Before long, the Khmer Rouge threatens the French embassy.  They order that all of the Cambodians taking shelter there be evicted, and the embassy is forced to cooperate.  Pran’s status as a reporter means he is in grave danger once he leaves the embassy, so Sydney, Rockoff and photographer Jon Swain try to forge a British passport for him.  Unfortunately, because they don’t have the right photographic equipment, the photo fades to gray and the deception fails.  Pran is forced to leave the embassy.  Some time later, Sydney returns to New York City and begins a campaign to locate Pran in Cambodia.  What he doesn’t know is that Pran has become a forced laborer for the Khmer Rouge, working on a farm in their “Year Zero” policy (“Year Zero” was the concept that in order to form a new, successful, society, the old customs and traditions must be completely wiped out).  One day he manages to escape from the farm, but eventually collapses due to exhaustion and malnutrition.  He is found by other members of the Khmer Rouge.  Back in New York in 1976, Sydney wins a Pulitzer for his war coverage.  He continues to be haunted by Pran’s unknown fate, and a confrontation by Rockoff forces Sydney to admit that Pran stayed in Cambodia (instead of fleeing with his family — who now live in the States and are cared for by Sydney) because Sydney wanted him to.  In Cambodia, Pran becomes the servant of a prison compound leader named Phat.  Pran’s primary job is to watch Phat’s son, whom he develops a genuine love for.  Over time, Phat realizes that Pran is a lot more educated than he lets on:  one day he asks Pran to care for his son, should anything every happen to him.  Pran also learns that the son has American money and an escape map.  By this time, the Khmer Rouge has developed some internal conflicts (mostly over policy), and Phat is caught on the wrong side:  he is shot by some officers when he tries to stop a summary execution.  Chaos erupts, and Pran manages to escape with the son and four other men into the jungle.  The group eventually splits up, with Pran, the son, and one other man following the boy’s map.  While traveling one day, the other man — who is carrying the son — steps on a land mine, killing both of them.  Pran carries on alone, eventually reaching the Thai border and a Red Cross camp.  Sydney is quickly notified, and after relating the news to Pran’s family he flies to Thailand to reunite with his friend.

MY TAKE:  I don’t know a lot about the Cambodian civil war, but I have heard of the Khmer Rouge.  Basically, it was a communist party in Cambodia which was led by Pol Pot.  They took over Cambodia in 1975, but was ousted in 1979.  The Vietnamese stepped in to stop the mass killings ordered by Pol Pot, which were carried out in fields.  These fields, which also served as burial grounds, gave the movie its title.  The movie reminded me somewhat of Argo, since in both movies, foreigners took refuge in embassies from a hostile government takeover.  Unfortunately, in this movie, Pran isn’t able to escape or be rescued.  I was surprised that he managed to stay alive, frankly.  It made a little more sense after I learned that he claimed to be an taxi driver, instead of the very learned man he really was.  However, it seems pretty incredulous that the Khmer Rouge didn’t figure this out — some basic investigation probably would have revealed that fact.  This movie is based on the real story of Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran, and it was Pran who actually coined the phrase “killing fields”.  He died in 2008, of pancreatic cancer.  Schanberg died in 2016 after suffering a heart attack.

RATING:  Very good.


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