The Killing Fields (1984) is a terrific movie based upon a horrific, real genocide. The Khmer Rouge, a Communist regime in Cambodia that ruled the country from 1975 to 1979, was responsible for the death of over 2 million people, out of a total population of 8 million. The term “the killing fields,” coined by the Cambodian journalist Dith Pran (whose life story also informs the movie), refers to the sites of mass murder in the country: particularly the city Choeung Ek, the setting of the movie. The Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot (a leader who acquired the reputation of being “the Hitler of Cambodia”), used Marxist theory as a pretext to eradicate the professional and intellectual classes from society. They targeted in particular teachers, doctors, ethnic minorities (especially those of Vietnamese or Chinese descent), sending them to “reeducation programs” that only the lucky few could survive. The regime’s stated goal was to “wipe the slate clean” and start communism “from ground zero” after completely eradicating capitalist institutions and their supporters. Under this policy, almost everyone was in danger. Wearing glasses alone could be interpreted as a sign of being “an intellectual” and make one vulnerable to being sent to concentration camp. Once there, prisoners were starved and forced to work in the field in conditions that practically guaranteed death. Young soldiers, usually men and women from peasant families, forced prisoners to dig their own graves before executing them.
It is easy to see the death of millions as tragic statics that don’t touch us on a personal level. The movie The Killing Fields (1984), directed by Roland Joffé, does a wonderful job of conveying this mass suffering in very personal terms. Based on Dith Pran’s true account of being captured and imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge and his subsequent escape, this historical drama succeeds in conveying the horrors perpetrated by the communist regime as well as the heroism and hope of its main character. Dr. Haing S. Ngor, an actor who lived through the same horrors in Cambodia and plays the role of the journalist Dith Pran, does such a wonderful job in his role of Pran that he won in 1985 the Academy Award for “Best Supporting Actor”. Sam Waterson plays spectacularly well the role of the American journalist Sydney Schanberg, sent to Cambodia in 1973 to cover the civil war. Ironically, the film begins with a scene in which Schanberg objects to the execution of two Khmer Rouge officers.
Two years later, however, it’s the Khmer Rouge that distinguishes itself in its violence and oppression. The communist regime captures Schanberg and Pran, who have taken refuge in the French embassy. Realizing that Pran, as a Vietnamese intellectual, will be sent to a concentration camp by the new regime, his American friends try to give him a counterfeit passport. In a suspenseful and unforgettable scene, we watch as their hope melts as the picture fades before our eyes. The soldiers take Pran to the Killing Fields, a cesspool of mud and decaying corpses. As Pran struggles with all his might to stay alive, his friend, Sydney Schanberg, safely back in the United States, gets the Pulitzer Prize for his reports about the Cambodian civil war. Although in his acknowledgement speech Schanberg gives half of the credit to Pran, he remains ridden with doubts and guilt for leaving his friend behind and perhaps not doing enough to save him.
Eventually, Pran manages to save himself. He gains the trust of Phat, a man assigned to guard him by convincingly maintaining the ruse of being an uneducated peasant. For instance, when his guard speaks French to him to check his understanding, Pran pretends not to speak the language. Phat eventually trusts him with the safety of his young son in case he’s killed. This communist soldier’s character, it turns out, is more complex than it originally seemed. He tries to save several of his colleagues from being killed by other Khmer Rouge, but ends up shot. Pran escapes with Phat’s son and several other prisoners. In one of the most touching and horrific scenes of the movie, we watch as Pran’s companion, holding the boy on his back, activates a hidden mine. Pran is unable to save them from the explosion. A few days later, he reaches the border with Thailand, where he seeks refuge in a Red Cross camp. There he eventually reunites with his friend Sydney, who begs for his forgiveness for having left him behind in Cambodia. “There’s nothing to forgive Sydney,” Pran reassures and embraces his friend.
This movie succeeds on many levels: as a historical film; as a tension-filled drama; and as a moving, tragic tale of a man who suffered, along with millions of other innocent victims, at the hands of a genocidal communist regime. The tragedy doesn’t end with the relatively happy ending of the movie, however. As they say, sometimes life can be stranger than fiction. Ironically, in real life, three members of the “Oriental Lazy Boyz” gang killed the actor who played Pran’s role, Dr. Haing S. Ngor, on February 25, 1996 in downtown Los Angeles. The man who miraculously survived one of the worst genocides in human history ended up the victim of a random, senseless shooting in the streets of L.A.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon