In 1975 the revolutionary group Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and initiated a regime that reportedly claimed two million lives. At the time the Vietnam War was still going on, Cambodia was a strategic territory for the American army and the country was full of journalists. The basis of the movie’s story comes from the lives of two of them: New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg, and Dith Pran, Cambodian photojournalist and interpreter who coined the term “Killing Fields.”
Written by Bruce Robinson based on their writings, the movie follows in fact two stories: one is the fall of Phnom Penh, the capital, and the evacuation of the international embassies, as witnessed by Sydney and Pran, and Sydney’s return to the USA; and the second, more radical narrative, shows the horrors of the Khmer Rouge as witnessed by Pran after he’s captured and sent to work in a Killing Field, and his epic escape to freedom.
From Phnom Penh Sydney and Pran report the events of the civil war between the government and the Khmer Rouge, with the revolutionaries clearly gaining control of the country. The international embassies start evacuating their personnel. Sydney and Pran opt to remain, although Pran sends his wife and family away. As the Khmer Rouge revolutionaries enter the city, they’re initially received with joy and prospects of peace, everyone tired of the war. Even Pran joins the festivities. However the Khmer Rouge, split in different factions due to internal power struggles, continue to fight in the capital. Sydney and Pran find refuge in the French embassy, until it’s also evacuated and all Cambodians hiding there are turned over to the revolutionaries.
For the time, the movie was quite revolutionary in casting a non-amateur actor in the role of Dith Pran. They found Haing Somnang Ngor, a doctor living in the USA, to portray Pran. Like Pran, Ngor had also spent four years in the killing fields before escaping. He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1985 for this role. He played the role with naturalism and lightness, displaying a restraint in emotions in situations where an actor would typically go into melodramatic mode. The choice of Ngor is ahead of its time for another reason. Anglo-American movies tend to work on the logic that audiences can only care for the plight of foreign countries if the experiences are mediated through a character from their culture; that’s why war correspondents are usually the main characters in such movies. Although now thanks to movies like Letters from Iwo Jima and Hotel Rwanda this is changing, casting a Cambodian actor to tell the story of a Cambodian prisoner of the Khmer Rouge was audacious then.
Sam Waterston also delivers a powerful performance as Sydney, an authoritarian boss who blames himself for having used Pran to further his career only to abandon him. Back in New York he starts an international campaign to find his friend, always wondering whether he’s doing enough for him. The movie is also helped with performances from John Malkovich and Julian Sands as two other journalists, Craig T. Nelson as the US Army officer in charge of the American evacuation, and Spalding Gray as the morally-torn American Consul, wary of abandoning the country to the revolutionaries.
The scenes in the Killing Fields still have, decades later and after graphic violence has become generalised, the power to affect because of how the movie shows the psychological roots of the crimes. It’s not that the images are excessively violent, it’s that the movie depicts a philosophy of inhumanity. Regimes don’t just producer horror for its own sake, the violence is just a tool to implement ideas. Rather than just showing the horrors, the movie shows the philosophy which the violence was used to enforce: the viewer is taken into the classrooms where children are being taught to hate the concept of family and any personal relationships that may threaten blind loyalty to the party; children are given power over life and death; intellectuals, teachers, journalists are executed for their skills; people are forbidden from growing crops, because that’s a sign of free initiative, even though thousands are starving to death The movie confronts us with those ideas and we can’t help but ask, “How the hell did anyone ever think these ideas could work in a society?”
Not everything holds up as well in the movie. Many good scenes are ruined by Mike Oldfield’s intrusive cacophony of synthesizer noises. Nowadays, when we listen to electronic scores with less patience than our ancestors did back in the ‘80s, a lot of this music sounds horrible. Oldfield, one of my favourite living musicians, is by no means an inept film composer, however: half the score, when he turns to traditional orchestration, is majestic. “Pran’s Theme” and its variations are appropriately elegiac, and “Requim for a City,” with its chorus of grieving voices, is a haunting attempt at showing through music the misery of the one million Cambodians forced by the Khmer Rouge to abandon the capital in a forced march to the countryside to work on the Killing Fields.
Twenty-seven years later what the movie has to say about the darkness in the human soul, and the determination to overcome it, remains fresh. It’s impressive to imagine that this was the directorial debut of British director Roland Joffé, when he wasn’t even forty. Maybe it was just a conflation of luck and good collaborators, including director of photography Chris Menges and editor Jim Clark, both of whom also won Oscars for this movie. Joffé only has one other movie of worth in his career, The Mission, which unsurprisingly reunited a lot of the same crew. Although Joffé has wasted the rest of his career, The Killing Fields is the type of movie most filmmakers would give an eye to have directed, one that feels like the work of a seasoned master with a lifetime of experience not just behind a camera but of trying to figure out the world.
Director: Roland Joffé
Screenplay: Bruce Robinson
Cast: San Waterston, Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich, Julian Sands, Craig T. Nelson, Spalding Gray, Monirak Sisowath
Runtime: 141 min