Filmed in Thailand by producer David (Chariots of Fire) Puttnam and director Roland Joffe, The Killing Fields is a vast and sprawling story about the friendship Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sydney Schanberg developed with his Cambodian guide-interpreter Dith Pran, a man who influenced his life and even saved his neck before almost losing his own.
The film begins in 1973, when Schanberg (played by Sam Waterston) arrives in Cambodia as a correspondent for The New York Times. The first part of the movie is about the guts and hard times of a journalist trying to get news out of hell.
News is suppressed, the press is controlled, phones and telex wires are at a premium. Somehow Schanberg gets his stories back to America by defying all rules, taking chances, getting himself arrested, and risking his life.
At his side, his faithful partner and comrade, Dith Pran, makes all things possible, ignoring the danger to his own welfare.
After the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975, when the monstrous Khmer Rouge begins its reign of terror, Schanberg manages to escape while the American troops are evacuated, taking the airlift with them, Pran is left behind to face tortures and inhumanities most civilised people never dream of.
The rest of the movie catalogues the four years in Pran’s life under the unspeakable new Cambodian regime that reduced a once-beautiful and proud country to a death camp of insanity, brutality and unendurable hardship.
While Schanberg tries in vain to locate his friend, Pran disappears into the interior, where seven million people are massacred. Brainwashed teenagers turned into zombies murder their elders without guilt or feeling. Men risk their lives to steal live lizards for food. The smallest human kindness becomes a death warrant . . .
So massive and filled with observation and detail is this canvas of chaos and suffering that you sit watching the screen, helpless and outraged, as you feel the terror of the homeless, the diminished pride, the desperation to survive no matter what. And always there are children-lost, tortured, bewildered, dripping with blood, and screaming. Always screaming.
While Nixon was busy lying to the American people about how no American troops would ever invade Cambodia, the reality was something quite different indeed.
Waterston is splendid as Schanberg, and there is an excellent contribution from John Malkovich as a hippie photographer who does everything in his power to save Dith Pran by forging a phoney passport.
But it is really Dr Haing S. Ngor, a Cambodian gynaecologist, who illuminates this sad and wrenching human document. A real refugee who watched his own family die of disease and starvation after the Khmer Rouge takeover, Ngor infuses every scene with a conscience and a spirit that gives The Killing Fields eloquence and sensibility.
This man is no actor, but he delivers one of the most haunting performances ever captured on film (and won an Oscar for it).
This powerful, devastating and deeply moving film about Cambodia is an exhausting but memorable experience. It will leave you shaking and furious.
Unhappily, Dr Haing S Ngor was brutally murdered by a street gang for no reason several years later.
Dr. Haing S. Ngor
Craig T. Nelson
United States consul
Chey Ser Moeum