Based on true events in 1970s Cambodia, Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) is a New York Times journalist covering their civil war. Local Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor) faithfully helps Schanberg cover the tragic stories of the war. When the embassies are warned against the Khmer Rouge invading the capital, Pran sends his family to leave with the American troops but he chooses to stay behind with Schanberg and the other journalists, including a photographer played by John Malkovich. The foreigners will be able to leave, but all the native Cambodians will be forced into labor camps and subject to endure hard labor or execution. When Schanberg and Pran are split up,Schanberg dedicates his work to finding Pran, earning him awards in journalism. Pran must just find a way to survive.
This is obviously not a Hollywood film. Our American hero, Schanberg, doesn’t hold much power and shows little brawn. After he has to leave Pran behind, he does everything he can to find out his location and get him out of Cambodia. The extent of his efforts is typing up letters and sending them out with photographs of Pran attached. These are not the bold American heroics Hollywood would show us, but it is all the real Schanberg could really do.
Since a narrative led by Schanberg back in New York would be pretty boring, the second half of the film switches perspectives. We see how Pran survives his captors under complete silence and repression under the Khmer Rogue’s Year One policy. It’s here that the film shines and makes us understand the dire severity of the situation in Cambodia. The majority of the second half of the film has little dialogue but what is shown explains more than conversation could. Here, random executions happen all the time and anything that could improve life is destroyed by the children who seem to be systematically brainwashed. It looks like the leaders of the Khmer Rouge are extinguishing everything about modern civilization and instilling agrarian values into the children. There is no value for education, religion, family or life outside of mundane manual labor. The brutality administered by the children, seen to be the future leaders of this new age, can be very disturbing and disheartening. Part of this new age is to execute anyone who seems to have any formal education, so Pran stays completely silent to make them believe he is simply a peasant. Being locked up in the embassy was the easy part of Pran’s journey, escaping the labor camp will prove to be a harrowing task.
For his portrayal of Dith Pran, Haing S. Ngor became the second non-professional actor to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Ngor also endured being a captive of the Khmer Rouge and escaped. Many of the scenes in the film were very intense for Ngor, being so similar to the real life horrors he endured.
The Killing Fields is one of those rare films that everyone should see, but most won’t or won’t want to. For your average film fan, that’s perfectly understandable since this is very un-Hollywood film. But Cambodia is one of those moments in history that the average American doesn’t know very much about, and that’s a shame. For any film, history of human rights buff, The Killing Fields should be on your must see list.
“The wind whispers of fear and hate. The war has killed love. And those that confess to the Angka are punished, and no one dare ask where they go. Here, only the silent survive.”