A few years ago I saw Lord Puttnam give a moving speech at the BAFTA’s when accepting a fellowship into the Academy. Prior to the speech there were clips from the films he has been involved in during the course of his distinguished career, one of these films was The Killing Fields. I made a mental note there and then to see the film. Shortly afterwards I was watching a documentary on the cold war which referenced the Khmer Rouge and their activities in Cambodia in the wake of the Vietnam war. “I really must watch The Killing Fields,” I thought to myself. Recently I’ve watched The Constant Gardener and The Year of Living Dangerously. It suddenly seemed appropriate to continue a kind of ‘tour of duty’ by looking at more Western characters in foreign climes – in this case it’s the true story of journalist Sydney Schanberg and his friendship with Cambodian journalist/translator Dith Pran.
It is a harrowing story, if you aren’t aware of the Khmer Rouge and what they did then I’d advise a quick read around the internet. It is one of the worst examples of political extremism in the history of the world, easily rivalling the Nazi holocaust or Stalin’s purges in sheer brutality as well as in terms of the amount of people killed (estimates vary from 750,000 to 3 million).
The film follows the lead up to the Khmer Rouge taking control of the country and the journalists attempting to cover the story and stay alive. For Sydney and his group Pran is a saviour – his intervention seemingly saves their lives, allowing them to escape to the safe haven of the French embassy when the invasion takes place. Schanberg has already evacuated Pran’s family to America but disaster strikes when they cannot get Pran along with them. Instead he is turned over to the Khmer Rouge and left to survive. There follows the story of Pran’s involvement in the working camps and Schanberg’s unfailing attempts to find out about him. It is a glimpse, only a filmic glimpse, at the horror that occurred at the time – the imagination struggles to comprehend the scale of human suffering and this film only shows the experience of one man. The story cannot help but be deeply affecting. The path that Dith Pran had to take to reach freedom was a torturous one and the role is leant added gravitas by Haing S. Ngor, who himself survived the concentration camps – though his wife did not.
There are problems with the film, sometimes the Mike Oldfield score is too intrusive and the structure has a first section that is probably too lengthy compared to the second. But these are minor complaints in what is otherwise an exceptional and important work.
Note: The last four links are to wikipedia for a little more info on the people and events that I’m talking about. Reading about the Khmer Rouge is incredibly sad but compulsive – I spent an hour on the internet reading about it, be warned.
Note: The Killing Fields is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under ‘Journalist Movies’.