The late seventies and eighties were rife with stories about one renegade man going to the jungles of Asia to rescue a person they love. Whether it was Rambo style, filled with heavy machine guns and rippling muscles or Deer Hunter style, filled with agonizing and meandering Russian Roulette games, every story seemed a little far fetched. It didn’t reflect the everyday reality that tons of refugees faced. What would happen if you left behind a person that meant a lot to you in a war torn country to presumably die? What would you be able to do for them or would you be able to do anything at all? The Killing Fields tells a more true to life story of a New York Times reporter and his guide through the early days of Khmer Rouge occupied Cambodia and his struggle to find him after he goes missing.
This movie is more a series of vignettes than having a conventional plot line. This is because the real life events didn’t happen in a pretty straight forward narrative style. Sydney Schanberg is deep within his assignment as the Cambodian reporter for the New York Times. He brings Dith Pran along with him so he can translate for him and also help him get to places normal reporters can’t go. With Pran’s help he breaks several stories related to the United States bombing Cambodia in secret. He also gets arrested and escapes with the skin of his teeth, thanks to him. As the Khmer Rouge’s ascent to power becomes more assured, Schanberg secures passage to the United States for Dith Pran and his family. But Dith Pran refuses to go, deciding instead to send just his family and stay behind with Schanberg and continue to cover the war. Finally the government take over is complete and every non-Cambodian is holed up in the French Embassy. The Khmer Rouge is demanding that every Cambodian be taken out of the French Embassy in order for them to leave safely. Schanberg and his fellow photojournalists scurry to make Pran a fake passport, but all of their efforts are for not. Pran disappears before the Khmer Rouge gets to him (by now it is a known fact that the Khmer Rouge will execute anyone who is educated and has ties to an imperial power. Dith Pran was a doctor.) Schanberg goes back home. He is defeated. He tries every avenue he can to get Pran out but communication has gone down between them. He gives Pran up for dead. The story now becomes about Dith Pran’s path for survival. At every turn Pran must hide his background from the militants in charge and writes mental letters for Schanberg in order to stay sane. But will he be able to escape this oppressive regime that killed seven million out of their ten million population within the space of a couple of years? An answer to that question will involve spoilers, so I won’t give you the solution.
Although the story is fascinating, the cinematography is amazing, and the performances were pretty good, I felt like I was being preached to the entire time I was watching this film. I felt the weight of the running time on my head. It wasn’t able to fully engage me on an emotional level. I think it is because the film chose to take a third person view of a situation that would have benefited from a first person viewpoint. If I was able to see the conflict from Dith Pran’s viewpoint more often, I think I would have enjoyed it more. In fact for the last thirty minutes or so, it is mostly from his point of view and I think that is where the film finally hits its stride. The intense suffering and long nights he had trying to stay alive in an oppressive country that he once called his home is arresting stuff. But for most of the film length it is Schanberg’s viewpoint. We see the incoming war from the point of view of an outsider. Sometimes an outsider can bring an unique perspective but not this time. Dith Pran is the hero here, not Schanberg and he should be treated as such.
I usually don’t bring in IMDb facts that I read because there is usually nothing more I can add to them. But I feel like this time, I wanted to point out the life of the person who played Dith Pran. Dith Pran was played by a Cambodian refugee they found living in Thailand. His name was Haing S. Ngor and he too was a doctor before the Khmer Rouge took over. He had a wife just like Pran did, but his wife was pregnant and chose to die in childbirth instead of giving up her husband as an educated man who knew how to deliver a baby. Mr. Ngor was hesitant to take the role, but accepted it after he remembered he promised his wife that he would tell the story of his people. Mr. Ngor would go on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and would continue to work in Hollywood off and on for a couple more years. In 1996, he was found dead in his apartment, apparently murdered. Although there were wild suspicions that he was whacked by the Khmer Rouge militants for making such an anti-Khmer Rouge movie, it was later revealed that he was killed by robbers who wanted the valuables in his home for drugs. When his niece came to his apartment to collect his things and pack it up, she found the Oscar he had won for this movie. The bronze had completely worn off. Apparently he was so proud of the statue that he would hold it for long periods of time. Isn’t that a bitter sweet story? It brings a tear to my eye. I am a weepy girl after all.