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The Killing Fields Movie Essay

In the late winter/early spring of 1985, I attended a showing of the most immersive and artful movie I had yet encountered in my life: Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields. Growing up in a Goldwater household in a conservative Kansas town, I was nothing if not a pure Reaganite, a student (such that only 17-year-olds can be) and hater of ideologies of the left and the right. Growing up in a rather idyllic setting, however, meant that my view of the world was rather limited. I knew how horribly the ideologues of the world treated their citizens, but I certainly had nothing but my reading to go on. I felt for the Russian people, but they were also as distant to me in central Kansas as were the Martians. I knew a lot, especially for a teenager, but it was all from books. The Killing Fields opened entirely new worlds to me. It made the horrors of communism palpable in ways even the greatest books could not. And, it demonstrated to me—rather conclusively—that cinema as a medium can reach the level of the greatest art. I still consider it the single greatest movie I have ever seen, and I watch it yearly. Only weeks after watching the movie in the theater, I wrote my entrance essay for the University of Notre Dame on a “work of art that changed my life.” I chose, not surprisingly, The Killing Fields.

Based on the true events of a New York Times employee, Dith Pran, (a native Cambodian—Khmer) who has to escape the Cambodian gulag, circa 1976, the movie follows Pran through his horrific and terrifying escape from the Khmer Rouge, a journey that took four years from beginning to end. The actor who plays Dith Pran, Dr. Haing Ngor, had experienced almost the exact same persecution and escape from his native country. Ironically, Haing Ngor escaped from Cambodia only to be mugged and murdered in the driveway of his Chinatown-Los Angeles home in 1996. The two main characters of the movie—Sidney and Pran—separate in 1975 after the fall of Phnom Penn but reunite in 1979 at the conclusion of the movie, as they had in real life.

Historical background

The Kingdom of Cambodia, a French colony, was one of the most stable countries in southeast Asia in the 1960s. Industrializing and converting, quickly, to Christianity, the country enjoyed a prosperity that eluded its neighbors, Vietnam and Laos.

In 1969, President Richard Nixon began a secret, illegal, and unconstitutional incursion into Cambodia, correctly believing that Vietnamese communists were using rural parts of the country to transport weapons from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. He ordered carpet-bombing as well as the establishment of military bases in Cambodia. The struggle between American and communist forces quickly destabilized the region, radicalizing many of the already-radical elements in the country.

The most important of the insurgents was a group of existentialist communists, the Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodians), under the leadership of Pol Pot (an assumed name and title) and his organization, The Ankor (The Organization). Pol Pot (1925-1998) was born, Saloth Sar. Though a Roman Catholic and a devout Jeffersonian coming out of high school, Sar attended university in in Paris, from 1949 to 1953, where he came under the influence of several Marxists and, especially, under the influence of the radical, former Nazi-collaborator-turned-communist, philosopher Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980).

When Sar returned to Cambodia in 1953, he allied himself with Vietnamese communists and dedicated himself to the overthrow of western society in Cambodia, taking the name Pol Pot.  He and his organization,the Ankor, led by a number of Ph.D. students from France (all Cambodian), became the center of Marxist revolution.

Their Marxism, perhaps the most radical ever to gain power anywhere, was existentialist and anti-urban to the extreme. In a way that seems a pure contradiction to most in the West, Pol Pot fused Marx and Jefferson, taking the hatred of the wealthy from the former and the fear of cities from the latter.

When South Vietnam fell to the communists (in April 1975), and the Americans abandoned their long-time allies, Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge. Immediately upon taking over the country, the Khmer Rouge forced all Cambodians out of the cities, putting them to work (mostly in “make-work” projects) throughout the countryside.

Any person possessing any religious background at all, or any education past eighth grade, or foreign language skills (anything other than Khmer and French) was immediately executed. Any display of emotion—happiness, sorrow, anguish—also led to immediate execution, as emotions were defined as middle-class constructs.

During the three years the Khmer Rouge controlled the country, it murdered nearly one out of every two Cambodians in what has infamously been named “The Killing Fields,” a term that ought to elicit the same horrors as “the Gulag” and the “Holocaust camps.” In comparison to the Soviets who killed 62 million of their own citizens during their rule of Russia, the Chinese Communists who slaughtered 65 million of their own, and the Nazis who butchered 21 million, the number  of those murdered in Cambodia, 4.5 million, may seem a pittance. But it must not only be remembered that this number represents nearly half of the entire Cambodian population, but also that these murders were committed in a mere three years.

The members of the Khmer Rouge also began to kill one another—much as the French Revolutionaries had done to one another, after 1792—in attempt to “purify” the Marxism of their own revolution. As Russell Kirk wisely noted, revolutions have a tendency to eat their own children.

Tired of the instability and unpredictability of their neighbors, the Vietnamese Communists overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1978, establishing a puppet communist government. Pol Pot continued to wage revolution—though with little effectiveness—until his death in 1998. The United States, regrettably, even aided him from time to time, especially in the 1990s, believing him better than his Vietnamese opponents.

Blu-Ray Glories

Released in Blu-ray format in 2014, the digi-book includes exclusive photos as well as nice but relatively superficial write-ups about the producer, director, actors, and real-life subjects of the movie. Additionally, a few pull-quotes from positive reviews of the movie appear. Sound and visual quality of the Blu-ray, however, makes the purchase worth it. Each is extraordinary. As an anti-war war movie, the visuals and audio account for much. Though this was Mr. Joffe’s first major film, he captured human relations as well as the landscape beautifully. In particular, Mr. Joffe captured the sultry colors of humid southeast Asia, while never neglecting the dirt, smoke, and dust of war and the grime, blood, and muck of the gulag. The blu-ray disc reveals the depths, nuances, and layers of Mr. Joffe’s artistry in ways that VHS and DVD simply could not.

Best of all, though, the Blu-ray includes Mr. Joffe’s commentary on the movie. He discusses its strengths as well as its weaknesses (really, only one—ending the movie with the John Lennon anthem, “Imagine”). He also reveals the secret to its long and now timeless success as a work of art: Whatever the backdrop, The Killing Fields is really a movie about two things—the human condition and the essence of love.

Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. 

Published: May 6, 2016

That Dith Pran did survive provided the shape and the heart of the Schanberg memoir.

All this needs saying by way of introduction to ''The Killing Fields,'' the ambitious, serious new film that, with great care and respect, has been based on ''The Death and Life of Dith Pran.''

In most of its surface details, ''The Killing Fields'' is a faithful adaptation, acted with self-effacing honesty by Sam Waterston as Mr. Schanberg, Dr. Haing S. Ngor - himself a Cambodian refugee - as Mr. Dith, and by the members of the large, meticulously chosen cast. Photographed mainly on location in Thailand in jungles, paddy fields and cities made to appear ravaged, the movie looks amazingly authentic. There's not a cheap shot in the entire film.

Yet something vital is missing, and that's the emotional intensity of Mr. Schanberg's first-person prose. The movie is diffuse and wandering. It's someone telling a long, interesting story who can't get to the point.

''The Killing Fields,'' which opens today at the Cinema 1, is less a cinematic equivalent to the original than a movie about those experiences. It's a story told in the third-person, which attempts to make conventional, dramatic order out of the highly dramatic, harrowing, emotional disorder of the memoir. Bruce Robinson's screenplay makes clumsily explicit those subtly implicit feelings of doubt and guilt by which Mr. Schanberg's recollections of Dith Pran become, in fact, ''a story of Cambodia.''

Mr. Robinson and Roland Joffe, the director, never successfully dramatize the particularity of the events that, over an extended period of time, describe the rare nature of that friendship. It takes such a long, god- like view of things that often we're never sure what or whom the movie is about. Mr. Waterston's Schanberg is on screen most of the time but the camera, instead of convincing us that it's seeing events through his eyes, keeps looking over him to the wartime panorama beyond. The story is there but not the personal impact.

The film begins in 1973 and, with a lot of technical virtuosity, creates a vivid picture of the last, desperate months of the Lon Nol Government. There are Mr. Schanberg's discoveries of the terrible ''miscalculations'' by which innocent Cambodians are bombed to oblivion by United States planes, the increasing panic and high-handedness of American representatives in Phnom Penh and, finally, the abandonment of Phnom Penh.

Mr. Schanberg makes arrangements for the safe evacuation of Mr. Dith's wife and children, and when he, with a handful of other correspondents, elects to remain in the capital, Mr. Dith stays, too.

This decision, which puts Mr. Dith's life on the line, comes to haunt Mr. Schanberg. It also becomes so curiously overstated by the film that it seems that the meaning of the friendship, for dramatic expediency, has been vastly oversimplified and thus, in a way, underrated.

The film is most effective when it takes leave of Mr. Schanberg and follows Mr. Dith's dogged attempts to stay alive after he leaves Phnom Penh. At one point he is put into a forced labor camp where he survives on lizards and scorpions and by sucking the blood from living water buffaloes. Though tortured, he refuses to die. There's a good but never fully developed sequence in which he's befriended by a provincial Khmer Rouge official who trusts Mr. Dith to get his small son to the safety of Thailand.

The movie is not easy to watch. The massacres by which the Khmer Rouge attempt to reduce the population to manageable size - and to change the character of the country - are graphically depicted. Prisoners, individually and in odd-lots, are shot casually. Sometimes they're simply beaten to death - it saves bullets. In a nightmare scene near the end, the exhausted Mr. Dith finds himself stumbling through a paddy field whose dikes are composed of human bones.

The performances are uniformly fine. Mr. Waterston possesses the strength, humor and compassion of the increasingly obsessed Mr. Schanberg, and Dr. Ngor, who's never acted before, reveals an extraordinary screen presence as the resilient Mr. Dith. Prominent in the supporting cast are Julian Sands, Craig T. Nelson, Spalding Gray, Bill Paterson, Athol Fugard and John Malkovich, though, with the exception of Mr. Malkovich, who plays a prickly sort of news camerman, the roles are mostly functions of the plot.

Unfortunately, the most moving aspect of ''The Killing Fields'' is not the friendship, which should be the film's core, but the fact that the friendship never becomes as inspiriting as the one Mr. Schanberg recalled in his own searching, unhackneyed prose.

Story of Cambodia THE KILLING FIELDS, directed by Roland Joffe; screenplay by Bruce Robinson; director of photography, Chris Menges; edited by Jim Clark; music by Mike Oldfield; produced by David Puttnam; released by Warner Bros. At Cinema 1, Third Avenue and 60th Street. Running time: 139 minutes. This film is rated R. Sydney SchanbergSam Waterston Dith PranDr. Haing S. Ngor Al RockoffJohn Malkovich Jon SwainJulian Sands Military AttacheCraig T. Nelson United States ConsulSpalding Gray Dr. MacentireBill Paterson Dr. SundesvalAthol Fugard DougalGraham Kennedy Ser MoeunKatherine Krapum Chey TitonelOliver Pierpaoli SarunEdward Entero Chey

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