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Bucket List Movie #454: The Killing Fields (1984)

Updated on October 2, 2014
Roland Joffe
Roland Joffe | Source

The murderous reign of Pol Pot and his followers, the Khmer Rouge, stands as one of the greatest human atrocities in the last half century. Less than forty years ago, just when the Vietnam War was coming to an end, the small, neutral country of Cambodia was seized by the Khmer Rouge, who rounded up millions of Cambodia's citizens (especially the capital, Phnom Penh) and forced them to live in primitive villages in the jungle, in order to live out Pol Pot's vision of an agricultural utopia. Everyone, even children, the elderly, and the sick, worked day in and day out farming rice in poor conditions and areas blighted with malaria. Those who were considered threats were beaten, tortured, or killed, such as intellectuals (even those who happened to wear glasses were suspect), artists, and anyone who spoke English or French. Families were separated, and there were schools that attempted to indoctrinate children by teaching them to reject the notion of family. People who weren't executed died of starvation (each person barely got a cup of rice), exhaustion, or malaria. An estimated two million Cambodians died during this nightmarish time. Though Pol Pot's reign ended when Vietnam retaliated against an attack he launched in 1979, and his prisoners fled to refugee camps in Thailand, it would be years Cambodia would recover from his destructive legacy.

The story of Cambodia's plight was one that needed telling, and it was beautifully, though painfully, brought to light in Roland Joffe's masterful 1984 film, The Killing Fields (the term was coined by Dith Pran, who is the focus of the movie). I griped in my last review how shameleslly inaccurate and embellished Good Morning, Vietnam was. I have no such complaints for The Killing Fields. There are embellishments (including a potentially egregious one at the end, but more on that later), but they are minor, forgivable, and don't affect the overall story.


The Killing Fields is based on a very true, very specific, and very harrowing story of American journalist Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) and Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor), who chose to stay in Cambodia after Phnom Penh is taken over by the Khmer Rouge. Pran, sensing the potential danger, sends his family to America, hoping to rejoin them later. Sydney and Pran are determined to share their story with the world, and endure the increasing squalor of the abandoned city and the hostility of Khmer thugs. But when it's time to leave, Pran realizes he will most likely be taken prisoner, being not only a Cambodian citizen, but an intellectual at that. Sydney and photographer Al Rockoff (John Malkovich) attempt to make Pran a fake passport, but to no avail. Pran is taken prisoner, and Sydney has no choice but to go back to the States. He tirelessly campaigns to get Pran's story out there, and to find a way to rescue his friend.

You would think this would be Sydney's story, since he's the white, American protagonist… but it isn't. The Killing Fields defies the archaic Hollywood convention of focusing on the familiar white character, and instead devotes a greater deal of screen time to Pran. Pran isn't made the typical, comical minority sidekick, but is instead a normal man tossed into a distressing situation. In Pran's scenes, only Khmer is spoken, and there are no subtitles to guide us in the narrative. I think this is a brilliant move, because, while Pran and the others know what they're saying, we don't, so it increases our empathy of Pran, because we feel as confused and isolated as he does. Pran bravely goes through the motions of the labor camps, turning a blind eye to the indiscriminate abuse all around him, and resorting to cutting cows and drinking their blood to avoid starving. All the while, he drafts mental letters to his family and Sydney, and in the end his resourcefulness and courage will aid him in his escape from Pol Pot's hell on earth.


As remarkable as Pran's experiences were, so were those of the actor who played him, Haing S. Ngor, because he was also a victim of the Khmer Rouge regime. A gynecologist at the time, Ngor and his wife were taken by the Khmer Rouge, and Ngor had to conceal his medical training to protect himself and his pregnant wife. Sadly, he was unable to protect her either way, as she eventually died in childbirth, along with their baby. Ngor escaped to Thailand in 1979, and went on to America. According to Wikipedia, Ngor was spotted by Joffe at a Cambodian wedding in Los Angeles, and was soon cast as Pran. Ngor was hesitant, but was eventually convinced to take the project on, even if it meant reliving the horrors of the killing fields.

Ngor had absolutely no background in acting, but it matters not, for he is natural, compelling, and heartbreaking as Pran. Having witnessed these events firsthand, he brings an honesty and clarity to the film, to the point where it feels like a documentary. Ngor won worldwide acclaim, and in 1985, he made history by receiving the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, being not only the first Asian actor to receive the award, but the second of only two non-professional actors to win for his debut performance (the first was Harold Russell, for The Best Years of Our Lives, in 1947). The award opened many doors for Ngor, who continued acting, and also founded the Dr. Haing S. Ngor foundation, which promotes Cambodian history and the arts. In a tragic, sickening irony, Ngor, who survived a totalitarian regime and endured the loss of his wife and child, was murdered by gang members, the Oriental Lazy Boyz, in an attempted mugging in 1996. It took nearly a decade for the thugs who did this to him to be brought to justice. Dith Pran said of Ngor's death:

"He is like a twin with me. He is like a co-messenger and right now I am alone." (

Pran himself later founded the Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project to educate the public about the victims of Pol Pot's genocidal regime. Pran died of pancreatic cancer in 2008 at the age of 65.


How completely accurate is The Killing Fields? It's difficult to determine, but sometimes you can tell how much is embellished and how much is true. That's the challenge of adapting a story like this: you want to tell the horrible truth, but you also want to reach as wide an audience as possible, so you have little choice but to make your story somewhat palatable. For instance, from the few clips of Schindler's List I've seen, as brutal and heartbreaking as the concentration camp scenes are… I'm sure the reality was far worse. This is not meant as a criticism, for you want your story to attract an audience, not alienate them. What those poor people saw would shake anybody to their core, and it can never be completely recreated for the screen, even if you tried. That's sums up The Killing Fields. It's violent, terrifying, even sickening, but even someone like me, who only has a rudimentary understanding of what went on, knows that they could never fully capture what really happened. Ngor himself was quoted to say,

"The film is real, but not real enough. The cruelty of the Khmer Rouge is not bad enough." (

Still, where The Killing Fields succeeds where most other biopics fail is that it never feels false… at least until the end. I'm not going to say the ending ruins the movie, but it is a little problematic. The end shows Pran and Schanberg reunited after 4 years, while John Lennon's "Imagine" plays on the soundtrack. According to the commentary on The Killing Fields DVD, Joffe chose the song because it could be interpreted as sweet, but also ironic, because some people have interpreted the lyrics of "Imagine" as having potentially communist ideology ("Imagine no possessions…"). I suppose I forgive the choice, but I couldn't help but find it a syrupy and distracting addition to a movie that had such a consistently serious tone up until that point.

The Killing Fields shows how this sort of event happens all over the world, even today. We must never forget, and we must be vigilant and aware of the misery inflicted by monsters in power. But The Killing Fields is also about the enduring power of friendship, and how basic human decency can thrive even under the most dire circumstances.

"Part of my life is saving life. I don't consider myself a politician or a hero. I'm a messenger. If Cambodia is to survive, she needs many voices." ~Dith Pran, 1942-2008
"Part of my life is saving life. I don't consider myself a politician or a hero. I'm a messenger. If Cambodia is to survive, she needs many voices." ~Dith Pran, 1942-2008 | Source
"I wanted to show the world how deep starvation is in Cambodia, how many people die under communist regime. My heart is satisfied. I have done something perfect."~Dr. Haing S. Ngor, 1940-1996
"I wanted to show the world how deep starvation is in Cambodia, how many people die under communist regime. My heart is satisfied. I have done something perfect."~Dr. Haing S. Ngor, 1940-1996 | Source

My Sources



"Pol Pot: Secret Killer." A&E Biography. Dir. Greg Barker. A&E TV, 2006, DVD.

The Killing Fields. Dir. Roland Joffe. Perf. Sam Waterston, Dr. Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich, Athol Fugard. Warner Home Video, 1984; 2001. DVD.

Greenblatt, Miriam. Enchantment of the World: Cambodia. Chicago: Children's Press, 1995.


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