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Film / The Killing Fields

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"The wind whispers of fear and hate. The war has killed love. And those that confess to Angkar vanish, and no one dare ask where. Here, only the silent survives."
Dith Pran

The Killing Fields is a 1984 British drama film by Roland Joffé (the French director of The Mission), based on US journalist Sydney Schanberg's account of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime in his 1980 New York Times Magazine article, "The Death and Life of Dith Pran", as well as accounts from survivors of the genocide the regime carried out. The role of Pran is portrayed in the film by Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a Cambodian doctor who actually lived under the Khmer Rouge and escaped, and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. It also stars Sam Waterston (who was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards) as Schanberg, along with John Malkovich, Julian Sands, Craig T. Nelson, and Spalding Gray. The soundtrack was composed by Mike Oldfield.

May, 1973: as the Khmer Rouge wages war against the Cambodian government, the American journalist Sydney Schanberg meets Cambodian journalist and interpreter Dith Pran. They become friends while covering the war together, until the Khmer Rouge army finally takes power over Cambodia and enters the capital city of Phnom Penh. There, both men — along with the remaining Westerners from Phnom Penh and thousands of terrified Cambodians — take refuge at the French embassy, until the Khmer Rouge forces all male Cambodians out and the others are evacuated.

Over the following years, Schanberg — now back in America — wins a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage and keeps in contact with Pran's family while trying to discover Pran's whereabouts. Pran, meanwhile, bears witness to the full horror of the new government's Killing Fields. Will Schanberg find Pran? And will Pran succeed in his escape?

Overall, the film is a very moving and powerful portrait of one of the darkest eras of the 20th century. Spalding Gray, who plays the U.S. consul, earned worldwide fame as a raconteur with his relating of his experiences making the film in his one-man stage show Swimming to Cambodia, later captured in Jonathan Demme's 1987 film of that title.

Not to be confused with Texas Killing Fields.

Provides Examples Of:

  • Artistic License – History: The scene with the forged passport is completely fictional. Though a plot was indeed hatched to smuggle Dith out of the country, it never materialized at all. Once the French authorities in the embassy caught wind of it, they realized it would jeopardize their exit. They summoned Syd Schanberg and insisted that Pran had to leave.
  • Atrocity Montage: The film depicts the tyrannical regime of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia such as the titular killing fields filled with bones and decaying corpses, extrajudicial murders in Phnom Penh, and the indoctrination of children to become executioners for the regime.
  • Based on a True Story: Based on the real story of Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran.
  • Book Ends: The bulk of the movie begins and ends with songs by the main two songwriters of The Beatles. When Sydney and co. first start taking photographs of the bombed village and are arrested for having a camera out in front of a prisoner execution, "Band on the Run" by Paul McCartney and Wings can be heard playing on a Cambodian soldier's radio. Much later on, when Sydney and Pran are reunited at the very end of the film, "Imagine" by John Lennon can be heard playing over the Thai refugee camp's intercom.
  • Bilingual Bonus: There are some lines of dialogue in Khmer and in French and they are not always translated.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Even though Pran escapes the regime in the end, the film makes note of all the other refugees who still remain in Cambodia. And millions died before Vietnam invaded Cambodia.
  • Buried in a Pile of Corpses: When he escapes, Pran falls in a large muddy hole. Suddenly he realizes with horror that it is full of corpses.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The young FANK soldier Pran gives the Mercedes emblem to ("Mercedes Number 1!") later cuts Pran loose, although this time as a Khmer Rouge guerrilla.
  • Civil War: During the first part of the film, between the NVA and VC-backed Khmer Rouge and the US and South Vietnamese-backed Khmer Republic.
  • Commie Land: The Khmer Rouge soon turn Cambodia into a brutal, economically backward, totalitarian state once they topple the old Khmer Republic.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Even among the mass shootings and people being starved to death, one of the Khmer's modes of execution really stands out as grotesque. In one scene, a worker is falsely accused of stealing by a child soldier, and is suffocated with a plastic bag around his head. In a later scene, many of the bodies in the ditches that Pran falls into have plastic bags over their heads.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Although Sydney is ostensibly the protagonist, the real hero of the film is Pran.
  • Defector from Decadence: Phat, the leader of the compound, finally has enough of the Khmer Rouge's brutal methods and what they mean for Cambodia's future and tries to oppose summary executions, but he is killed by other Khmer Rouge fighters.
  • Dirty Communists: The Khmer Rouge are a non-Soviet example, being a Chinese-backed Maoist regime intent on eliminating their perceived enemies any way they can.
  • Enemy Civil War: Within the communist side, the Marxist-Leninist People's Army of Vietnam versus the Maoist Khmer Rouge.
  • Enfant Terrible: The kids who the Khmer Rouge have brainwashed are really dangerous and fearsome.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Even a Khmer Rouge leader like Phat cares for his son.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Phat is a Khmer Rouge leader, but he is sick of their extreme methods and he fears for the future of Cambodia under their rule.
  • Everyone Has Standards:
    • The Khmer Rouge is so brutal in its methods and extreme in its ideology that even other Communist regimes either regard them as enemies (Viet Cong) or want nothing to do with them.
    • Inverted in the Khmer Rouge's treatment of the Soviet ambassador and his staff - they're kicked out of their embassy and forced to evacuate to the French embassy just like all other foreigners. Although communist, to the Khmer the Soviets were in the same category as Americans or western Europeans, and their communism insufficiently pure (i.e. in the Soviet Union, there was an elite "intelligentsia" of academics, scientists, engineers, writers, and artists, whereas those were the first people the Khmer Rouge killed)
  • Faux Affably Evil: One of the Khmer commandos encourages those who were educated or middle class to come forward and confess their sins of oppression against the peasants and workers. He gives them a friendly hug and thanks them for their honesty - and then sends them off to be shot.
  • Feeling Oppressed by Their Existence: The film depicts the Khmer Rouge's application of these principles to those of Vietnamese descent and "intellectuals," a category that included urban professionals and people who wore glasses.
  • Foregone Conclusion: If you know about the real-life Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran, then you know that the two do indeed reunite. Still, that doesn't make their separation, Pran's hardships, his escape, etc. any less compelling.
  • From Bad to Worse: The film begins with Cambodia being bombed by the American air force. It's horrible. Then the Khmer Rouge take over.
  • Genocide Survivor: Pran eventually survives his ordeal at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, though not without witnessing their horror first-hand and nearly dying.
  • Good is Not Nice: Al Rockoff has an extremely abrasive personality, but he clearly cares about Pran and does everything he can with his limited resources to save him. He's also not wrong in saying that Sydney is partly to blame for not doing more to encourage Pran to evacuate when he had a chance.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Several prisoners are summarily executed by the Khmer Rouge. The camera cuts away before a woman is shot with an AK-47 at point-blank range.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Phat, the Khmer Rouge compound leader, draws the line at summary executions of the prisoners and tries to stop them. He is promptly executed himself.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Sydney and Pran are two male journalists who have become extremely close friends while covering events in Cambodia. Pran is so attached to Sydney that when Khmer Rouge rebels force Sydney into an armored personnel carrier, Pran begs to be led into the vehicle rather than being kept out. When the two get separated, Sydney spends months searching for him, sending letters to dozens of international agencies, hoping to find any leads he can as to Pran's whereabouts. After learning that Pran has escaped the killing fields and made it to a Red Cross camp, Sydney personally flies over to meet him.
  • Hollywood History: Pran's time in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge was even worse than the way it was portrayed on film. The movie leaves out the times he was tortured, and presents a rosier picture of his eventual escape, since it shows him going straight to Thailand and The Red Cross when in fact before that he was found by the Vietnamese and made a village chief before escaping again before they found out about his American ties. And while the film does show his wife and children surviving and getting out note , in Real Life Pran still lost 50 other members of his family, including his three brothers and his sister.
  • Hope Spot: Al Rockoff seems to finally create a photo for Pran's fake passport despite the low quality paper and limited access to the photo lab chemicals, but the image fades by the time it's presented.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Sydney is a passionate journalist. He investigates the American bombings and he chooses to stay in Cambodia after the evacuation of the American embassy. Pran chooses to stay too, even if he knows that the Khmer Rouge will oppress the intellectuals and his family takes refuge in the US.
  • I Will Find You: Sydney devotes all his free time to finding Pran after escaping to America.
  • Made a Slave: Pran and countless other Cambodians are forced to labour in the fields for the regime.
  • MacGyvering: Al Rockoff is able to make a photograph of Dith Pran with the little equipment available in the French embassy. Unfortunately, the quality of fixer is so bad that the picture fades after a few days.
  • Meaningful Echo: Pran gives a Mercedes emblem to a young FANK soldier, who says "Mercedes number one!". Later, a Khmer Rouge guerrilla cuts Pran loose and tells him "Mercedes number one!", which reveals that he is the same soldier who has gone over or been conscripted into communist ranks.
  • Meta Casting: Dr. Hiang S. Ngor escaped Cambodia under eerily similar circumstances as Dith Pran, the man he portrayed. He was not a professional actor, but that connection and powerful performance regardless earned him an Academy Award.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: The Khmer Rouge regime sees basic human decency as weakness and ideological impurity. Not surprisingly, Phat is unceremoniously shot for protesting against a gratuitous mass execution.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Since the Khmer Rouge track and kill the educated, this is an important part of Dith Pran's survival. For example, he has to pretend that he does not understand foreign languages. It doesn't work, but luckily, Phat, the man who figures out his ruse, has become disillusioned with the Khmer Rouge regime and makes him his servant rather than sentencing him to death. Dr. Haing S. Ngor, the actor who plays his role, also lived in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge rule and he had to use the same tactic; this unfortunately led to his wife's death during childbirth as he could not perform a Caesarean section for fear of being exposed as a former doctor, which would have ended in both of them being summarily executed anyway.
  • People's Republic of Tyranny: Democratic Kampuchea, despite its name, is anything but actually democratic, being a communist dictatorship intent on killing anyone who even slightly opposes them or is considered a threat. They're so tyrannical that they make the neighboring Socialist Republic of Vietnam, itself one of these following the Fall of Saigon, look much better by comparison.
  • Penal Colony: The whole Cambodian countryside is turned into this, with the Khmer Rouge keeping a watch on their numerous prisoners doing hard work.
  • Real-Person Epilogue: In the epilogue, the photographs of the real Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran are shown.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • Sydney devotes the majority of his journalism award acceptance speech to outlining just how little the US government valued Cambodia's well-being except as a pawn against Communist expansion.
    • Rockoff gives Sydney one at an awards ceremony, accusing him of exploiting Pran to win his award. Sydney chews him out in return.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Phat, the regional party boss who makes Pran his servant and his son's caretaker, is the closest thing to a decent man in the Khmer Rouge, largely because he's secretly stopped believing in their ideology. He's ultimately murdered by his former comrades for his decency.
  • Renegade Splinter Faction: The Khmer Rouge were Maoist guerrillas trained by and supplied with weapons by North Vietnam. Despite this, once they take power, they immediately turn on their former ally for ideological and ancient nationalist reasons, as Vietnam prefers the Soviet model of communism over the Chinese model and has traditionally been Cambodia's historical oppressor. This backfires on them, since the Vietnamese simply elect to invade Cambodia and steamroll them into submission with their sheer military might once again, made possible due to Vietnam's extensive military experience over the past few decades coupled with the total societal regression and intellectual gutting of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge making their own military backwards, poorly armed, and poorly trained.
  • The Reveal: When Pran uncovers the titular Killing Fields, and in doing so discovers just what happens to all the Khmer Rouge's prisoners who ended up "disappearing."
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: In the beginning of the film, Cambodia is under the dictatorial rule of the pro-US Khmer Republic and suffers the American bombings. The Khmer Rouge is The Resistance. Then, the Khmer Rouge takes power and the situation goes From Bad to Worse.
  • Run for the Border: After he escapes, Pran's only chance to survive is to leave Cambodia and to cross the Thai border.
  • Scenery Gorn: The titular Killing Fields. Once Pran escapes, he goes through the countryside of Cambodia which has become under the Khmer Rouge rule an immense mass grave.
  • Scenery Porn: With Thailand filling in for Cambodia.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Socially engineered, and on a massive scale. Small children on brainwashed into cutting all ties with their parents and families and remade into loyal, robotic Khmer soldiers. Some of the most brutal scenes involve cold, emotionless child soldiers.
  • The Unfettered: Like their Vietnamese counterparts, the Khmer Rouge keep driving forward until victory is achieved, no matter how many casualties they take, eventually overrunning all of Cambodia itself to weaker and weaker resistance.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: In the epilogue, the current position of Sydney Schanberg, Dith Pran and the Khmer people is told.
  • White Man's Burden: Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist, is left in Cambodia, while Schanberg is evacuated from the French embassy. Schanberg does eveything he can to save Dith Pran. Subverted, because Schanberg cannot do anything useful. Dith Pran saves himself.
  • Workplace-Acquired Abilities: Fortunately, Al Rockoff is a professional photographer, so he is able to make a photograph of Dith Pran with the little equipment available in the French embassy. Unfortunately, the quality of fixer is so bad that the picture fades after a few days.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain:
    • Just when it seems Pran will be able to evacuate the embassy with the other journalists, his passport gets rejected, because the picture has faded.
    • After all Pran's efforts to save him, Phat's son is killed.