There seems to be an unusually large number of sad anniversaries this year. Over last weekend, the anniversary of beginning of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia in 1975 was marked, which led me back to Roland Joffé's film, The Killing Fields (1984), which is the "true" story of New York Times correspondent Sidney Schanberg and his Cambodian go-between, Dith Pran. Our obligation to watch such films is, thankfully, not just a historical one. The Killing Fields is a bristling, challenging - if slightly flawed - work of art.
No single film can hope to encompass the human calamity that the Khmer Rouge inflicted on the people of Cambodia. Only estimates can tell us the number of those who perished under Pol Pot's regime. 1.7 million people, something like one-third of the population, died in what became known as Cambodia's "Killing Fields" - an enormous and unprecedented genocide, that started as yet another Communist social experiment, carried out by an ethnic group on itself. American culpability in the ascendancy of the Khmer Rouge is plain: Nixon's massive bombing campaign on alleged Vietcong supply lines succeeded in destabilizing the already shaky regime of Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
But Joffé's film, which was his first feature film, manages to encompass a great deal of Cambodia's murderous past by limiting itself the fates of two people, Schanberg and Pran. It begins with a picture of what an idyllic backwater Cambodia was before hell broke loose, with news reporters basking by the pool of their Phnom Penh hotel (the film was shot in Thailand) as the war in Vietnam raged across the border. The only reminders of that war that the foreign correspondents encounter are occasional exploding bombs in the cafes in which they breakfast. But then Pran hears about an "accident" - the dumping of a B-52's entire payload on a village called Neak Luong. Schanberg sees in it the potential for a scoop. Using Pran's connections, Schanberg risks both their necks getting there.
From this scene forward, events are telescoped a little, as it seems that the bombing somehow let the Khmer Rouge genie out of its bottle. In the space of just a few scenes, they are in Phnom Penh, and the American Consul (played by Spalding Gray) is shredding documents and preparing to leave. Pran manages to get his wife and children to safety in the States, but opts to stay with Schanberg in Cambodia. It's this decision, which Pran made from loyalty to Schanberg, that some would later use against Schanberg. Within days (or so it seems in the film), everyone, and especially the Cambodian people, learn something of the Khmer Rouge's real intentions, as everyone in Phnom Penh is ordered out of the city. Foreigners hole up in the French embassy, the only remaining foreign agency still open, and wait for their evacuation. Any Cambodian nationals among them are ordered to give themselves up. Schanberg and photographer Al Rockoff (played by John Malkovich) try to create a fake foreign identity for Pran - a British subject named Ankertill Brewer - replete with a passport, but the poor developing conditions make his passport photo fade. Schanberg and Pran say goodbye in April 1975. It takes Pran four and a half years to escape to Thailand.
Watching the film, as I did recently, with Roland Joffé's commentary for the DVD enriched my experience, without necessarily making the film seem better than it is. Joffé spends most of his time talking about the time and the place he was trying to evoke, but his comments don't exactly help with the experience of watching the film, which is remarkable enough without commentary. Apparently, he felt that his film was fulfilling some historical purpose, even though he insists that it is a love story he's telling, and not a story of war. In a sense, I think the film would've been more effective if it didn't try so hard to establish its historical context. All the events in the film happened to Schanberg and Pran, and they were responsible for Pran being unable to escape Cambodia, but the complexity of emotions that the actors reveal to us are inevitably dwarfed by history.
The ending of the film, the reunion of Schanberg and Pran at a refugee camp in Thailand (which was still there when the film was made), is somewhat shaky. Pran's purposeful walk to the Thai border looks longer and more far more circuitous than it probably was (Cambodia borders Thailand on the west and south). When he finally reaches the crest of a hill from which he can see the large tent with the big, beautiful red cross emblazoned on it, the film is, for dramatic purposes, virtually over. The final shots of Schanberg and Pran, accompanied by John Lennon's song "Imagine," are rather unnecessary, and more than a little mawkish. What was Lennon singing about if it wasn't a socialist paradise on earth - a paradise that Pol Pot somehow mistook for hell on earth? (One of Pol Pot's favorite books was Mein Kampf.)
Sam Waterston, despite Joffé's praise, was an unfortunate casting choice as Schanberg. He is generally awful, and this happens to be one of his finer performances. So much of the emotion he shows us seems worked up. When John Malkovich confronts him in the rest room at an award ceremony, accusing him of coercing Pran to stay with him in Cambodia, Waterston's reaction is so forced and unbelievable that it gives credence to Malkovich's argument. This is not as damaging to the film as one might think, simply because the film belongs to Haing Ngor, credited by the film as "Dr. Haing S. Ngor," who had never acted before this film. (He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance.)
It's important, I think, to remember that the story related in the film ended just five years before the film was made. How terrible it must've been for Haing Ngor to have to relive something that was still fresh in his memory. Joffé explains how reluctant Ngor was to do these scenes, and how he persuaded him to it for his countrymen.
At the end of his commentary, as we watch the closing scene of the film, Joffé gives a brief tribute to Ngor. The story of his life after The Killing Fields is one of both great triumph and ultimate catastrophe. After appearing in a handful of other, lesser films, including Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth, Ngor wrote a moving memoir that he called A Cambodian Odyssey. In it, he told the story of his wife, Chang My Huoy, who was also a doctor, trapped with him in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. She was pregnant, and since the Khmer Rouge would've killed them both if they'd known they were doctors, Ngor, who was an Obstetrician and Gynecologist, could do nothing to save her when she miscarried and died. Haing placed a picture of her inside a gold locket and swore to always wear it. A photo of the open locket is on the dust cover of the book. Because Ngor refused to surrender the locket to some Asian gang members who held him up in a parking garage near his home in Chinatown in Los Angeles in 1996, they murdered him. Joffé said that it was perhaps fitting that Ngor should've died violently, like so many of the people he loved.
So many factors contributed to the success of the film. David Putnam, the head of Goldcrest, produced the film and hand picked Joffé to direct it. Bruce Robinson wrote a workable script from quite unwieldy material. Chris Menges contributed superb cinematography, making Southeast Asia look quite different from Francis Ford Coppola's or Oliver Stone's (they shot their films in the Philippines, which incidentally doesn't look anything like Vietnam.) And Mike Oldfield, of "Tubular Bells" fame, wrote a very nervy, arresting and sometimes uplifting musical score. Because it's such a superbly made film, thirty years after it was made The Killing Fields has become an indelible part of how we think about Cambodia's tragic history.