The Killing Fields: A Review

June 10, 2011
From 1975 to 1979, 2 million innocent Cambodians were slaughtered by the guerilla army of Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot, and another million lost their lives indirectly through either famine or disease. Those that died by bombs and gunfire were considered lucky compared to those evacuated to camps in the countryside. In these camps, Cambodians were forced to work in fields from 4 AM to 10 PM. They received little rest, and were given a paltry diet of a 180 gram tin of rice to eat every two days. Thousands died from being overworked, malnutrition, and disease. Today the camps that these innocents were forced into are known as “The Killing Fields”. The name represents the torture and pain that millions of Cambodians were put through, and elicits the sorrow of innumerable innocents who were condemned to live in an unending nightmare day after day. So with all this in mind, why does the movie “The Killing Fields” make the suffering of these Cambodians a mere backdrop for a sappy, one-dimensional friendship story?

From 1972 to 1975, Sydney Schanberg worked as a New York Times’ foreign correspondent as he surreptitiously exposed the horrors of Cambodia. In 1976, Mr. Schanberg received the esteemed and coveted Pulitzer Prize for his work. It was not until four years later in 1980, that Mr. Schanberg revealed his ground-breaking memoir, “The Death and Life of Dith Pran”, the basis of the movie, “The Killing Fields”. In it, the public came to know of Mr. Schanberg’s Cambodian assistant, close friend, and savior, Dith Pran who was trapped in the monstrous social experiment of the Khmer Rouge only a year earlier. The book dually functioned as an outlet for Mr. Sydney’s guilt and agony over his feckless attempts to save his friend from the Khmer Rouge’s mass exodus of educated Cambodians, especially those who had previous affiliations with Americans.

In “The Killing Fields”, director, Roland Joffe attempts to chronicle Cambodia’s injustice as well interweave the threads of Mr. Schanberg and Mr. Pran’s friendship into the movie. The movie starts off in 1973 with the introduction of Cambodia’s woes. Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterson) is covering the secret and accidental US bombing of neutral Cambodia as foreign correspondent of the New York Times. Dith Pran (Haing S. Nor) assists Schanberg as an interpreter as well as a fellow reporter. As the US begin to withdraw and the Khmer Rouge begin their takeover, Mr. Schanberg arranges for the evacuation of Mr. Pran’s family, and allows Mr. Pran to remain in the capital, Phnom Penh so they can continue their work together. This decision is based on wishful thinking, and soon proves to be a terrible mistake. Mr. Pran is taken to the infamous re-education camps on the outskirts of the country. The movie hits its peak in a few frantic scenes showing Mr. Schanberg’s attempts to save Mr. Pran from his ineluctable fate. Fortunately, Mr. Pran survives and escapes from his imprisonment and is eventually reunited with his family and Mr. Schanberg.

The fact that Mr. Pran did survive dictates the course of the entire story. Therefore, the title “The Killing Fields” is a misnomer. A movie cannot have a happy ending when it is named, “The Killing Fields”. The real tragedy is that Mr. Pran and Mr. Schanberg’s relationship was never one-dimensional to begin with. Unfortunately, a clumsily written screenplay fails to recreate the original authenticity and depth of their friendship. For instance, the screenplay wraps the many subtle feelings of doubt, despair, and guilt held by Mr. Schanberg all into a single banal, explicit bathroom scene. It is clear that more time was spent on the authentic setting and special effects as opposed to expanding on the Mr. Pran’s effect on Mr. Schanberg. In order for “The Killing Fields” to be a success, Mr. Roland Joffe needs to find the right balance between friendship and horror so that Mr. Pran and Mr. Schanberg’s relationship is moving, but the terrors of Cambodia are not forgotten. A daunting task indeed. It is admirable that Mr. Joffe was courageous enough to try to create a structured, organized movie out of the disordered chaos of Cambodia’s horrors. However, oversimplifying the complex, rich friendship of Mr. Pran and Mr. Schanberg, making the horrific injustices of Cambodia a mere backdrop, and slapping on a tagline is neither a solution nor a good movie.

“The Killing Fields” starts off well. The movie was shot and acted out amongst the savage jungles, and innumerable rice paddies of Thailand’s countryside. The money and effort spent on an authentic setting pay off. There’s not a single cheap shot in the entire movie. In addition, the acting is pitch-perfect. Mr. Sam Waterson makes the most out of a shallow and ineptly written screenplay with his prowess on stage. Mr. Haing S. Nor, although he only plays a supporting role as Mr. Dith Pran, shines. Even more impressive, he is not a professionally trained actor, but merely a doctor who lived through the tragedy of Cambodia. It’s no wonder then, that Mr. Nor in collaboration with Mr. Joffe, flawlessly sum up Mr. Pran’s years spent in a re-education camp in a scant twenty-five minutes.

Unfortunately, this only creates a higher pedestal for the movie to fall from. Mr. Roland Joffe makes the ending the last thing it should be – comforting. The last scene shows Mr. Pran reuniting with his dear friend, Mr. Schanberg while the song “Imagine” by Paul McCartney plays in the background. Before the movie fades out, a message reads
“Cambodia’s torment has not ended yet. The refugee camps on the Thai border are still crowded with the children of the killing fields.”
By dedicating only two sentences to the tragedy of Cambodia, it makes their suffering seem like an afterthought. Amazingly, with this ending, the countless scenes of spilt blood and torn limbs are forgotten. It is almost as if Mr. Joffe is trying to soothe a traumatized audience. The truth is ugly. By sparing the audience any of the facts, the years spent and sacrifices made by reporters such as Mr. Schanberg and Mr. Pran in order to bring this truth to the audience are wasted.

When asked about his experiences, Dith Pran answered,
“I don’t consider myself a hero or a politician. I’m a messenger. If Cambodia is to survive, she needs many voices.”
“The Killing Fields” was Mr. Joffe’s golden opportunity to become a voice that could spread this message to a larger audience. However, somewhere in the middle, that message was lost as the movie slowly digressed from the truth. Mr. Joffe along with the cast of “The Killing Fields” worked hard to make a movie so that the voice of millions of suffering Cambodians and investigative journalists would not be left unheard. However, it is clear that “The Killing Fields” is still struggling to find the right words.

Join the Discussion

This article has 2 comments. Post your own now!

hanging_girl_666 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jul. 18, 2011 at 7:26 pm
Wow. That was great, and i loved the ending. " Struggling to find the right words." :) Very nice job.
the_critic_is_in replied...
Aug. 23, 2011 at 3:02 pm
thank you for reading! i'm glad you enjoyed it.
Site Feedback