The Killing Fields (1984) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Unusual film, which resulted in an acting Oscar being awarded to a non-actor.

The Killing Fields is a true story, with very little if any fictional embellishment, about journalists in Phnom Penh during the transition of Cambodia to the Pol Pot regime in 1975. 

The Cambodian people must be the most persecuted and suffering in the second half of the twentieth century.

  • First they were in the way when the North Vietnamese needed bases to stage attacks into South Vietnam.
  • Then they found themselves in the way of American bombs when Nixon attacked the alleged North Vietnamese camps and supply lines in Cambodia. You may have heard of this. It began as Nixon's so-called "Secret Bombing".
  • The people were filled with joy when the Khmer Rouge won their revolution against the government, but Pol Pot proved to be crueler to his own people than any outsider had ever been (1975-79)
  • Then the Vietnamese invaded again in 1978, and eventually ousted the Khmer Rouge from power
  • The Khmer Rouge continued to fight a guerrilla fight for pretty much the rest of the century.
Between 1967 and 1975, there was a complicated three way struggle for power in Cambodia itself, with civilian casualties throughout the country. The left-wing Khmer Rouge was engaged in one armed rebellion, while a right-wing military coup simultaneously conspired against Prince Sihanouk and toppled him in 1970. The right and left were then left to battle each other for another five years. 



Meanwhile, the United States was attacking Vietcong positions and supply lines across the Cambodian border. The Americans bombed Cambodia, a neutral country, without a declaration of war from march 1969 until 1973. In the last analysis, this proved helpful to the Cambodian left-wing, because the pressure of the American attacks did not drive the Vietcong back to Vietnam, but rather deeper into Cambodia, where they ended up joining forces with the Khmer Rouge, thus strengthening them.

Finally, with the Vietnamese war over, the Americans having withdrawn, and Nixon having resigned, the Khmer Rouge won the revolutionary struggle, captured the capital city of Phnom Penh, and sealed it off to the outside world, eventually making it a virtual ghost town by relocating its inhabitants to the countryside. This proved to be the worst luck yet for Cambodians. Pol Pot had studied communist ideology and planned to turn Cambodia into a successful agrarian society (he abolished the concept of money, for example), so he took millions of city dwellers and relocated them to hard labor camps in the countryside. About two million Cambodians died as a result of this failed farming experiment, the so-called "Killing Fields"

Soon thereafter (1978), the Vietnamese and Cambodians had their own intra-communist split over border raids, and Vietnam invaded Cambodia. Phnom Penh fell again, the regime was handed over to Khmer rouge defectors, while Pol Pot and the main body of the Rouge retreated to the Thai border, where they kept fighting for another 15 years, until a U.N.-supervised democratic election. Traces of their group remained until Pot's death in 1998.

Two of the most famous works about the 1975-1979 era, when the Khmer Rouge held power and the agrarian genocide took place, formed the basis for this movie:

Journalist Sydney Schanberg's, "The Death and Life of Dith Pran", in the New York Times Magazine.

Dith Pran's own "Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields".

Schanberg and Pran are the two main characters in this recreation of the 1975 fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge, and its aftermath, in which Pran himself was forced into, and subsequently escaped from, a labor camp.

The movie is powerful and involving for a biopic, for three main reasons:

  1. it wisely concentrates only on the two main characters and it makes their personal struggles the core of the movie and the surrogate for the more global issues. They didn't try to Hollywoodize it with a love story or to give it a backdrop of fictional characters.
  2. it has a painfully accurate recreation of some of the most frightening scenes in history, coupled with the struggle of the two journalists, first to cover the story, then to stay alive. The tension is maintained by the viewers involvement in their plight, feeling their fear as they are captured, sharing their hope as they seem have a plan to escape, sharing their joy when the tension is lifted.
  3. it has an exceptionally effective musical score, which is actually irritating and nerve-rattling, but which appropriately exacerbates the tension in the key scenes. I have rarely seen music used more effectively in a movie. The score really made the whole movie exciting rather than merely scholarly and historical.


DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1. Excellent transfer.

  • Full-length director commentary by Roland Joffe

The part of Dith Pran was played by Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a physician who went through the same experiences himself, and seemed to bring a cinema verité documentary realism to the role. Since he was not an actor, it is easy to imagine that he really was Dith Pran, and that we are watching real events rather than recreations. Sam Waterston (as Sydney Schanberg) and John Malkovich provide excellent support in their evocations of American journalists.

Although the film is not conceived as an entertainment film, it is cinematically structured, and manages to succeed very well as a political thriller, simply because of the tension inherent in so many scenes. I was trembling as I watched certain scenes in this movie. Pran's escape from the labor camp, as he crosses a haunted lake of human remains and driftwood, is one of the most powerful scenes in cinema history.  

The Critics Vote

  • Maltin 3.5/4

  • Although the film is not widely known, it was nominated for seven Oscars, and won three. I don't know why it has drifted toward obscurity. Perhaps America prefers not to be reminded of this era. Perhaps Americans don't like to watch such heavy dramatic fare. Or perhaps the emotional impact of the film is less for viewers too young to have lived through the events.

  • wrote one of their comprehensive treatments of this film.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.9, in the top 250 or all time.
  • With their dollars ... it did quite well for such a serious historical movie. It made $34 million at the domestic box office.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is an A. Not a "feel good" movie, but a knockout. One of the best historical pictures I've ever seen, making the depicted moments live again. It's a good movie even if you don't know anything or care about the history. Even if you imagine that the entire movie is fictional, it is still an affective experience.

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