The Killing Fields (1984)

Dir. Roland Joffe. Starring Haing S. Ngor, Sam Waterston, John Malkovich

The camera rarely stops moving in this film. Even when you’d expect it to sit still, it so rarely does. Most directors, I think, would keep their camera stationary when Dith Pran (Ngor) walks towards it near the film’s end. All he’s doing is striding uphill, which seems like a perfectly good time for a still camera, but Joffe is not inclined that way. The camera inclines up with his action just slightly, just enough for us to know that it’s moving. The insinuation of a moving camera is to make us feel like we’re part of the scene; the you-are-there-ness of the late aughts in Cloverfield and The Hurt Locker is verisimilitude without sea legs. The Killing Fields provides the viewers, especially Americans, with a familiar but not so familiar premise. Instead of another Vietnam film, or film about the ravages of the Vietnam War, The Killing Fields is set in Cambodia and is drawn in such a way that the Vietnam War must happen for the story to work. And while the four biggest ‘Nam movies made by 1984 – Apocalypse NowComing HomeThe Deer Hunter, and First Blood – were all profoundly concerned with what had happened to Americans as a result of the Vietnam War, The Killing Fields places the emotional burden of the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge’s Year Zero policy squarely on Dith Pran, a Cambodian played by a Cambodian with a similar background. (If nothing else, Haing S. Ngor proves that brilliant actors of color are all around us, even if they have no acting experience. Ngor’s face and body would have been perfect for silent pictures, let alone a film like this where his pain is supplemented by gunfire and Mike Oldfield’s singular and fitting score.) The violence of the film is placed on Cambodians, either by Americans or by the Khmer Rouge. We fear for some white people now and then – Sydney Schanberg (Waterston), Al Rockoff (Malkovich), and Jon Swain (Julian Sands) are abducted and come within an inch of their lives, saved only by Pran’s constant intercession with the leader of the Khmer Rouge troop – but it is Cambodians who suffer. They are the ones in hospitals where the blood is mopped off the floor onto the walls. They are the ones who are blown up by hidden land mines. They are the ones who collapse into shallow graves and are surrounded by the new skeletons of their countrymen.

It would be terribly easy, I think, to make Dith Pran’s story sadly schlocky, turning his saga of survival in a prison camp into some lesson about human dignity. The Killing Fields manages to shy away from that message in two ways. For one, it makes Schanberg totally helpless for much of the movie. It becomes clear that Schanberg’s reporting is heavily reliant on Pran’s ability to get him into situations where he can talk to people, and is then, of course, heavily reliant on Pran’s ability to translate from Khmer. Schanberg’s got a nose for stories, obviously; the first twenty minutes or so of the movie follow him as he tries to tease out the extent of American military activity in Cambodia. But as the film continues – for the next two hours, really – those first twenty minutes take on a different shape. Schanberg’s reliance on Pran becomes more and more obvious, and Pran becomes a clear partner in the journalism that Schanberg puts his byline on. Pran’s family is airlifted out of Phnom Penh just in time; Pran chooses to stay and continue with the work he feels is important, doing so as long as he can until he is kicked out of the French embassy and turned over to the new Khmer Rouge government. Later on, after Schanberg has won an award for his work and credited Pran with half of it, Rockoff accosts him. How could you have let Pran stay there? he asks. Why didn’t you make him go to America when he had the chance? (It’s not the first time someone has asked him that question.) Schanberg dissents, but in the privacy of his apartment he finds he has no good answer to Rockoff’s accusation. He only has the bad one: he wanted to stay, and he needed Pran’s help to make that worthwhile. In his armchair, he can feel just how bad that reason is. The greatest part of Pran’s suffering will come at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, but the film gives significant responsibility to Pran’s American colleague, who is so far from evil. Stories about human dignity need people to face evil head-on and fight it. When faced with evil, Pran puts his head down and pretends to be as ignorant and uneducated as any hick; there is no other way to survive. And it cannot be overstated that evil is only part of what placed him in the labor camps. Selfishness and complacency played real roles as well, and those blames are shifted heavily to Schanberg. Whatever we might want to take from the film concerning a message of human dignity is still there, for Pran’s forbearance and courage are monumental. But there is no dramatic confrontation between good and evil to succor us. There’s only the growing understanding that better sense and a little more altruism on the part of Pran’s American friends might have saved him from this terrible situation.

The film also shies away from a saccharine human spirit tone by choosing to break the viewer’s heart and move on, over and over again. No death is played for sentiment in the film, and no one cries out with loss. This is not Schindler’s List. Towards the end of the film, aided by a secret cache of twenty-dollar bills and a contour map, Pran and a companion and the young son of a former employer are nearing Thailand. The other man steps on a land mine while carrying the little boy, who can’t be older than four or five, on his back. Pran tries to get the man to give him the boy; the boy, who recognizes Pran as a father, sensing the danger, reaches his arms out to Pran; the man and the little boy go up in smoke. We see Pran carrying the boy’s bloody, lifeless body in the next shot. Shortly afterwards, Pran cremates the corpse. And then we move on. There’s no music to swell here, or even very many tears. It is stark filmmaking which wrenches and guts and does not linger. Pran has faced too many horrors to linger on all of them, and with Joffe’s moving camera we were there for them as well. (The only exception is one which proves a supposition I’ve had or a while that a bad ending can sabotage an otherwise great movie; is there any reason “Imagine” was in this movie at all, other than to ruin the picture?)

Perhaps only one long segment of the film lets us linger in our despair. For several minutes, a scene unfolds at the French embassy in which Swain figures out that he can use an expired passport of his with a valid visa to pretend that Pran is a British citizen, but that they’ll need a picture of Pran to get him out with it. I did not think that a sequence about making a photograph could be so taut. I’ve felt my nerves stretched like rubber bands more at other films, but the stakes were visibly higher in those. The gamble is no less desperate here. Everyone in the compound knows by now that if Pran is released to the Khmer Rouge, as the French embassy seems prepared to do, then he will almost certainly be killed. The journalists scour the embassy for a camera, for film, for a way to develop the pictures. Rockoff and Swain go into a bathroom after having procured the first two, and in a last-gasp effort to help Pran try their best to develop it without the proper tools or materials. The first try fails. Then the second. Rockoff kicks Swain out. Malkovich’s performance to this point had been pretty calm to the point of hippie-style “Peace out” for most of the film. Now he kicks the walls, bangs his fists, screams obscenities. He finally manages to make one that will work. The passport is returned, and announcements are made that the men in the embassy can expect to be sent home in the next twenty-four hours. Minutes later, one passport is returned. The passport is still good, but the photo of Pran has faded to gray. It is a punch to the kidneys, and in the rain, a weeping Dith Pran and his beaten comrades say goodbye. He is given over, and in the voiceover, Pran asks Schanberg to ensure that his family does well in America. A little ironically, his wife speaks no English. From there, from that moment of great sadness and despair, there is no more room for histrionics or tears. The film concerns itself primarily with survival, not with nobility, and for the better.

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