I visited Cambodia a few years ago—it’s a beautiful country with lovely land and a youthful population (which betrays the millions killed during the Khmer Rouge’s reign in the 1970s and 80s). I experienced the horror of walking through one of the infamous killing fields, where bone fragments and scraps of decayed clothes still surface through the dirt of the walking paths. When I returned home, I revisited the 1984 film The Killing Fields, and now rewatched it again on Blu-ray. One of the most alarming things revealed by the film is not how horrific tortures and murder of the citizens (including the character Dith Pran), but that Pran and the actor who portrayed him, Dr. Haing S. Ngor, both proclaimed that what was shown in the film was nothing compared the horrors of reality.
The Killing Fields is a story of friendship and devotion between two men beginning in 1973 as the Vietnam War is tumbling across the border into Cambodia. Sydney Shanberg (Sam Waterston) is a Western journalist based in Phnom Penh, and his devoted assistant and friend, Dith Pran (Ngor), is his lifeline—his extra set of ears and eyes. At first, the war reporting is exciting, but as the war next door collapses, something else sinister is brewing at home. The Khmer Rouge, a cocky group of child soldiers, take control of Cambodia and begin a different reign of terror—one where foreigners are forced to flee, and cities are systematically evacuated to work as laborers in the country, and academics, doctors, and other intellectuals are killed.
There are several scenes in this film that are unbearably tense, including the rounding up of Shanberg and his journalist cohorts (including John Malkovich in one of his first roles, and Julian Sands). They are forced at gunpoint into a tank where they are taken to an alley, seemingly to be coldly assassinated. During the whole sequence, the journalists stare mutely with horror as Pran begs and pleads with the soldiers for their mercy. None of the dialogue is subtitled, amping up the suspense, and leaving the viewer as in the dark and cluelessly frightened as the characters.
A heartbreaking moment comes when the Khmer Rouge round up the last Cambodians that have been taking refuge at the French embassy. The foreigners watch helplessly as their co-workers, friends, and in some cases family, are ripped from them, to be transported to certain death. It is excruciating. As Pran is torn from his friends (who had unsuccessfully tried to forge a passport to save him), their rage and helplessness can only be topped by Pran’s own terror as he is forced to walk through the gates.
The film would be unbearable if it weren’t for the amazing story of Pran’s escape from years of captivity (which fill the last third or so of the film). Ngor’s noble strength and will in these scenes (almost entirely in Khmer without subtitles) won him an Oscar for Supporting Actor for the film. The final scene has become somewhat iconic. Sure, the inclusion of John Lennon’s “Imagine” could be called a little heavy handed, but I dare you to not tear up.
The 30th Anniversary Blu-ray Digibook contains essays and stills from the film, as well as profiles of the main players. The only extra, other than a trailer, is the excellent feature commentary by director Roland Joffé, which is a carryover from the DVD release. Joffé tells how producer David Puttnam selected him over other more known and prestigious directors (this was Joffé’s first major film). The others read the script and mapped out a war film, where when Joffé read it, he said it was actually a love story, so he got the job. He also gives more insight on Haing Ngor, who himself was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime (imagine, for him it was only a handful of years before that he had escaped when he made the film). Ngor, who was gunned down in Los Angeles in 1996 in a supposed robbery, apparently had worn much of the gold off his Oscar because he handled it so much.