The movie I chose to watch and write about is “The Killing Fields.” In this approximately two and a half hour movie, released in November of 1984, it tells the story of the civil war in Cambodia during the 1970s through the eyes of several journalists who traveled to see and report the happenings within Cambodia.
For a brief synopsis of “The Killing Fields,” the story is focused on the main character, Sydney Schanberg, a reporter for the New York Times. In 1973, Schanberg traveled from the United States to Cambodia in hopes to observe the political conflict between the Cambodian military and the Khmer Rouge communist party, and then send a story back to New York. However; the task didn’t exactly go as planned, and Schanberg didn’t return to New York with his award winning review till 1976. The two years he spent virtually trapped in Cambodia, a country that was economically and politically in shambles, was quite unlike anything he had ever seen or experienced.
Upon arrival Schanberg became close friends with a Cambodian civilian named Dith Pran who was also a doctor, journalist, and an interpreter for the New York Times. Twice during Schanberg’s attempt to write a story and capture images of the genocide going on around him,
members of the Khmer Rouge took him and other journalists hostage. Fortunately, Pran talked Khmer Rouge officers out of torturing the journalists, and soon enough Schanberg, Pran, and other refugees fled towards the French embassy for safety after the Khmer Rouge forcefully evacuated Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. It was at this point during the film where the Khmer Rouge had practically taken over government and military control.
Several days had passed and the Khmer Rouge then demanded all Cambodians secured in the French embassy to be handed over where they would be enslaved, tortured, or killed. Essentially, Pran had no option but to comply with the Khmer Rouge and was taken into forced labor in “Year Zero.” Pran eventually escaped, and later came across fields of dead bodies and their remains. By 1976, Schanberg had made his way back to New York, and had spent the next three years investigating Pran’s whereabouts. It wasn’t until 1979 when Schanberg and Pran had reunited at an American Red Cross station in Cambodia.
As for my critique of this film, I definitely give it a positive review. I was amazed and saddened with the conditions and situation Cambodia had gotten itself into, and I couldn’t believe the visuals of genocide found in the film. In fact, sometimes I felt as if I was watching a movie based off a Call of Duty game. For example, when Pran stumbled across miles and miles of rotten corpses in the abandoned fields I couldn’t believe my eyes. Parts of the movie that had me pealed to the screen were scenes when Pran was held in the concentration camp. I couldn’t believe the Khmer Rouge’s policies and practices, and I could never imagine living under such government conditions and restrictions. For example, the Khmer Rouge’s “Year Zero” policy restricted anyone from reflecting on the past. If anyone had displayed any intelligence at all
whatsoever, they were executed. It was textbook communism and nothing but, and the Khmer Rouge instantly terminated any threats towards their political power. Lastly, the film reminded me how fortunate we are to live here in the United States, where we can have freedom of speech and agency to do whatever we please, whereas Cambodia was economically poverty stricken, and their government was practically upside down.
Of course, as much as I enjoyed this film, nothing in this world is perfect. There are only three problems with this film I’d like to address. Firstly, I felt the film was too centered on the characters. I would have preferred more detail and depth on specific individuals and events for more feel on what was ultimately going on in Cambodia. Secondly, because the focus of the film was on the characters, it was difficult for me to comprehend what exactly was going on around them, making it very difficult to piece the story together. Lastly, but certainly not least, this movie was just too long. Entertaining, but long.
In terms of accuracy between the film and reality, after researching I was very pleased to discover that many of the events in the movie did actually happen. The film accurately explained how the Khmer Rouge came to power by leader Pol Potz. One thing I found extremely interesting is that Haing S. Ngor, the actor who played Dith Pran, was born and raised in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s assault. Essentially, Haing S. Ngor lived the very life he portrayed in the film. Like in the movie, the Khmer Rouge radical and communist movement between 1970 and 1979 evacuated cities, held prisoners in concentration camps, assassinated approximately 1.7 million people, and lived by the “Year Zero” policy.
Although many scenes in the film were appropriate and accurate, some were merely glamorized with Hollywood’s touch. Once again, since the film was primarily focused on the Schanberg, Pran, and other journalists, it’s easy and safe to say that many of the events they endured didn’t ever happen. It’s a movie after all. For instance, Haing S. Ngor was never a journalist or interpreter for anyone by the name Sydney Schanberg. In summary, while the film provides an accurate visual for Cambodia’s historical events and genocide by the Khmer Rouge, it also delivers non accuracy for characters and their experiences.
One specific way this film relates to material we’ve covered in class is from historical religious persecutions. For example, when leaders like Ferdinand and Isabella started the Spanish Inquisition to ensure that Spain was purely Catholic, all those who refused to convert to Catholicism we’re either cast out of Spain, or were executed. Spain and the Khmer Rouge both had different motives, but they both practiced heavy amounts of genocide for power and control. The Khmer Rouge epidemic in Cambodia also echoes many other communist incidents in history that we’ve yet to discuss in class. Government leaders such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Saddam Hussein all used heavy amounts of genocide to secure their power and communist nations.