Thoughts On The Dith Pran Memorial Viewing Of "The Killing Fields"
Whitley Heights, California
They don’t make movies like that anymore.
After the critical success of Gandhi in 1982, historical dramas about non-European cultures were briefly in vogue, allowing such films to obtain financing or distribution. The Killing Fields, about the Cambodian autogenocide of the mid-1970s, was one of them.
The film, as Knife Tricks readers know, is about New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg (played by Sam Waterston) and his Cambodian interpreter and assistant Dith Pran (played by non-actor Dr. Hiang S. Ngor). The two men worked in the capital city of Phnom Penh, reporting on the efforts of the U.S.-backed government to contain an insurgency of shadowy Communists called the Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodians). When it became obvious that the government would fall, Schanberg and Pran stayed to cover the story.
Other journalists who stayed were Newsweek stringer and photographer Al Rockoff (played by John Malkovich) and London Sunday Times correspondent Jon Swain (played by Julian Sands). Clint Eastwood likes to say that the casting of small roles is as important as the casting of large roles, because a movie, like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link. Killing Fields director Roland Joffe clearly shares the belief.
The film contains three bravura sequences, any one of which would have been the pride of a lesser work:
(1) The evacuation of the Americans is a heart-pounding action sequence, scored with atonal electronic music that emphasizes the chaos. In commercial films, action scenes are rote devices that compel interest through shock and noise. The evacuation is gripping because two stories are being told at once -- the end of a failed intervention by a great power and, caught in the middle, Pran’s family trying to board the last chopper out. By that time in the story, you care about both the great power and the little family, which makes the final, heartbreaking shots of the helicopters disappearing into the sky that much more powerful.
(2) Trapped in the French Embassy, the journalists concoct a plan to save Pran, who, as an educated Cambodian working with Westerners, would face execution if captured by the Khmer Rouge. This is the most “Hollywood” sequence in the film, but it worked (and it’s a reminder of the old days when creating photographs required paper, developer, stop bath, fixer and a dark room).
(3) My favorite scene in the film is a tracking shot which, unlike most tracking shots, does not announce itself. After a near-fatal encounter with a Khmer Rouge platoon composed of armed teenagers, Schanberg and Rockoff emerge from a courtyard to see a street full of Cambodians being forcibly evacuated from the city. The tracking shot pans left following Rockoff, then pans right following a passing truck, then pans left again following the journalists as the camera cranes up to a big reveal of thousands of refugees walking away from the camera along railroad tracks. The speed of the camera’s movement never matches the speed of the people in the frame, further obscuring the fact that it’s all one, finely choreographed take.
Rockoff is a real person, and he’s none too happy about the way he was portrayed in the film.
Joffe can’t be called to task for what happened after the movie was released. Sometime in the late 1980s, the John Lennon song “Imagine” became overplayed on classic rock radio, such that Q magazine referred to it as “a song nobody ever need hear again.” But Joffe could not have known this when he selected the song to end the film.
One of the major film critics – I believe it was Pauline Kael – objected to the scene when, immediately after winning the Pulitzer Prize, Schanberg is confronted in the hotel bathroom by Rockoff who berates him for not doing enough to help Pran escape from Cambodia. The critic objected to the needlessly earthy setting of the scene and to Rockoff’s behavior on the grounds that Schanberg was doing everything he could to help Pran, while Rockoff was doing nothing.
I don’t think the scene actually happened. It’s a symbol of Schanberg’s guilt with Rockoff as his conscience. Schanberg was portrayed as consumed by guilt not only because Pran was left behind but also because, as Schanberg later admits to his sister, he manipulated Pran into staying in Cambodia because Schanberg wanted the glory of landing the big story.
The film was produced by David Puttnam, later the head of Columbia Pictures, known today as Baron Puttnam of Queensgate, Labour Member of the House of Lords.
Imagine what would happen if a producer met with a studio executive this afternoon and said, “I want to film a two-and-a-half hour movie with no stars about a civil war in a tiny country everybody’s forgotten – and half the movie stars an Asian guy who’s never acted before.”