What Actually Happened In the French Embassy: Cambodia 1975
Sherman Oaks, California
[Spoilers: This post reveals the outcome of a pivotal sequence in the film The Killing Fields.]
As Knife Tricks readers know, the film The Killing Fields contains a suspenseful sequence in which the Western journalists -- Al Rockoff, Sydney Schanberg and Jon Swain -- attempt to forge a British passport for their Cambodian friend and colleague Dith Pran.
In the film, the plan fails. The photographers created a darkroom in a closet on the grounds of the French Embassy and tried to fix Pran's image on old photographic paper using pre-digital methods involving tubs of chemicals. Due to bad luck, shoddy materials and -- the film suggests -- Rockoff's incompetence, the plan failed to create a stable photographic image that would have fooled the Khmer Rouge, the rural Communists who now controlled the city.
In his magnificent book River of Time, reporter Jon Swain (played by Julian Sands in the movie) provides his eyewitness account of what happened:
“The French had already collected all our passports and at the Comité de la Ville’s request were making lists of all the people in the embassy. We had to try to keep Pran with us. Sydney was insistent. Although his family was safely out of Cambodia, having been evacuated with the Americans, Pran had stayed to help Sydney cover the city’s fall for the New York Times. Now it had all gone horribly wrong and Sydney felt overwhelming responsibility for his Cambodian assistant, reinforced by the fact that Pran, with his loyalty and quickness of mind, had saved all our lives.
“We could think of only one solution: to forge a second British passport I had and give it to Pran as his own. Armed with this and a new identity, we imagined he could stay with us. That he looked Asian was not an insurmountable barrier, for he could perhaps pass himself off as a Nepalese holder of a British passport. There was a similarity of features. It was a chance but it might work.
“There was no time to lose. Using a razor-blade, Al Rockoff scraped off my picture and replaced it with one of Pran. For glue, we used a gummy mixture of water and rice. More difficult was erasing my name. In the end we had to compromise: Pran became John Ancketill Brewer – my first three names. It was quite a mouthful to pronounce for a Briton, let alone a Cambodian turned Nepalese; he walked around the building repeating ‘John Ancketill Brewer’ until he was reasonably word perfect. Duly doctored, his British passport, number C352165, issued by the British embassy, Saigon, on 11 December 1973, was handed in to the consulate and we settled down to wait and hope.
“A little while later, a group of solemn-faced embassy officials came to see us. Shaking their heads sadly, they gave back my passport, saying it was a good try but they had seen through the forgery immediately. They imagined the Khmer Rouge would too. What would Pran do in a confrontation? Would he be able to bluff it out? The next few hours were a nightmare as we agonized what to do. In the end Pran took the decision for us.
“People were still leaving the city. We could see them toiling down the road outside, bedraggled and broken. But the numbers were dwindling. Pran decided the longer he was identified with foreigners in the embassy the tougher time he would have afterwards justifying himself to the Khmer Rouge. He would leave with the next batch of Cambodians who were even then packing their things in preparation for departure and try to make it across the border to Thailand.
“We said goodbye to Pran, with whom we had shared the bitterest and most frightening minutes of our lives. Sydney gave him a lot of money, several thousand dollars. We gave him the rest of our food. He wore his chroma over his shoulders. There was a profound silence. There were tears. He joined the other Cambodians at the embassy gates. The gates swung back and Pran and other Cambodians passed through, holding each other, trying to be brave, their belongings in the back of a Toyota pickup which they started to push down the road.
“He had taught us what friendship meant and when his luck ran out we had nothing to give him except money and food. Our abandonment of him confirmed in me the belief that we journalists were in the end just privileged passengers in transit through Cambodia’s landscape of hell. We were eyewitnesses to a great human tragedy none of us could comprehend. We had betrayed our Cambodian friends. We had been unable to save those who had saved us. We were protected simply because our skins were white. I felt ashamed."