The Killing Fields is one of the most important films ever made. It’s also difficult to watch if you know much about the true story it depicts.
In an early scene, as Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Band On the Run” plays on loudspeakers in a courtyard, uniformed troops prepare to execute two young men with bullets to the brain. New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg (Sam Watterson) is on hand taking photographs of the moment to write a story about it, but other uniformed troops forcefully escort him away before the bullets are fired, off-screen. Cambodia’s government and military appear to be the story’s villains as the film commences in 1975. But the true villains are waiting, off-screen.
Schanberg gets his story out despite Cambodia’s and the United States’ attempt to block him; it makes the front page. The world gets a glimpse of Cambodia but it’s far from the full picture. The New York Times is an important, mostly off-screen, presence throughout the film as the possible conduit through which the truth may be revealed.
Would the Times play a similar role today? It hasn’t always. Under its byline, Walter Duranty actively covered up Stalin’s 1930s genocide. According to Bari Weiss, it’s a suppressor of facts and in service of extreme intolerance now.
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Schanberg witnesses a large group of people, refugees apparently, walking into Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, carrying everything they can on their backs. They’ve been driven from their homes by a mysterious group the movie only refers to up to this point as “the K.R.”
Next, a bombing followed by a battle sequence. The Cambodian military are under siege but the aggressors are still not shown. Suddenly Schanberg and the Cambodian reporter accompanying him, Dith Pran (Hiang Ngor), find themselves depending on the military to defend them and the base they’re on. Who or what is attacking? Who is the villain?
After the military loses and the capital falls, the “K.R.” ride in on captured tanks and are greeted with smiles, joy and a parade. The people see the young men wearing scarves as liberators. The reporters, distracted by the U.S. role in the war in nearby Vietnam, fail to see the full dimensions of what is occuring around them. They sense something is not quite right. They visit a hospital and see it overwhelmed. Bodies are piling up. They do not warn the world.
Schanberg, Pran and their crew are captured by the young insurgents sporting red and white headscarves who now run Cambodia unchallenged. Red flags — literally flying from the commandeered jeeps they use to patrol the streets — abound.
Events go from bad to worse to still even worse as the film progresses and the reporters at last clue in. Far from the liberators they have portrayed themselves as, whoever these young guerillas are, they turn out to be common thieves. Thugs. Field executioners. Schamberg witnesses all this, no longer as a reporter but as a captive.
The new regime triggers a massive, unimaginable refugee crisis. As in, they create it, set it in motion, intentionally, because it furthers their ideological aims. They empty the cities, forcing the millions who live in them out of their homes, away from their livelihoods, off to the jungles where a reimagining of Cambodia, and a transformation of the common citizen, awaits them. They will be forced to work endlessly, living in dirt, and living off of whatever they can find or catch to eat.
Nearly halfway through the film we finally learn what “K.R.” stands for — Khmer Rouge. Khmer is an ancient glorious Cambodian kingdom, long dead. It built the magnificent temples at Angkor Wat in the 12th century. Rouge is French for “red” — communist. The name appeals to pride of the skin and soil in the service of an ideology imported from China, the Soviet Union, and Marx.
What the Khmer Rouge really means is death.
Up to this point in the 20th century, communism had swept across much of the world and ruthlessly engineered a mind-boggling body county. About 20 million in the Soviet Union. About 65 million in China. But by percentage of their nation’s population, the Khmer Rouge would eclipse them. In just four short years in power, the Khmer Rouge murdered 2 million of Cambodia’s 8 million people. One in every four Cambodians died at the hands of their own indigineous communists.
You may easily guess the course of events for reporter Dith Pran, despite the heroic efforts of his American colleagues to try and keep him out of the Khmer Rouge’s clutches. He was a reporter and an intellectual. After the westerners escape, and after a scene hauntingly reminiscent of the defiant singing of the French national anthem in Casablanca, the film shifts to Pran’s perspective in a brutal Khmer Rouge labor camp. There, indoctrinated children decide who lives and dies based on one’s fidelity to the revolution. Or on their young whims. Everything is arbitrary except the authority of the Khmer Rouge. In one chilling scene, a child is shown being instructed to approach a chalkboard and draw an X over a drawing of a family.
None of this is fiction. In fact, if you know any Cambodians born after about 1960 living abroad today, they are probably first-hand witnesses and most likely victims of what happened in those years.
What happened was this: The Khmer Rouge reset the clock from 1975 to “Year Zero,” erasing the past. They smashed the state and replaced it with their own interpretation of reality. They replaced Cambodia’s flag with their own. They destroyed the church and replaced God with their revolution. They smashed the family. They indoctrinated the children. They forced public confessions and denunciations. They destroyed the universities. They relocated and “reducated” millions. They turned ordinary people into spies and suspected anyone who did not demonstrate ultimate fealty to them, othered and shamed them, starved them, tortured them, and shot them. Canceled them.
In modern times, revolutions tend to take one of two courses. On one hand, they result in liberal democracy such as the American Revolution. On the other hand, they devolve into madness and blood, as the French and later the Russian Revolution did. Cambodia’s took the latter path.
Behind it all was a shadowy leader who was never brought to justice: Pol Pot. He and his murderous regime only fell in 1979 because neighbor Vietnam invaded and crushed them. He died under house arrest in 1997. Too few know the name of the man who deserves to be mentioned alongside Hitler and other similar monsters.
The Killing Fields was first released in February of 1985, to great and deserved critical acclaim. Stars Sam Waterson, Hiang Ngor, John Malkovich, and Craig T. Nelson all deliver excellent performances. The Killing Fields was nominated for seven Oscars, winning three. Ngor won for best supporting actor, the first Asian to win an Oscar.
The film covers events that occurred just a few years before its release, and Ngor’s performance in particular comes about in the most honest way possible: A Cambodian, he lived through and barely survived the horrific events of The Killing Fields. He watched his wife die in a refugee camp. He escaped to America with his niece, to whom he dedicated his award. Tragically, Ngor was killed by street gang robbers in Los Angeles in 1996.
The Killing Fields is as relevant now as when it was released in 1985. The war in southeast Asia is long over. Vietnam is nominally still communist but it has an open economy and its third largest trading partner is the United States. Vietnam’s role in recent history is curious. It defeated two much larger world powers in succession, the United States and China, only to enjoy massive trade with both now. It retains the communist veneer but functions more and more capitalist. And it rid the world of the Khmer Rouge.
Cambodia is free now but it is still heavily scarred by the Khmer Rouge. It maintains museums to the Khmer Rouge period, so that its people may never forget. That’s what history museums and monuments are for. Recall the truth. Remember the dead. Know their names and what they did. Sort out fact from fiction. Maintain our links to the past and hope to prevent its repetition. There is no such thing as “Year Zero.”