Everett Collection/Warner Bros.
Dr. Haing S. Ngor won an Academy Award for his portrayal of the journalist Dith Pran in this account of the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s. It wasn’t much of a stretch for him. He, too, had barely escaped with his life from a Khmer Rouge concentration camp.
Andrew Kopkind The Killing Fields December 1, 1984
Since there is not likely to be an oversupply of mass-cultural products retailing the grim Cambodian “sideshow” of the 1970s for American audiences, The Killing Fields must serve as our sole popular chronicle, historical analysis and moral instruction of the apocalypse then. It gives a decent serve. The hideous consequences of Nixon’s secret war, the holocaust that followed and the struggle of an enslaved and decimated people for survival are movingly, and often masterfully, projected on an epic screen. It is a serious attempt to make intelligible a few of the worst years of our lives, when reason died and life was debased no less in the Pentagon than in the paddies of Indochina.
But the article was better. In “The Death and Life of Dith Pran” (The New York Times Magazine, January 20, 1980) Sydney Schanberg, now a city-side columnist for that paper, gave a heartfelt personal testament of the last days of Cambodia’s ancien régime and the long travail of his local stringer under the fanatical rule of the Khmer Rouge. Pran was Schanberg’s in-country “fixer,” a familiar functionary for Western reporters on their far-flung assignments. He translated the difficult languages (French as well as Khmer), facilitated teletype services, bribed the appropriate officials, arranged transportation, read the papers and generally served as the primary news source for a foreign correspondent severely restricted in an alien land. Schanberg would not have lasted a week in Cambodia without Pran, or at least he would not have worked efficiently enough to get the good stories that landed him a Pulitzer.
Pran worshipped Schanberg as a friend and a Westerner, and the two roared through the Cambodian twilight, high on politics, pot and the sheer adventure of war and revolution. As night fell, Schanberg offered to get Pran and his family out of the country; a well-educated Times stringer could not be expected to fare well under the Khmer Rouge, whoever they were. In fact, no one seemed to know very much about the guerrillas who were circling the capital, but Pran was sure that his wife and children should get out while the getting was good. For himself, he chose to stay by Schanberg’s side and help report the dawn of the new order. Schanberg was complimented and pleased; he could hardly get the story without his fixer.
As it happened, their worst fears were immediately realized. The mysterious guerrillas rounded up Westerners of every political and ideological tendency, herded them into the French Embassy and kept them in a terrified state of siege while the swollen native population of Phnom Penh was driven into the countryside. That “Cambodian solution,” like its Germanic precedent, would end in mass annihilation. In the three and a half years that the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot, ruled Cambodia, some three million people were terminated with extreme prejudice, by slow starvation or sudden execution. As the beleaguered capital was draining of its natives, the foreigners were convoyed to Thailand and safety, but Westernized Cambodians were not allowed to accompany their friends and employers. The recipient of so many helpful fixes from Pran, Schanberg could not arrange the big fix for his native charge.
Having escaped Pol Pot, Schanberg returned to the embrace of Abe Rosenthal, which I suppose must be counted a blessing, all things considered. The Times‘s editor was proud of his correspondent’s award-winning performance in the field, but he did not commit his newspaper to the task of further and fuller explanation of the Cambodian nightmare. The Times carried atrocity stories when they broke, but its readers never did learn much about the Khmer Rouge, their contradictory politics, internal struggles and external alliances. The standard of journalism Schanberg and other correspondents had developed in Indochina was rapidly and radically degraded. When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and restored some semblance of civilized order to the country early in 1979, the American press, led by The Times, followed the State Department’s description of the event as an example of Vietnamese expansionism, which posed a threat to Thailand and who knows what other Southeast Asian refuges of American power. Before long, Pol Pot was an ally and an agent of the United States, and the horrible history of a decade had been sanitized—just as Schanberg said of an earlier attempt to cover up the effects of U.S. policies.
Back in the USA, Schanberg fixed his gaze on the horrors of New York City, such as the slow Cambodian solution imposed by city officials and real-estate interests on the black population of Harlem: almost 60 percent of the residents there have been driven out of their homes in the past three decades. At the same time, he tried to trace Pran’s progress from afar, writing hundreds of letters and seeking intervention from all possible sources. At length, he received a picture of his old sidekick, looking alive and reasonably well near the ruins of Angkor. It seems that after a ghastly time in Khmer Rouge concentration camps and on the run through the jungle, Pran was saved by the Vietnamese invasion, and installed as mayor of Siem Reap, a city near the Angkor site. Some months later, however, the Vietnamese learned of his Times connection and removed him from his powerful post. Pran then made his final leap over the border, where he was reunited with Schanberg in Thailand.
It is necessary to go over these events not only to convey the epic quality of the Killing Fields material, which is not well known, but also to indicate how the movie fails to realize the perspectives and the personalities of Schanberg’s piece and of the historical situation it self. As written by Bruce Robinson and directed by Roland Joffé, the movie is situated entirely in Schanberg’s point of view. The American correspondent focuses on his own government’s activities rather than on Cambodia’s struggle; he is baffled by the Khmer Rouge and unmindful of the cultural and political history that led to its deformed development; he sees the natives in black and white, as pathetic victims or crazed executioners. Neither he nor the audience can understand the long passages of dialogue in Khmer, which distance us further from the Cambodians. When the movie Schanberg (Sam Waterston) is asked, near the end, whether American correspondents erred in underestimating the brutality of the guerrillas, he counters by asserting that the error was in underestimating the anger that “seven billion dollars’ worth of bombs” —U.S.A.F. bombs—would cause. In other words, we are given to believe that the Cambodian revolution was both produced and shaped by U.S. policy. That may be comforting to any lingering liberal antiwar sentiment that survives from the Vietnam era, but it is dangerously simplistic, and not politically useful. There is no way that the United States (and other old and new colonial powers) can escape blame for the blood shed in wars in the Third World, but those struggles are never simple responses to specific external acts of aggression. Chile, Iran, Vietnam, El Salvador: those revolutions have their roots in the social relationships of complex histories, of which colonial intervention is only a part.
The movie’s imperial perspective, liberal and humane though it is, limits Pran’s reality in the same way that it simplifies Cambodia’s. In Schanberg’s article, Pran has more personal power, political independence and emotional integrity than he is given in the movie. Dr. Haing S. Ngor, the Cambodian refugee who plays the part, performs with a great deal of feeling and dignity, but he is seen only as Schanberg’s appendage, even when he is sloshing through the killing fields of Cambodia half a world away from Schanberg on West 43rd Street. In the long second part of the movie, Pran is on screen all the time, while Schanberg is cut in only briefly, to remind us of his long-distance guilt. But somehow the camera, and the audience, looks at Pran going about his tortuous escape through Schanberg’s eyes. It is the vision of the West, compassionate but uncomprehending.
For political reasons as well as dramatic ones (the movie is long as it is), Pran’s rescue under the Vietnamese occupation and his brief assumption of civic power is entirely omitted from the film. Instead, we see him fleeing before the Khmer Rouge and dodging a couple of Vietnamese tanks before he stands at the Thai border with freedom before him. That conflated scenario betrays not only the reality of the Cambodian experience but also the meaning of Pran’s personal journeys through Westernization, nationalism, political activism and disillusionmnt. The Vietnamese period in Cambodia cannot be detached from the American and the Khmer Rouge ones.
In spite of the monopolar perspective and the twisted history, The Killing Fields makes its good points with great dramatic force. It is hard to see it without referring to current conflicts as well, and noticing how inadequately The Times covers Central America in comparison to the job Sydney Schanberg did, for a while, in Indochina. Schanberg understood from the beginning that his government was addicted to lying, obsessed with winning and in love with war. He knew executioners when he saw them. So far from that now, Schanberg’s successors see only the faults of the victims.