The Killing Fields (film)

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The Killing Fields
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Roland Joffé
Produced by David Puttnam
Iain Smith
Screenplay by Bruce Robinson
Based on The Death and Life of Dith Pran 
by Sydney Schanberg
Music by Mike Oldfield
Cinematography Chris Menges
Edited by Jim Clark
International Film Investors
Enigma Productions
Distributed by Warner Bros. (US)
Columbia-EMI-Warner (UK)
Release dates
  • 2 November 1984 (1984-11-02)
Running time
141 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $14.4 million[1]
Box office $34,700,291

The Killing Fields is a 1984 British drama film set in Democratic Kampuchea, which is based on the experiences of two journalists: Cambodian Dith Pran and American Sydney Schanberg. The film, which won eight BAFTA Awards and three Academy Awards, was directed by Roland Joffé and stars Sam Waterston as Schanberg, Haing S. Ngor as Pran, Julian Sands as Jon Swain, and John Malkovich as Al Rockoff. The adaptation for the screen was written by Bruce Robinson and the soundtrack by Mike Oldfield, orchestrated by David Bedford.


In the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh during May 1973, the Cambodian national army is fighting a civil war with the Khmer Rouge, a result of the Vietnam War overspilling that country’s borders. Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist and interpreter for The New York Times, awaits the arrival of reporter Sydney Schanberg at the city's airport but leaves suddenly. Schanberg takes a cab to his hotel where he meets up with Al Rockoff (John Malkovich). Pran meets Schanberg later and tells him that an incident has occurred in a town, Neak Leung; allegedly, an American B-52 has bombed the town.

Schanberg and Pran go to Neak Leung where they find that the town has been bombed. Schanberg and Pran are arrested when they try to photograph the execution of two Khmer Rouge operatives. They are eventually released and Schanberg is furious when the international press corps arrives with the U.S. Army.

Two years later, in 1975, the Phnom Penh embassies are being evacuated in anticipation of the arrival of the Khmer Rouge. Schanberg secures evacuation for Pran, his wife and their four children. However, Pran insists that he would stay behind to help Schanberg.

The Khmer Rouge move into the capital, ostensibly in peace. During a parade through the city, Schanberg meets Rockoff. They are later met by a detachment of the Khmer Rouge, who immediately arrest them. The group is taken through the city to a back alley where prisoners are being held and executed. Pran, unharmed because he is a Cambodian civilian, negotiates to spare the lives of his friends. They do not leave Phnom Penh, but instead of retreating to the French embassy.

Informed that the Khmer Rouge have ordered all Cambodian citizens in the embassy to be handed over and fearing the embassy will be overrun, the embassies comply. Knowing that Pran will be imprisoned or killed, Rockoff and fellow photographer Jon Swain (Julian Sands) of The Sunday Times try to forge a British passport for Pran. The deception fails when the image of Pran on the passport photo fades to nothing. Pran is turned over to the Khmer Rouge and is forced to live under their totalitarian regime.

Several months after returning to New York City, Schanberg is in the midst of a personal campaign to locate Pran. In Cambodia, Pran has become a forced labourer under the Khmer Rouge's "Year Zero" policy, a return to the agrarian ways of the past. Pran is also forced to attend propagandist classes where many undergo re-education. As intellectuals are made to disappear, Pran feigns simple-mindedness. Eventually, he tries to escape, but is recaptured. Before he is found by members of the Khmer Rouge, he slips into a muddy cesspool filled with rotting human corpses; in doing so, he stumbles upon the infamous killing fields of the Pol Pot regime, where it murdered as many as 2 million Cambodian citizens.

In 1976 Sydney Schanberg is awarded a Pulitzer prize for his coverage of the Cambodian conflict. At the acceptance dinner he tells the audience that half the recognition for the award belongs to Pran. Later in the restroom, he is confronted by Rockoff who harshly accuses him of not doing enough to locate Pran and for using his friend to win the award. Schanberg defends his efforts, saying that he has contacted every humanitarian relief agency possible in the time since Pran's disappearance. Rockoff suggests that Schanberg subtly pressured Pran to remain in Cambodia because Pran was so vital to Sydney's work. This accusation hits close to home, and Schanberg begins to wonder whether he put his own self-interest ahead of Pran's safety. He finally confesses that Pran "stayed because I wanted him to stay".

Pran is assigned to the leader of a different prison compound, a man named Phat, and charged mostly with tending to his little boy. Pran continues his self-imposed discipline of behaving as an uneducated peasant, despite several of Phat’s attempts to trick him into revealing his knowledge of both French and English. Phat begins to trust Pran and asks him to take ward of his son in the event that he is killed. The Khmer Rouge are now engaged in a border war with Vietnam. The conflict reaches Pran's region and a battle ensues between the Khmer Rouge of the compound and two jets sent to destroy the camp. After the skirmish has ended, Pran discovers that Phat's son has American money and a map leading to safety. When Phat tries to stop the younger Khmer Rouge officers from killing several of his comrades, he is ignominiously shot.

In the confusion, Pran escapes with four other prisoners and they begin a long trek through the jungle with Phat’s young son. The group later splits and three of them head in a different direction; Pran continues following the map with one of them. However, Pran’s companion activates a hidden land mine while holding the child. While Pran pleads with the man to give him the child, the mine goes off, killing them both. Pran mourns for a time and continues on. One day he crests the escarpment of the Dângrêk Mountains and sees a Red Cross camp near the border of Thailand. The scene shifts to Schanberg calling Pran's family with the news that Pran is alive and safe. Soon after, Schanberg travels to the Red Cross camp and is reunited with Pran. He asks Pran to forgive him; Pran answers, with a smile, "Nothing to forgive, Sydney", as the two embrace and John Lennon's song Imagine is heard in the background.

Critical reception

The Killing Fields holds a 93% rating at the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, based on 40 reviews from notable publications.[2] Critic Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times: "The film is a masterful achievement on all the technical levels -- it does an especially good job of convincing us with its Asian locations – but the best moments are the human ones, the conversations, the exchanges of trust, the waiting around, the sudden fear, the quick bursts of violence, the desperation."[3]

Home media

The Killing Fields was released on DVD by Umbrella Entertainment in March 2010. The DVD is compatible with region code 4 and includes special features such as the theatrical trailer, audio commentary with Roland Joffé, an interview with David Puttnam and a BBC documentary titled The Making of The Killing Fields.[4]

In April 2013 Umbrella Entertainment released the film on Blu-ray.[5]

Casting of Haing S. Ngor

Haing S. Ngor, who plays Pran, was himself a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime and the labour camps.[6] Prior to the Khmer Rouge's 'Year Zero' he was a doctor based in Phnom Penh. In 1975, Ngor was one of millions who were moved from the city to forced labour camps in the countryside. He spent four years there before fleeing to Thailand.[7]

Haing S Ngor had never acted before appearing in The Killing Fields. He was spotted by the film's casting director, Pat Golden, at a Cambodian wedding in Los Angeles.[8]

Of his role in the film, he told People magazine in 1985: "I wanted to show the world how deep starvation is in Cambodia, how many people die under Communist regime. My heart is satisfied. I have done something perfect."[9]


The film was nominated for 13 BAFTA Awards, and at the 38th British Academy Film Awards ceremony on 5 March 1985 it won eight of them: Best Film, Best Actor (Haing S. Ngor), Best Adapted Screenplay (Bruce Robinson), Best Cinematography (Chris Menges), Best Sound (Bill Rowe, Ian Fuller, Clive Winter), Best Editing (Jim Clark), Best Production Design (Roy Walker), and Most Promising Newcomer to Film (Haing S. Ngor). The five awards it was nominated for but didn't win were: Best Actor (Sam Waterston), Best Direction (Roland Joffé), Best Score (Mike Oldfield), Best Special Visual Effects (Fred Cramer), and Best Makeup Arist (Tommie Manderson).

The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing and Cinematography. At the 57th Academy Awards on 25 March 1985, it won the Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (for Haing S. Ngor), Best Editing (for Jim Clark), and Best Cinematography (for Chris Menges).

Consistently placed high on film ranking lists, it is 100th on the BFI Top 100 British films list, 30th on the 100 Greatest Tearjerkers,[10] and 60th on the American Film Institute's list of America's most inspiring movies.

Related work

The screenplay is adapted from a Sydney Schanberg story in The New York Times Magazine entitled "The Death and Life of Dith Pran: A Story of Cambodia".[11]

In 1986, actor Spalding Gray, who had a small role in the film as the American consul, created Swimming to Cambodia, a monologue (later filmed by Jonathan Demme) based upon his experiences making The Killing Fields.

A book of the film was written by Christopher Hudson.[12]

Main cast

  • Sam Waterston as Sydney Schanberg
  • Dr. Haing S. Ngor as Dith Pran
  • John Malkovich as Al Rockoff
  • Julian Sands as Jon Swain
  • Craig T. Nelson as Military Attache
  • Spalding Gray as U.S. Consul
  • Bill Paterson as Dr. MacEntire
  • Athol Fugard as Dr. Sundesval
  • Graham Kennedy as Dougal
  • Katherine Krapum Chey as Ser Moeun (Pran's Wife)
  • Oliver Pierpaoli as Titony (Pran's Son)
  • Edward Entero Chey as Sarun
  • Tom Bird as U.S. Military Advisor
  • Monirak Sisowath as Phat (K.R. Leader 2nd Village)
  • Lambool Dtangpaibool as Phat's Son
  • Ira Wheeler as Ambassador Wade
  • David Henry as France
  • Patrick Malahide as Morgan
  • Nell Campbell as Beth
  • Joan Harris as T.V. Interviewer
  • Joanna Merlin as Schanberg's Sister
  • Jay Barney as Schanberg' Father
  • Mark Long as Noaks
  • Sayo Inaba as Mrs. Noaks
  • Mow Leng as Sirik Matak
  • Chinsaure Sar as Arresting Officer
  • Hout Ming Tran as K.R. Cadre - First Village
  • Thach Suon as Sahn
  • Neevy Pal as Rosa

See also


  1. Walker, John. The Once and Future Film: British Cinema in the Seventies hi and Eighties. London: Methuen, 1985, p. 117.
  2. The Killing Fields at Rotten Tomatoes
  3. The Killing Fields review by Roger Ebert
  4. "Umbrella Entertainment - DVD". Retrieved 28 May 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "Umbrella Entertainment - Blu-ray". Retrieved 28 May 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "The Killing Fields: authentically good". The Guardian. London. 12 March 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Haing S. Ngor Foundation - Biography". Retrieved 14 September 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Freedman, Samuel G. (28 October 1984). "In 'The Killing Fields,' A Cambodian Actor Relives His Nation's Ordeal". The New York Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Cambodian Doctor Haing Ngor Turns Actor in the Killing Fields, and Relives His Grisly Past :". Retrieved 14 September 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "Channel 4's 100 greatest Tearjerkers". Channel Four. Archived from the original on 13 April 2009. Retrieved 6 June 2009. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Canby, Vincent (2 November 1984). "Screen: Tale Of Death And Life Of A Cambodian". The New York Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. The Killing Fields at Google Books

External links