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The Killing Fields

It took a series of events to transform Cambodia in the space of a few years from a sleepy French colony in southeast Asia to a land of wholesale genocide, but none of it would have happened without Soloth Sar. A Cambodian graduate student who studied in Paris in the 1950s and came under the spell of Marxist-Leninism, Soloth failed to get his Ph.D., but it didn't matter. He returned to his homeland with a few like-minded comrades, and then fled into the jungle in 1963. Changing his name to Pol Pot, the communist revolutionary might have been little more than a footnote in Cambodian history — that is, were there not American troops waging a brutal, largely unsuccessful "police action" in neighboring Vietnam. It was inevitable that the Vietnam conflict would spill over into Cambodia, as the Vietcong rebels used camps just over the border as safe havens. That led to the secret bombing of Cambodia by the U.S. military, starting in 1969. It also led to the displacement of Cambodia's head of state, Prince Sihanouk, with American sympathizer Lon Nol. And after innumerable civilian casualties in Cambodia (including the bombing of Neak Luong and the death of 137 residents), many Cambodians looked to Pol Pot's growing "Khmer Rouge" movement for salvation. But they were unaware of where the Khmer Rouge would lead them, or their country. Roland Joffé's 1984 The Killing Fields is a remarkable cinematic account of the Khmer Rouge and their Cambodian revolution of 1975, and it's one of the most harrowing films ever made about the horrors of war. But it's not an abstract account of events, a history lesson to be absorbed by the viewer for moral edification. Rather, The Killing Fields is the story of two men from two different cultures and the friendship that binds them. Based on New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg's account "The Death and Life of Dith Pran," the story picks up with the inadvertent bombing of Neak Luong in 1973 and the American military's attempt to cover it up. Denied information or access by the military, Schanberg (played by Sam Waterston) and his Cambodian interpreter/guide Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor) secretly make their way to the bombsite, where the casualties are made plain. It is two years later that American troops complete their withdrawal from Vietnam, but the Cambodian government has been weakened by internal corruption and wavering support from the Americans, leading to the capture of the nation's capital, Phnom Penh, by the Khmer Rouge. What follows is one of the most stunning, unreal, insane events of the 20th century — guided by Pol Pot's mission to create a pure agrarian communist state, Phnom Penh and all other cites are completely evacuated and every Cambodian is sent into labor camps, where they grow rice and are indoctrinated with communist theory. Anybody suspected to be a traitor is executed (and it is estimated that three million of Cambodia's seven million citizens were murdered between 1975 and 1979 — nearly half). Schanberg and Pran initially take refuge in the French embassy, but when an attempt to create a fake passport for Pran fails, he is taken by the Khmer Rouge and forced into a camp. Schanberg returns safely to New York, but he refuses to stop looking for Pran, who he hopes will someday escape his captors.

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After director Joffé was first given the script for The Killing Fields by producer David Puttnam, he wrote Puttnam a letter explaining that, no matter who would direct the film, it must first be recognized as a "love story." This bit of advice reportedly impressed Puttnam so much that he gave Joffé the job, even though he had never directed a feature film before. It's also why The Killing Fields is one of the best films from the 1980s, for had it merely been about politics, mass genocide, or a daring bid for freedom, it would have been lesser for it — the brutal subject matter (sometimes conveyed graphically, at other times psychologically) might have been too much for audiences to bear without the core relationship between Schanberg and Pran and its optimistic theme. The film itself, although utilizing many small locations, takes on an epic scope, and the two sequences at the film's center — the abandonment of the American embassy and the evacuation of Phnom Penh soon after — fly at a rapid pace. Joffé says he wasn't merely interested in the realities of war, but the confusion of war as well, and he often minimizes cross-cutting in tense sequences, offering a verité approach to the events. Additional accuracy comes from three sources: Schanberg, who was one of the few westerners to witness the evacuation of Phnom Penh; Pran, who lived under the Khmer Rouge, all the time concealing his true identity as an English-speaking journalist; and Ngor, who plays Pran in the film, but also lived in a Khmer Rouge camp for three years before escaping to Thailand and practicing medicine again, this time at refugee camps on the border. Ngor famously won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance. He survived the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia's "killing fields"; ironically, he was murdered in 1996 in Los Angeles by gang members, who attacked him not for political reasons, but merely to steal a locket. Ngor had worn the locket for many years — it contained a photo of his late wife, and he swore he would never lose it. Warner's DVD of The Killing Fields has had a handful of tentative release dates dating back to 1999, but if the version that arrived in March of 2001 is anything to go by, it was worth the wait. The source print is remarkably clean, with strong colors that capture cinematographer Chris Menges' southeast Asian landscapes (shot in Thailand), while the anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) is rock-solid. Also on board is a lively commentary track from director Joffé, who fills the entire two hours and 20 minutes with insights not only into drama, films, and filmmaking, but also the history of Cambodia and its unique culture. Theatrical trailer, textual biography on Hang S. Ngor, awards summary. Snap-case.

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