Cast & Crew
Haing S Ngor
New York Times photographer Sydney Schanberg and his interpreter Dith Pran are caught in the madness that is Pol Pot's bloody 'Year Zero' cleansing campaign. It eventually claims the lives of more than two million Cambodians.
Haing S Ngor
Edward Chey Entero
Hout Ming Tran
Craig T. Nelson
Nell Campbell (little Nell)
Katherine Chey Kragum
Jo Ann Harris
Jacques M Bradette
Roger Murray Leach
Best Supporting Actor
Best Adapted Screenplay
The Killing Fields on 30th Anniversary Blu-ray
It's a big, horrible story, and not the kind of thing considered viable as motion picture entertainment. It began as a 1980 New York Times story by Sydney Schanberg, a reporter who had been ejected from Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge took over, along with the rest of the foreign press. Schanberg's local assistant, and a reporter in his own right, was Dith Pran. Their bond of loyalty and one bad decision led to the abandonment of Pran to the mercy of the Pol Pot regime. Pran spent years in hellish re-education camps, hiding his identity and education while watching fanatic child-soldiers routinely slaughter other prisoners. Back in New York, Sydney Schanberg held out hope that the resourceful Pran might have survived. He felt guilty receiving journalistic awards while the wife and children that Pran should have left with had already given him up for dead.
On a roll with his popular and celebrated films Chariots of Fire and Midnight Express, producer David Puttnam engaged actor Bruce Robinson to write the screenplay and British TV veteran Roland Joffé to direct. Their film The Killing Fields has an unconventional structure. The first half builds the relationship between Sydney Schanberg and Pran. Sam Waterston gives what is probably his best performance as the conscientious reporter who defies the efforts of the American Major Reeves (Craig T. Nelson) to cover up U.S. military actions within Cambodia's borders. To play Dith Pranh, the producers found Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a Cambodian who barely survived his own imprisonment in a Khmer re-education camp. Just the year before, director Peter Weir had used the stunt casting of the diminutive Linda Hunt to play a similar 'reporter's helper' in the drama The Year of Living Dangerously. Dr. Ngor comes off as the genuine article, a clever and dedicated Cambodian who can translate freely between the local language, English and French.
The Killing Fields conveys an exciting, suspenseful impression of what it must have been like to be working in Phnom Pehn, at the center of a war zone. With Pran's help, Sydney maneuvers around the lies and misdirection of the U.S. Consul (monologist Spalding Gray). The journalistic partners bribe a boatman to take them to a U.S.-bombed town deemed off limits by the Army, which conducts its own sanitized jaunt for 'cooperative' foreign journalists. Two years later, when Pol Pot's rebels enter the capitol, Sydney and Pran are still making excuses to avoid leaving. Pran uses prayer, bribery and quick thinking to save Sydney, reporter John Swain (Julian Sands) and their photographer friend Al Rockoff (John Malkovich) from summary execution on the street. They're eventually trapped in the French embassy. All Cambodians are ordered to leave, so Swain and Rockoff try desperately to mock up a fake passport identifying Pran as a foreigner. But none of their efforts are successful.
Commercial pressures spoil many mainstream films about social problems in the Third World. Richard Attenborough's well-intentioned Cry Freedom! (1987) references the story of the murder of Steve Biko, an anti-Apartheid activist. Yet the movie is mostly about the struggle of a white journalist against the South African regime. In the second half of The Killing Fields, American Schanberg makes an exit, and Dith Pran's survival story comes front and center. Instead of a noble martyr or a Gunga Din- like sidekick, Pran is an intelligent man trying to survive against all odds in a nation gone politically insane. The Khmer Rouge is forcing the entire country back to an agrarian existence. Because children have no decadent experiences to expunge, specially indoctrinated teenagers enforce the ruthless New Order. Pran eventually becomes a servant to a camp commander, who is himself concerned that he will fall out of favor and be executed. Pran dotes on the commander's son, and through the child is given a chance to flee for the border. His journey is like a struggle through Hell -- at one juncture Pran must half-crawl, half-swim through rice fields crowded with rotting corpses.
Filmed in Thailand, The Killing Fields is a harrowing ordeal from one end to the other, held together by the warm bond between its reporter colleagues. Screenwriter Robinson avoids outright cynicism, and neither does it attempt to implicate the viewer in the atrocities on screen. In the middle '70s most Americans were happy that the Vietnam experience was finished and didn't want to hear any more bad news from Southeast Asia. Horrible events like the genocide in Cambodia turned out to be the real 'domino effect' of the Vietnam War.
To its credit, the production sees no need to hype events for the benefit of the audience. The makers of the recent Argo decided that its true reportage of diplomatic personnel trapped in a revolution wasn't exciting enough, and cheapened the movie with an old-fashioned suspense sequence. The Killing Fields has more respect for its subject matter.
The Killing Fields was nominated for seven Academy Awards and took home three: for Haing S. Ngor as Best Supporting Actor, Chris Menges' cinematography and the editing of Jim Clark. The big hit Amadeus prevailed in the other categories. Spalding Gray's participation during the shoot became the subject of his one-man monologue film, Swimming to Cambodia.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of The Killing Fields is a handsome HD encoding of this meticulously made and photographed modern epic. Director Roland Joffés commentary is a big plus. The original trailer promises an important movie without coming off as pompous. Warner's book-style packaging contains an illustrated souvenir booklet. First-time viewers will discover that the story of Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran is accurately portrayed.
By Glenn Erickson
The Killing Fields on 30th Anniversary Blu-ray
The Killing Fields
Dith Pran's story is at the center of The Killing Fields (1984), the first major western film to confront the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide. Sam Waterston stars as Sydney Schanberg and Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a fellow Cambodian survivor of Pol Pot's brutal regime, is Dith Pran. The film opens on 1973, as Dith tips Schanberg to the American bombing of a Cambodian village that the military wants to hush up, and then arranges passage to the village, skirting both American and Cambodian efforts to keep them out. The story jumps ahead two years to 1975, as the rebel Khmer Rouge marches on Phnom Penh and the American Embassy is pulling out. Schanberg arranges for Dith and his family to be evacuated with the Americans but Dith stays behind with Schanberg and the western journalists. It turns out to be a fateful sacrifice on Dith's part. When the rebel forces march on the city, Schanberg and a number of western journalists are captured and headed toward certain execution; they watch countless other prisoners summarily executed on what appears to be little more than a whim. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Dith, however, they are spared and join the exodus from the city, taking refuge in the French Embassy where they await passage home. When the Khmer Rouge orders that all Cambodians evacuate the embassy, Schanberg's fellow journalists attempt to forge foreign identity papers with the primitive tools left to them, but they are unable to save Dith from his "reeducation" in the work camps.
First time feature director Roland Joffe shoots the drama with an unforced realism lent a terrible grace by the handsome images and smooth, unobtrusive long takes of cinematographer Chris Menges, who keeps the camera panning and tracking the characters through almost every scene. It's a remarkably effective stylistic choice, keeping the camera centered on Dith and Schanberg and the other journalists while embracing the vivid reality of their surroundings, be it the bloody aftermath of a guerilla bombing in a busy city street or the nervous tension and desperation of western journalists holed up in a nearly-gutted, overcrowded embassy as young, undisciplined rebel soldiers surround the gated grounds. Within the formal style and beautifully composed frame, the eruption of chaos and violence feels even more threatening, especially in the film's third act as we follow Dith through the terrible reeducation camps of Pol Pot's bloody "Year Zero" ethnic cleansing campaign.
Pran's ordeal is directed with a blunt immediacy. "Here only the silent survive," he remarks in the letters to Schanberg that he composes in his head while he watches the young indoctrinated and the adults sacrificed in Pol Pot's answer to China's "Cultural Revolution." Joffe does not subtitle any of the Cambodian dialogue or any foreign language, for that matter. "I particularly didn't want to use subtitles," he explained in the commentary track he recorded for the DVD release of the film. "I just felt this needed to be an incomprehensible, extraordinary world, and it was incomprehensible to the people living in it too. Why was Pran left? Why didn't they kill him? He, to this day, doesn't know. And therefore it didn't matter to me what was said. It was the extraordinariness of the landscape, the extraordinariness of the world, the arbitrariness I wanted to catch."
Roland Joffe came out of Britain's National Theater, where in 1973 he became their youngest director, and went on to direct television productions before making his feature directorial debut with The Killing Fields. The script, by actor-turned-screenwriter Bruce Robinson, came to him from British producer David Puttnam (whose many previous productions include Chariots of Fire , Midnight Express  and Local Hero ), who wanted his opinion on the 300-page draft. Joffe told Puttnam that he thought it wasn't a war story but a love story between Dith and Schanberg. Puttnam liked his answer and, after talking to a number of directors, offered the project to Joffe. He, Puttnam and screenwriter Robinson proceeded to interview Schanberg and Dith as well as Cambodian refugees in the United States, Europe and Thailand, and they turned to Schanberg's private diary to enrich the screenplay. The Killing Fields was shot almost entirely on location in Thailand.
Sam Waterston, sporting a Massachusetts accent and a black beard, was cast as Schanberg, the intensely passionate and professional journalist whose coverage of Cambodia earned him numerous journalistic awards and accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize. He's contrasted, at least in style, by the slovenly appearance and impulsive manner of John Malkovich's performance as photographer Al Rockoff, a man who can leap from a sleepy hangover and start snapping pictures of a sudden catastrophe without batting an eye. Julian Sands was cast in his first major role as British photojournalist Jon Swain and esteemed South African playwright Athol Fugard brought a certain innate dignity to the role of Dr. Sundesval. Spalding Gray, who played the assistant to the American ambassador in Cambodia, transformed his experiences in Thailand (mostly off the set during his "down time" in the production) into the theatrical monologue Swimming to Cambodia , which he performed on stage and for Jonathan Demme's camera's in the feature film of his one-man show.
In the central role of Dith Pran is Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a Cambodian non-actor who brought his own life experience to the role. Ngor survived a similar horror as a doctor in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge took over. He was, along with his fiancée, imprisoned and tortured (she died from her ordeal) and he escaped to Thailand with his niece (his only surviving family member) in 1979. "This is a brave thing he did, agreeing to relive this," remarked Joffe as he recalled a scene where Dith watches a young girl, not even a teenager, rip out a tomato plant he has grown and stare him down with a look of animal ferocity. Playing the scene shook Ngor so much he fled the set. "In her flat, dead eyes," wrote New York Times reporter Samuel G. Freedman in a 1984 profile of the film, "the eyes of the thousands of children in the Khmer Rouge - Dr. Ngor saw again the horrors both he and Mr. Dith had actually endured." In the same article, Ngor remarked (in halting English): "'For me, movie not different. I have enough experience in Communist times. I put emotion into the movie. We have a lot of scenes like in Khmer Rouge time. Everything the same.'' Joffe remembers that "Haing wanted the violence to be even stronger."
The Killing Fields earned seven Academy Award® nominations and won three, for Ngor's performance in the "Best Supporting Actor" category (though his time on screen should have qualified him for the "Best Actor" competition), Chris Menges' stunning cinematography and Jim Clark's restrained film editing. Ngor (who also won a Golden Globe and a British Academy Award for his performance) dedicated his Oscar® to his family. He acted in a few more films before he was murdered in 1996, the victim of a robbery by street gang members near his home in Los Angeles.
The real Dith Pran worked as a celebrated photographer for the New York Times beginning in 1980. He also spoke out about the Cambodian genocide and, after the film came out, was joined by Dr. Haing S. Ngor in his efforts to bring attention to the plight of Cambodia and its people. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2008 at the age of 65. With him throughout his final days were his ex-wife (though divorced, she returned to care for him through his illness) and his good friend, Sydney Schanberg.
Producer: David Puttnam
Director: Roland Joffe
Screenplay: Bruce Robinson
Cinematography: Chris Menges
Art Direction: Roger Murray-Leach, Steve Spence
Music: Mike Oldfield
Film Editing: Jim Clark
Cast: Sam Waterston (Sydney Schanberg), Dr. Haing S. Ngor (Dith Pran), John Malkovich (Alan 'Al' Rockoff), Julian Sands (Jon Swain), Craig T. Nelson (Major Reeves), Spalding Gray (United States consul), Bill Paterson (Dr. MacEntire), Athol Fugard (Dr. Sundesval)
by Sean Axmaker
The Killing Fields
Spalding Gray (1941-2004)
Gray was born in Barrington, Rhode Island on June 5, 1941, one of three sons born to Rockwell and Elizabeth Gray. He began pursuing an acting career at Emerson College in Boston. After graduation, he relocated to New York, where he acted in several plays in the late '60s and early '70s. He scored a breakthrough when he landed the lead role of Hoss in Sam Shepard's Off-Broadway hit Tooth of Crime in its 1973 New York premiere. Three years later he co-founded the avant-garde theatrical troupe, The Wooster Group with Willem Dafoe.
It was this period in the late '70s, when he was performing in Manhattan's underground theater circles, did Gray carve out his niche as a skilled monologist. His first formal monologue was about his childhood Sex and Death to the Age 14, performed at the Performing Garage in Manhattan in 1979; next came his adventures as a young university student Booze, Cars and College Girls in 1980; and the following year, he dealt with his chronicles as a struggling actor, A Personal History of the American Theater. These productions were all critical successes, and Gray soon became the darling of a small cult as his harrowing but funny takes on revealing the emotional and psychological cracks in his life brought some fresh air to the genre of performance art.
Although acting in small parts in film since the '70s, it wasn't until he garnered a role in The Killing Fields (1984), that he began to gain more prominent exposure. His experiences making The Killing Fields formed the basis of his one-man stage show Swimming to Cambodia which premiered on Off-Broadway in 1985. Both haunting and humorous, the plainsong sincerity of his performance exuded a raw immediacy and fragile power. Gray managed to relate his personal turmoil to larger issues of morality throughout the play, including absurdities in filmmaking, prostitution in Bangkok (where the movie was shot), and the genocidal reign of the Pol Pot. Gray won an Obie Award - the Off-Broadway's equivalent to the Tony Award - for his performance and two years later, his play was adapted by Jonathan Demme onto film, further broadening his acceptance as a unique and vital artistic talent.
After the success of Swimming to Cambodia, Gray found some work in the mainstream: Bette Midler's fiance in Beaches (1988), a regular part for one season as Fran Drescher's therapist in the CBS sitcom The Nanny (1989-90), a sardonic editor in Ron Howard's underrated comedy The Paper (1994), and a recent appearance as a doctor in Meg Ryan's romantic farce Kate & Leopold (2001). He also had two more of his monologues adapted to film: Monster in a Box (1992) and Gray's Anatomy (1996). Both films were further meditations on life and death done with the kind of biting personal wit that was the charming trademark of Gray.
His life took a sudden downturn when he suffered a frightening head-on car crash during a 2001 vacation in Ireland to celebrate his 60th birthday. He suffered a cracked skull, a broken hip and nerve damage to one foot and although he recovered physically, the incident left him traumatized. He tried jumping from a bridge near his Long Island home in October 2002. Family members, fearing for his safety, and well aware of his family history of mental illness (his mother committed suicide in 1967) convinced him to seek treatment in a Connecticut psychiatric hospital the following month.
Sadly, despite his release, Gary's mental outlook did not improve. He was last seen leaving his Manhattan apartment on January 10, and witnesses had reported a man fitting Gray's description look despondent and upset on the Staten Island Ferry that evening. He is survived by his spouse Kathleen Russo; two sons, Forrest and Theo; Russo's daughter from a previous relationship, Marissa; and two brothers, Rockwell and Channing.
by Michael T. Toole
Spalding Gray (1941-2004)
Released in United States August 4, 1989
Released in United States Fall November 1, 1984
Released in United States November 1984
Shown at a benefit screening in Phnom Penh, Cambodia August 4, 1989.
Completed shooting August 1984.
Released in United States August 4, 1989 (Shown at a benefit screening in Phnom Penh, Cambodia August 4, 1989.)
Released in United States November 1984
Released in United States Fall November 1, 1984