ACADEMY AWARD NOMINEE: BEST PICTURE
A New York Times correspondent and his Cambodian guide brave the dangers of war and socialist atrocity to report the truth, and to protect each other. Based on a true story. [Dir: Roland Joffe/ Sam Waterston, Dr. Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich/ 141 min/ Action-Adventure/ Democide, Escape from Socialism, Free Press as Hero, Anti-War]
As this story begins, Congress has just set a deadline for American bombings in Cambodia to stop, and American troops are starting to pull out. Intrepid reporter Sidney Schanberg and his resourceful guide Dith Pran are busy ferreting out the truth about large numbers of civilian casualties in one of these final American bombing raids, cutting through official lies on the subject and taking great risks to get the facts.
They are an admirable team—courageous, hard working, and not easily intimidated by authority—ideal as the eyes and ears of an American public that was regularly being misled by its government. However, they are clueless about the real nature of the Kmer Rouge, and decide to stay on in Phnom Penh to continue reporting after the American withdrawal.
Their mistake becomes clear with the arrival of Kmer Rouge troops—a wild, undisciplined, murderous rabble. Consistent with Pol Pot’s vision of an agrarian socialist utopia, these troops drive everyone out of the city at gunpoint. Schanberg is deported and Pran is taken away to be used as agricultural slave labor.
It is here that we get a glimpse of life in Pol Pot’s killing fields: harsh working conditions, little food, constant socialist political indoctrination, and random summary executions. Pran makes a run for it, passing at one point through an apparent dumping ground for the executed, where all around him are piles and piles of the dead. Eventually he reaches safety in Thailand and is reunited with Schanberg.
These are actual events and there is much in their telling that libertarians will appreciate: the heroic reporters uncovering the truth, the depiction of the miserable conditions of socialist life, and finally one man’s escape from it. However, just as the characters in the film seem much more savvy about getting around U.S. government lies than they are about understanding what the Kmer Rouge is really like, so too does this film seem much more attuned to the bad deeds of the U.S. government than it is to the evils of authoritarian socialism.
For instance, some mention might have been made of Pol Pot himself, educated in Paris by socialist professors and a member of the French Communist party while he was there. Ideas do indeed have consequences. Likewise, both Pol Pot’s motivation for driving people out of the cities (to create an agrarian socialist paradise), and the scale of the killing (something on the order of a fifth of the population) are left unstated.
Even so, whatever the film’s flaws, it does accomplish one very important thing. It records for posterity at least a vivid picture of, if not an explanation for, this government mass murder of some millions of Cambodians. To my knowledge, this is the only major film on this subject. It’s amazing to think that a fifth of an entire country’s population could disappear and out of this there would be only one story to tell. One might almost think there was some kind of media bias.
Anyway, as might be expected, this is a suspenseful and touching film. Dr. Haing S. Ngor is very effective as Dith Pran, and is said to have drawn upon his own hellish experience in Cambodia in his portrayal. One additional contribution made by the film is that it popularized the term “killing fields.” It’s a term that has been used many times since, as in “Saddam’s Killing Fields,” “Bosnia’s Killing Fields,” etc. It’s useful to have such a descriptive epithet for government mass murder in a century like the one just ending. This film won three Academy Awards.