Review of “The Killing Fields”

Andrea Zuvich

19th November 2006

The Killing Fields

Torture, Murder, dehumanization- the Khmer Rouge’s infamous practices are known with horror throughout much of the world. The genocide of over two million men, women and children[1] has gone down in history as one of the most brutal examples of it in the twentieth century. The film entitled The Killing Fields incorporates the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime with the facts surrounding the involvement of the United States government and weaves it into a compellingly dramatic and true film. The Killing Fields is both a realistic depiction of an historic event, an angry example of the increasing American dissatisfaction with the Cold War, and a call for a peaceful outcome for the future.

Made in 1984, “The Killing Fields” is a disturbing and realistic view of the war in Cambodia during the 1970s. The film’s power comes not only from the unsettling subject matter, but from the fact that it actually happened. Its storyline follows the true-life story of a group of Western reporters, most notably the American New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg, and their Cambodian reporter friend, Dith Pran. The film takes us from the events of 1973 when the United States government led a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia in pursuit of what appeared to be Viet Cong hideouts- which one character stated as, “bringing the Vietnam war into Cambodia.” When Schanberg questions an American embassy official about why the bombing occurred, the answer he received was that it was, “Pilot error, computer malfunction. They screwed up on the coordinates. A single B-52 dropped its entire load on Neak Luong[2].” In other words, the government had to make the bombing look accidental; an accidental bombardment which resulted in the murder of hundreds on innocent civilians.

As film reviewer Roger Ebert wrote, “half of the film belongs to [the character] Dith Pran, who sees his country turned into an insane parody of a one-party state, ruled by the Khmer Rouge with instant violence and a savage intolerance for any reminders of the French and American presence of the colonial era.[3]” The Khmer Rouge, even though many of its head members including leader Pol Pot were educated in Western countries, condemned all things Western and then all things (and people) that were not Khmer. And the audience views all of this through the eyes of Dith Pran, who is subjected to torture, labour camps, starvation and dehumanization.

The main feel of this movie suggests that America was tired of the whole fight between Communists and Anti-Communists. Anger was sweeping throughout the United States not only due to the extreme disapproval of the Vietnam war, but because the people were tired of the Cold War period. With such bloody and unconscionable revolutions as a direct or indirect result of American military tactics, Americans slowly (due to secrecy) began to see how utterly misled they had been. Nixon’s regime had not only been the cause of the bloodshed in Cambodia, as was depicted in this film, but in other places- notably in Chile in 1973; where the assassination and overthrow of the democratically-elected President and all his supporters took place at the behest of the White House.

Why could such blatantly horrific political manoeuvres take place? It is simple, the United States and her allies were incredibly fearful and paranoid that the world would turn Communist, and everyone’s fear of living like the Orwellian nightmare of 1984 would come to be. Unwittingly, the military works designed and used to prevent such totalitarian regimes from coming into being actually became the impetus for many of them to come into being. In the film, there is a clip of President Nixon giving a speech about Vietnam and Cambodia; “There are no American combat advisors in Cambodia, There will be no American combat troops or advisors in Cambodia. We will aide Cambodia, for Cambodia is the Nixon doctrine in its purest form.[4]” It seems more likely that the “Nixon doctrine” not only created monsters, but also made them grow stronger.

The Genocide Convention specifically states that genocide is the use of any of the following against a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.[5] All of the aforementioned acts were committed by the Khmer Rouge regime, and were depicted in The Killing Fields. The cast is stellar- with a heart wrenching performance from Haing S. Ngor who played the historical character of Dith Pran. This actor was cast due to his real-life experiences as a prisoner under the Khmer Rouge[6]. His supplication to the Khmer Rouge guards to save his Western friends is extremely moving.

Sometimes intervention can make things worse, as has been shown above. The United States government must realize that if it wants to prevent more atrocities in the future, it must refrain from using violence to achieve its goals if it truly wants peace in the world. The movie leaves the audience feeling both angry at the senselessness of violence and also hopeful for a future of peace. For the audience feels angry with statements such as what Schanberg says in his award acceptance speech, “the men who decided to bomb and invade Cambodia concerned themselves with many things…but what they specifically were not concerned with was the Cambodians themselves…not the people, not the society, not the country- except in the abstract.[7]” At the end of the film, after having seen what Dith Pran went through in the labour camps, the audience sees him reunited with his dear friend Sydney Schanberg. There is also a note at the end of the film which informs the audience that the horrors were still continuing there and that there are still huge amounts of refugees along the borders with Thailand. The film ends on an inspirational note with the music of John Lennon’s message of peace, “Imagine,” that maybe someday will come to be a reality. “Imagine there’s no countries; It isn’t hard to do; Nothing to kill or die for; And no religion too; Imagine all the people; Living life in peace…”


1. “The Cambodian Killing Fields.” The Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project.

Accessed on November 13, 2006.

2. The Killing Fields. Produced by David Puttnam and directed by Roland Joffe. 141

mins. Warner Bros, 1984. DVD.

3. Ebert, Roger. Review of The Killing Fields. January 1, 1984.

4. “Genocide- Cambodia.” Peace Pledge Union. Accessed on November 13, 2006.

5. “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.” Accessed

on November 14, 2006.

Please contribute thy thoughts!

Your e-mail address will not be published.