A story of perseverance and survival in hell on earth, The Killing Fields represents an admirable, if not entirely successful, attempt to bring alive to the world film audience the horror story that is the recent history of Cambodia.
Based on Pulitzer Prize-winning NY Times reporter Sydney Schanberg’s 1980 article The Death and Life of Dith Pran, film is designed as a story of friendship, and it is on this level that it works least well. The intent and outward trappings are all impressively in place, but at its heart there’s something missing.
Action begins in 1973, with Schanberg (Sam Waterston) arriving in Cambodia and being assisted in his reporting by Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor), an educated, exceedingly loyal native.
Through a stupendous effort, and at great risk to his own existence, Dith Pran manages to save the lives of Schanberg and some colleagues after their capture by the victorious Khmer Rouge two years later.
Dith Pran is later transferred to a re-education camp in the Cambodian Year Zero. It is during the long camp and escape sequences, which are largely silent, that the film reaches its most gripping heights.
Because of the overall aesthetic, which does not go in for nuances of character, performances are basically functional. Fortunately, nonpro Haing S. Ngor is a naturally sympathetic and camera-receptive man and he effectively carries the weight of the film’s most important sequences.
1984: Best Supp. Actor (Haing S. Ngor), Cinematography, Editing.
Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Sam Waterston), Adapted Screenplay