THE KILLING FIELDS (1984)

Filmic Context - Print -- Video -- Online

Print Resources

Crowdus, Gary, ed.  The Political Companion to American Film.  Chicago: Lakeview P, 1994.

Two key chapters, "Vietnam War Films" and "The War Film," investigate various aspects of the portrayal of war in movies.  Films such as The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Full Metal Jacket, and many others are examined by Rob Edelman in the Vietnam chapter.  Of great interest to Edelman is the characterization of the Vietnam Veteran, represented as “at worst, killing machines, crazed Charles Manson clones, motorcycle-riding rapists and thugs or, at best, as aimless impotent drug dealers or suicidal depressives” (449).  In Lenny Rubenstein’s chapter on general war films, war movies are divided into eight categories (the Embattled Platoon, the Battling Buddies, the Preparedness Film, the Service Comedy-Musical, the Battle Epic, the Strain of Command, and the Antiwar Film).  Rubenstein explores these categories and the films that belong to each.  A recommended bibliography can be found at the end of both chapters (454, 463) for studying these issues further.  These chapters provide entrance into a valuable context for studying The Killing Fields.

Gregg, Robert W.   "The Ten Best Films about International Relations.”   World Policy Journal 16 (1999): 129-34.

Gregg analyzes ten films that accurately and elegantly comment on foreign relations.  Shane, Dr. Strangelove, The Battle of Algiers, Lawrence of Arabia, Burn, Salvador, The Killing Fields, Alexander Nevsky, Yes, Prime Minister, and Before the Rain are the ten films that Gregg chose as the “best” on international relations.  The Killing Fields, according to Gregg, shows how important, and even necessary, foreign intervention is in the case of genocide.  Americans should intervene when humanitarian concerns exist.  The Killing Fields is important because it both presents intervention as a moral obligation and criticizes America for neglecting that obligation.  In The Killing Fields, the United States is blamed, both directly and indirectly, for the Cambodian tragedy resulting in 3 million deaths.  To Gregg, The Killing Fields is an important political film that stresses the necessity of American intervention; a point that needs to be considered when trying to prevent future tragedies in other countries. Lastly, Gregg compares the Cambodian genocide to the present massacres in Rwanda and implicitly argues that the lessons learned from Cambodia need to be carried over to present times.

Loukides, Paul, and Linda K. Fuller, eds.  Beyond the Stars.  Bowling Green: Bowling Green U Popular P, 1990.

In Norma Fay Green’s chapter, "Press Dress: The Beige Brigade of Movie Journalists Outdoors," the symbolism behind the attire of movie journalists, including Sydney Schanberg and Al Rockoff in The Killing Fields, is analyzed.  Green asserts that “moviegoers have come to quickly decipher the occupational shorthand symbolized in the ubiquitous trenchcoat and the bush, or safari, jacket as they relate to cinematic newsgatherers (65).  She speaks of Sydney Schanberg’s (Sam Waterson) trenchcoat as typical of what a film viewer expects a journalist to wear.  In contrast, news photographer Al Rockoff’s (John Malkovich) “rag-tag” garb differentiates him from the print journalists.  Green argues that Malkovich’s unique attire, combined with his desire to “capture the truth through pictures alone” causes him to stand out, and separates him from Schanberg who simply “blends in with the crowds” and is at the “mercy of his translator and guide” [Dith Pran].  Green investigates the importance of journalist attire in other films, as well, some of which are Gazette, Salvador, Absence of Malice, It Happened One Night, Full Metal Jacket, and Crocodile Dundee.  (For a complete list of films mentioned, see pages 75-76.)

Palmer, William J.  The Films of the Eighties: A Social History.  Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1993.

Palmer argues that The Killing Fields is a film about “survivor” guilt.  Specifically, “The Killing Fields, on a textual level, is a factual representation of the ‘survivor guilt’ of Sydney Schanberg for having left his friend Dith Pran behind but, on a subtextual level, is a metaphorical representation of a national ‘survivor guilt’ for what happened to the people of Cambodia because of the Vietnam war” (100).  Throughout the film, Palmer refers to various scenes that point to the evidence of this “survivor guilt.”  The most important moments, according to Palmer, occur during Schanberg’s award acceptance ceremony.  During his speech, Schanberg unabashedly blames the U.S. government for Cambodia’s current situation.  Later, Schanberg’s friend, Al Rockoff, questions his guilty role in Pran’s current situation.  Here, Schanberg and the United States are parallel: they are both parties experiencing “survivor guilt.”  Palmer makes two final points in his analysis of The Killing Fields.  First, he admires this film for abandoning the “Amerocentric and ultimately racist view of history, literature, and the media toward the Vietnam War” (102).  And, second, he focuses on Pran’s final words “Nothing to forgive.”  Palmer concludes by asking the rhetorical question: Is there really is nothing to forgive, or if this last statement is merely a way to appease Schanberg, and the United States', “survival guilt?”

Park, James.  “Bombs and Pol Pot.”  Sight and Sound 54 (1984/1985): 14-16.

In an interview with Roland Joffe, David Puttnam, and Bruce Robinson, James Park gathered that, to them, the most important and influential aspect of The Killing Fields is its focus on humans.  Park agrees with this contention and applauds Joffe for denying the audience the typical blood and guts war film they desire.  According to Joffe, each murder was not filmed to parade Khmer Rouge brutality.  Instead, he wanted The Killing Fields to be “a film of consequences.  Any time there was a killing, it was specifically used as part of the film’s emotional charge” (15).  This film was about people; not war, not journalism, not politics.  Park praises Joffe for the ambiguities he presents in the film.  He does not have any real “villain” that “provides a demonology that could salve the liberal conscience” (15).  The United States Embassy, Sydney Schanberg, and even the Khmer Rouge murderers are portrayed with some degree of sympathy.  Park finishes by saying that The Killing Fields is open to interpretation.  One can read the film as a “condemnation of American policy in Cambodia” regardless of Joffe’s claims that he did not “villainize” the United States.

Schanberg, Sydney.  “The Death and Life of Dith Pran: A Story of Cambodia.”  New York Times Magazine 20 Jan. 1980, 16-65.

This is the long New York Times Magazine article on which the film, The Killing Fields, was based.  Schanberg and Pran’s relationship, along with factual historical information about the 1970 Cambodia revolution, is relayed through this well-written and moving account.  Schanberg, a reporter for the New York Times, speaks of how he and Pran met in Cambodia as two journalists covering the Cambodian struggle.  Pran was Schanberg’s interpreter, guide, and eventual friend.  Schanberg reveals how Pran’s connections and bribery allowed them to cover events that other journalists could not access, specifically the accidental bombing of Neak Luong for which they were the first reporters on site. Pran, through his excellent negotiating skills, was also able to save the lives of Schanberg and other reporters when the Khmer Rouge stormed the city of Phnom Penh. Deciding to remain in Cambodia after the United States evacuation, Pran was vaguely aware of the danger the Khmer Rouge presented to him.  When Pran was taken by the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975, Schanberg reveals his guilt of not being able to save the man who had earlier saved him.  The article then covers Schanberg’s guilt-ridden life in New York and Pran’s unbearable life in Cambodia.  Eventually, the two friends are reunited, as Pran managed to escape the brutality of the Khmer Rouge.  Schanberg elegantly articulates the emotional separation and reunion of he and his good friend, Pran.  We learn that the two men continue to report together for the New York Times today (1980).

---.  The Killing Fields: The Facts behind the Film.  London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson Limited, 1984.

As the title indicates, this book provides the factual information behind each scene of the movie, The Killing Fields.  It is broken into three sections, Part One: Background: The Story of Cambodia; Part Two: Fact and Film: Eleven Scenes; and Part Three: The Aftermath.  Part One relays basic Cambodian history from the second century to present day (1984).  In Part Two, the historical evidence behind the eleven main scenes of The Killing Fields (Accidental Bombing, Strangulation of a City, Operation Eagle Pull, Liberation, Preah Keth Mealea Hospital, Arrest, Evacuation Begins, French Embassy, Sydney Schanberg, Dith Pran, and Reunion) is reported by both Schanberg and Pran.  Schanberg’s New York Times’ articles written during the actual events listed above are included in this section as another source of factual information.  Lastly, accounts of Director Roland Joffe, Producer David Putnam, Associate Producer Iain Smith, and Screenwriter Bruce Robinson on the film in general and each scene in particular was recorded in this section as a third perspective on the creation of this film.  In the final section of this book, Part Three, Bruce Palling writes about the continuing struggle in Cambodia.  From hunger and poverty to disillusionment and lack of a government, Cambodia still has many important problems as a result of the Khmer Rouge rule that need to be addressed.

Wood, Dennis.  “Seeing and Being: The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, The Killing Fields, Politics in Movies.”  Film Quarterly 39 (1986): 62-65.

Wood compares the political messages in the three movies, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science and The Killing Fields.  He argues that, although The Killing Fields is a “liberal political film,” it makes less of a political statement than the more popular, less celebrated film, The Breakfast Club.  Wood’s main problem with the politics of The Killing Fields is this:  “The entire political apparatus of the film lies in the choice of subject, NOT in the way it understands that subject.  Although it says, ‘This is a topic of interest,’ it has nothing interesting to say about the topic” (62, Wood’s emphasis).  In comparison to The Breakfast Club, a film which “foregrounds [politics] in the film itself,” The Killing Fields is, according to Wood, an example of “cheap, old-fashioned melodrama” (62).  For Wood, a political film needs to bring one to “the contemplation of action” for it to be successful. The Killing Fields, because of its remote setting and detached story, does not bring the audience to this point of action.  “But will it make you behave differently?” Wood asks.  The Killing Fields is sufficiently removed from the average movie-goers lifestyle that the answer to this question is “No.”

Video Resources

Hollywood and VietnamVideocassette.  Gwynedd Mercy College, 1999.

A presentation on Vietnam War films, as part of the Academic Lecture Series for Gwynedd Mercy College’s 50th anniversary.

(Unseen; information from WorldCat.)

Vietnam Movies, The Way It Really Was.  Videocassette.  MPI Home Video, 1991.

This segment from Nightline, which aired December 19, 1986, examined how Hollywood once viewed the Vietnam War and how filmmakers, through movies such as Platoon and Hanoi Hilton, saw it today (i.e. 1986).  Through interviews with filmmakers, Vietnam veterans, and war correspondents, the Vietnam War film is compared to the actual Vietnam War experience.  It is argued that present versions of the Vietnam War, as presented in Platoon, are much more accurate and realistic, and less patriotic, than past versions.

(Unseen; information from WorldCat.)

Online Resources

Lincoln’s Vietnam War Page  [link not operating 2/1/03]
http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Set/4568/mainpage.html

This page is dedicated to three significant films on the Vietnam War: Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, and Platoon.  On the Full Metal Jacket page, one can find a gallery of pictures and famous lines from the movie.  The Apocalypse Now page contains information about the film’s plot, some pictures, a few sound clips, and important quotes from the film.  Unfortunately, the Platoon page and links to other sites cannot be accessed, but the information that is available is quite useful to anyone researching influential Vietnam War films.
 
 

Copyright (c) 1999 by Wendy Elizabeth Kuhn, Undergraduate at Lehigh University.

This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of the U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access.  Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.