THE KILLING FIELDS (1984)

Scene Analysis
0:37:01

Americans: Retaining Pride in the Face of Shame

by
Wendy Kuhn

with comments by Catherine Breckenridge, John Culhane,
Stephanie McElroy, and Lindsay Totams

and
Wendy's comments on the commenters

[1]     We Americans are constantly criticized for our pride.  Face it, we think our country is the best, hands down.  We have the best houses, the best cars, the best athletes, the best government, the best military, the best Disney World, and the best McDonald’s.  We are ethnocentric and egotistical.  Well, we must also be the best at self-criticism because we realize that this ethnocentricity is a major flaw.  The Killing Fields is a film that attempts to correct this flaw.  In it, Americans are forced to witness our country at one of its lowest points.  We are confronted with image after image of America as the “bad guy,” complete with military blunders and political corruption.  This film bashes our pride.

[2]     And, yet, our pride remains.  After viewing The Killing Fields, one does not suddenly lose all feelings of nationalism.  We do not leave the theatre wishing we were British or French or Japanese.  Ironically, even after witnessing the horrors our nation allowed to occur, we are still essentially satisfied with being American.  Sure, we may be angry with our government for the chaos it created in Cambodia.  We may regret that the Cambodians had to undergo such horrendous conditions.   But we do not abandon our general faith in America, our sense that our nation is good; we may even still believe that America is the best.  The evacuation sequence, or Operation Eagle Pull, is essential in this respect.  Over the course of seven intense minutes, the American viewer is simultaneously confronted with loud, obnoxious images that overtly expose our government’s corruption and force us to question our national pride; and smaller, more subtle images that qualify our nation’s shortcomings and allow our pride to ultimately prevail.  During the evacuation scene, these opposing forces integrate in intricate and complex ways.

[3]     There are many techniques used in the evacuation sequence (37:05) that function to expose America’s faults and depict us as the “bad guy.”   The tense music, the invasive helicopters, and the constant cutting between shots, for example, all give the viewer a sense of urgency.  It is as though America is on the run.  Indeed, almost everyone in this scene is running.  Major Reeves quickly scours the embassy for any remaining Americans; military men run about in seeming circles; Schanberg and Pran sprint around in search of each other; and, later, the helicopter that will take Pran’s family to safety.  What I wonder at this point is why everyone is running?  Why are we in such a rush?  Besides the obvious answer that military operations are usually carried out in a quick and efficient manner, there remains the response to why the director made sure that this evacuation sequence was portrayed as rushed.

[4]     The first step to answering this question is to ask another: why does anyone run?  People run for recreation and for transportation; we run to get to somewhere/something or away from somewhere/something.  After answering this preliminary question, it is then reasonable to assume that, since Americans are evacuating Cambodia, they are running away from something.

[5]     Now, there are never good connotations with running away from something.  People run out of fear (I don’t want that  fill-in-blank  to get me), they run out of embarrassment (I can’t believe I called my Professor a fill-in-blank ), and they run out of guilt (I’d better leave before the store manager notices that  fill-in-blank  is missing).  In the case of Cambodia, it is safe to say that Americans ran for all three reasons (comment by Stephanie McElroy).  The Americans realized they had started something big, although they probably didn’t realize how big – no one consciously foresees the genocide of 3 million people -- and wanted to leave before they were drawn into the commotion they created.  As an embassy official earlier told Schanberg, “We’re either staying or we’re living” (33:00).  We knew something terrible, a “bloodbath” even (32:56), was about to happen in (or to) Cambodia; we knew that our involvement there had contributed to this terrible thing about to occur; and, yet, we chose to leave.  The evacuation scene is “rushed” to expose America’s guilt in Cambodia’s later fate -- a culpability of which one can hardly be proud.

[6]     In addition to the overwhelming sense that America is on the run, other, subtler, techniques are used to undermine American ideals and expose American faults.  Images of the American flag, seen throughout the sequence, play a role here.  We first see the flag waving proudly outside the American Embassy (38:54).  A photojournalist, Al Rockoff, takes pictures as we see our flag, our pride, lowered by a military official.  American esteem is then taken a step lower, as this man clumsily climbs through a small opening in the building, practically dropping our flag on his way in.  No longer does the American viewer see their flag, the symbol of their proud nation, raised in triumph.  Instead, we witness our flag being lowered in defeat and desertion.

[7]     Finally, color and status are used to expose America as the “bad guy” in the “good” Cambodia.  The American Ambassador travels in a black Cadillac, symbolic of both American “high class” and the dark corruption associated with this class.  The Americans, with the exception of the journalists, are all wearing the dark, “classy” attire of military and businessmen, whereas the Cambodians are presented in lighter, purer colors and don ragged, worn clothes.  Repeatedly, Americans are associated with the material world (helicopters, fancy clothes, Cadillacs), and that association is presented as deviant, even “evil,” in relation to the natural/“good” world of Cambodia (comment by Lindsay Totams).  Our technology, and hence our materialism, is shown to disrupt the purity of Cambodia’s environment.  When the evacuation helicopters first entered Cambodia’s serene atmosphere, for example, the sky was crisp, clear, and blue – a calm, peaceful color.  As the choppers leave, they disappear into black smoke – the wake of America’s dirty involvement.  America is shown to be so “evil” here that even the Cambodian sky is blackened with our corruption (comment by John Culhane).

 [8]     Overwhelmingly, this evacuation sequence denies the viewers the chance to experience the American pride to which they are accustomed.  Through the various images and techniques described above, Americans are portrayed as careless, inattentive, neglectful, and even “evil.”  We see our country ignore pleading Cambodians and trip over oblivious children, as it abandons a nation in need.  Ironically, though, one does not leave this scene with as sour a taste as one would expect.  In addition to the many images that condemn America, there are a few small, but important references to the American “good” that make this evacuation tolerable for those who would like to maintain their sense of American pride.

[9]     The most prominent moment of American “good” in the evacuation sequence occurs at the very beginning, as Major Reeves searches the American Embassy for any remaining officials.  One American official, Bob, sits alone in his office as Reeves shouts “this is the last check!” (37:36)  Bob is the only official we see hesitating to leave Cambodia.  He sluggishly rises off his office floor and, deep in contemplation, rubs the face of a Buddhist statue.  The viewer feels the power of this moment; we feel that Bob, although evacuating Cambodia, deeply regrets this action.  The statue, symbolic of Cambodia and its values, is attended to and respected by Bob.  Bob is distinguishable from the other Americans in this scene in that he understands and truly contemplates the complexities of Cambodia’s struggle.  Unfortunately, he comes to the conclusion that, although he may wish to aid this poor nation, he, and perhaps even America, can do little at this point to prevent the massacre that would inevitably ensue.

[10]     The American journalists, Schanberg and Rockoff – who stay in Cambodia after the evacuation, are also portrayed in a positive light in this sequence.  In addition to Bob, both journalists can be distinguished from the other Americans portrayed in this scene in that they are critical and reflective of the American involvement in, and withdrawal from, Cambodia.  (While both journalists are important, Rockoff’s presence in this scene is particularly noticeable, and so I will concentrate on him.)  Rockoff’s sarcastic remark, “Well, it’s been real,” (38:58) as he photographs the lowering of the American flag functions to separate him from the other, “bad” Americans who leave Cambodia.  By making such an informal, slang-like statement, at as serious a moment as the abandonment of Cambodia, Rockoff essentially mocks America.  To Rockoff, only power-hungry American officials could enter a neutral country, stir up a major revolution, and leave when the going got too-tough with as much indifference as, “it’s been real.”  Although Rockoff himself is American, he can still detach himself enough from America to criticize our government.  It is this self-criticism, along with the division made between Rockoff and the people he criticizes, that allows the American viewers to retain their national pride.

[11]     The American “good” in the evacuation sequence, which fosters the national pride that the American “evil” criticizes, is conveyed through individual Americans, Bob and Rockoff in particular.  These men are presented as the few honorable Americans amongst a dishonorable majority (comment by Catherine Breckenridge). They are critical of their government’s mistakes, and yet powerless to change them.  These men represent what the audience would like to believe is “us”: flawed – Bob leaves Cambodia and Rockoff ignores the needs of the Cambodian children who dance around him -- but essentially honest and good-natured people.  The American viewer can accept that our government may be power-hungry, thoughtless, and “evil.”  But the viewer firmly needs to believe that we, the American people, are basically good.  Bob and Rockoff are these “good” Americans.  Their presence in the evacuation sequence of negativity is essential; they allow us to defend and maintain our American pride.  They allow us to continue believing that America, or at least Americans, is the best.
 
 

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

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