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The Killing Fields
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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Killing Fields is a 1984 drama about the horrors of a 1970s Cambodian regime that were in part unleashed by wrong-headed American policies during the war in neighboring Vietnam. An American reporter dangerously stays too long to cover the atrocities and leaves his Cambodian journalist partner and translator behind to suffer torture, starvation, and forced labor under Khmer Rouge rule, a harsh regime known for its disregard for human life and for "cleansing" the country of two million innocent "undesirable" citizens. Bloody murders, bombings, and unspeakable atrocities are either shown or suggested. A man with a young boy in his arms steps on a land mine and both die. Hundreds of bodies and skeletons are strewn on roads and in rice paddies. Inhumanity is broadly represented, but so is kindness and generosity as people work together to try to save lives. Children are both informants and murderers here. Adults drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes. Language includes "f--k" and "s--t."
What's the story?
THE KILLING FIELDS tells a true, similar story to the one at the heart of First They Killed My Father, although here the emphasis is on the efforts of foreign war correspondents to publicize the fate of millions of innocent Cambodians being destroyed by American bombs and an insurgent Communist government that ruled by terror and murder. Award-winning journalist Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) is a driven New York Times reporter who risks his life to unearth the truth about secret American bombings in Cambodia as the failing Vietnam war was sending its mayhem to the Southeast Asian country next door. His partner in journalism and translator is Dith Pran (Haing S. Nor), a resourceful and courageous Cambodian who also risks his life daily for The New York Times. Schanberg gets himself, Pran, and his family on an evacuation list, but Schanberg decides to stay in the country and cover the story. Out of loyalty and a sense of duty, Pran puts his family on a helicopter and stays behind with Schanberg. When conditions force them to evacuate with the last remaining journalists, the Khmer Rouge, now fully in charge, refuse to allow Cambodians to leave. Efforts are made to forge a British passport for Pran but fail. The last third of the film focuses on Pran's days as a mistreated, starved forced laborer who manages after years to make a break for it and escape. Back home, Schanberg is writing letters to refugee organizations and feeling guilty for not forcing Pran to leave earlier. Note that once Pran returned to the United States he worked as a photographer for The New York Times for many years.
Is it any good?
This is a tension-filled, fast-paced movie about a difficult and bloody time in American and Southeast Asian history. Based on Schanberg and Pran's actual experiences covering the genocidal Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia, The Killing Fields brings the audience into those terrible times convincingly.
Haing S. Nor, a Cambodian doctor, plays Dith Pran with astonishing focus and intensity. It feels as if Pran is playing himself. Waterston does a great job portraying a man so interested in getting the story that he seems to miss the humanity and suffering of the victims he sees. In one scene back in New York, Schanberg watches a tape of bad deeds in Cambodia and seems more moved by the tape than by seeing the actual atrocities he personally witnessed when he was covering the war. It's to the movie's credit that Schanberg doesn't come off as a hero here. He is often condescending and impatient. His arrogance and single-minded pursuit of stories makes him a great reporter but not much of a human being. He knows he should have insisted Pran leave Cambodia when it was safe to go, but it suited Schanberg better to keep his indispensable translator with him, so he didn't press his friend and colleague to save himself when it was possible. Add to that the fact that Pran had a wife and children and Schanberg had no one and, between the lines, you can discern a true portrait of good character as opposed to one of bluster and bravado.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about why Pran stayed with Schanberg in The Killing Fields when he had the chance to leave with his family. Do you think Pran was willing to risk his life to get more stories for the New York Times? Is it possible Pran believed Schanberg wouldn't survive without his help?
The brutal and repressive Khmer Rouge were intent on killing all educated people -- teachers, doctors, lawyers -- so they could indoctrinate, lie to, and control ignorant people into their new way of life. What effect do you think killing a society's educated people can have on a country's future?
Why do you think ethnic cleansing and genocide recur throughout history? What purpose do you think it might serve to repressive regimes?
What we can do as a society to make sure these atrocities don't happen again?
- In theaters: February 1, 1984
- On DVD or streaming: November 22, 2016
- Cast: Sam Waterston, Haing S. Nor, John Malkovich, Spalding Gray, Julian Sands
- Director: Rolland Joffe
- Studio: Warner Archive Collection
- Genre: Drama
- Character Strengths: Courage, Perseverance
- Run time: 142 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: for violence and atrocities and for language.
- Awards/Honors: Academy Award
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