Historical Background of "The Killing Fields"
The American Vietnam War destabilized the three involved Indochinese countries Vietnam, Laos and, most of them, Cambodia. The American carpet bombing on Cambodian targets alone cost the lives of about 600,000 Cambodian People and left a traumatized population. In 1970 the Nixon administration ordered a temporary invasion of greater parts of Cambodia by some 20,000 American troops. They withdrew soon after, but left an immense chaos, destruction, brutalization and killing in the country.
At the chaotic breakdown of the American aggression communist insurgents took the three countries over. In Cambodia it were the notorious Khmer Rouge. On April 9, 1975 they conquered the capital Phnom Penh.
Khmer Rouge march into Phnom Penh. At the first day it meant the end of war for many, and a part of the population welcomed the communist insurgents, not imagining what would follow. Image from the movie.
Under the rule of the Khmer Rouge approximately a quarter of the 8,000,000 Cambodian People died, either by 'political cleansing' or due to starvation or the absence of medical infrastructure. The political cleansing was made by deporting people to certain spots outside of towns and villages on the fields where they were killed either by shooting or by being beaten to death with tools, stifled with a plastic bag over their head (as shown in the movie) or other methods of killing. The most known 'Killing Fields' site is Choeung Ek, a few kilometers outside of Phnom Penh, where some 17,000 people were killed.
For more on the historical background have a look at 'Cambodian History', Democratic Kampuchea.
The movie tells the (true) story of Sydney Schanberg, an American journalist (New York Times) and Dith Pran, a Cambodian collegue and local guide/translator working with/for Schanberg. They witness the last weeks of the pro American Lon Nol regime and the conquest of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge. Incredible atrocities occur. Phnom Penh gets three days after the conquest completely evacuated. More than two million people had to leave the megacity in an apocalyptic exodus.
While all the remaining Westerners gather in the French Embassy and manage to leave the country, Dith can not leave for he has no valid passport. As an educated man Dith has to expect his execution by the new rulers.
The hectical, thickening aggressive atmosphere is very well caught into the picture. The shown scences are very realistic and convincing.
On the Killing Fields. Rain, mud, bones. Image from the movie.
Anyhow avoiding execution, a years long ordeal in the working camps of the Khmer Rouge starts for Dith Pran. He has continuously to claim that he were just a simple peasant, until he is finally able to escape the murderous regime over the border to Thailand.
The movie is also about a certain kind of friendship which evolved between Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran. Schanberg, above all, suffers a bad conscience for having put pressure on Dith remaining in Cambodia at a time when he could escape easily and then leaving Dith back in the hands of the savage Khmer Rouge. Back in the USA he doesn't believe in Dith's death, although he is cut off of all contact to him, and Dith is highly probable supposed to be executed by the communists. Dith was a very loyal worker for Schanberg, while Schanberg represents an ambitious, aggressive reporter who puts success over everything else.
A kind of real-life happy end occurs when Schanberg finally get's message of Dith's successful escape.
For the understanding of the film a certain knowledge of Cambodian History is required.
'The Killing Fields', made in 1984, brought the events of the genocide in Cambodia to a world audience which mainly hadn't the faintest idea of what was going on in the country in the years of the terrorist regime 1975 - 1979. Cambodia was a forgotten country, cut off from contacts to the outer world.
The actor Haing S. Ngor, who plays Dith, was in his real life a doctor in Phnom Penh and survived the Khmer Rouge regime after suffering four years long in labour camps, denying his education. It's his first role as an actor in a movie what one wouldn't guess for he is really a very good actor. Due to his personal experience with the political happenings he gives the movie more authenticity.
The picture was shot in locations in Thailand and Canada.
At the end of the movie John Lennon's 'Imagine' is played. The implication is seen controversially by critics.
Both, Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran wrote a book about their experiences.