Cinema: Ordeal of a Heroic Survivor

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Directed by Roland Joffé; Screenplay by Bruce Robinson

"This isn't a 1940s movie," Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) cries in one of the less deadly moments of frustration he suffers in The Killing Fields. One has to admire the honesty of a film that includes among its other acuities an intelligent capsule review of itself. For in recounting the tormented friendship of Schanberg, the New York Times correspondent who won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for his accounts of the fall of Cambodia, and his native assistant, Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor), the film does sacrifice the narrative coherence and the heroically moral resolutions old movies imposed on reality. Instead it offers the anguish decent men feel when they stand impotent before the high, harsh tides of history and the consequences of their own miscalculations.

The Killing Fields implies that Schanberg, when he began reporting from Southeast Asia, may have borrowed some of his reportorial manner from newspapering yarns. Brave, adversarial in his relations with the American mission supporting the Lon Nol government, unaware of how brutal the Khmer Rouge is, he is the classically impatient American journalist, overriding his better instincts in order to get the story. Those include, in Waterston's fine performance, the hint of a pervasive, unexamined melancholia that is far more common in life than it is in the movies. The picture leaves no doubt that if Schanberg had heeded the subtler side of his nature, his friend Pran would have been spared the almost inconceivable ordeal that preoccupies the second half of The Killing Fields.

Unable to bear the thought of life without his faithful interpreter and fixer (the movie's most suspenseful sequence shows Pran desperately negotiating for his employer's life with rebels who have captured him), the reporter dismisses broad hints about what the fate of a Cambodian native who has served a Western employer might be if the Communists seize power. When he and some fellow journalists (among them the good John Malkovich) try to concoct a false passport the gesture is too little, too late. Pran is sent to forced labor and forced re-education in the countryside, where millions died, while Schanberg, back home, pulls what distant wires he can to rescue him.

It is here that conventional narrative breaks down, the conventional desire for a grand heroic gesture defeated. The film's ostensible protagonist is shuffled off to a few guilty scenes so that Pran's patient, stubborn will to survive his awful ordeal may be celebrated. Ngor, a Cambodian doctor now living in California, brings both a natural gift and memories of his own torments by the Khmer Rouge to this role.

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