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The Killing Fields is a 1984 British film drama about the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodiamarker.

It is based on the experiences of three journalists: Dith Pran, a Cambodian, Sydney Schanberg, an American, and Jon Swain, a journalist from the UK. The film, which won three Academy Awards, was directed by Roland Joffé and stars Sam Waterston as Schanberg, Haing S. Ngor as Dith Pran, Julian Sands as Jon Swain, and John Malkovich as Al Rockoff. The adaptation for the screen was written by Bruce Robinson and the soundtrack by Mike Oldfield.


The film opens in May 1973 in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penhmarker. The Cambodian national army is fighting a civil war with the communist Khmer Rouge (KR), a result of the Vietnam War overspilling that country’s borders. Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist and interpreter for New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg, awaits the arrival of Schanberg at the Phnom Penhmarker airport when he leaves suddenly. Schanberg arrives after his flight is delayed for three hours and, irritated that Pran is not at the airport, takes a cab to his hotel. Pran meets Schanberg later and tells him that an incident has occurred in a town, Neak Leungmarker; allegedly, an American B-52 has bombed the town by mistake.

Schanberg and Pran try to find transport to the site. Pran is able to sneak himself and Sydney onto a police boat that takes them to Neak Leung. When they arrive, they find that the town has indeed been bombed and hundreds have been killed, with many more wounded, including women and children. Schanberg and Pran are arrested when they try to photograph the execution of two KR operatives by Cambodian army officers. They are eventually released and Schanberg is furious when the international press corps arrives with the US Army to report a "sanitised" version of the story.

The story moves ahead two years, to 1975. The international embassies are being evacuated in anticipation of an invasion of the capital by the KR. Schanberg manages to secure evacuation orders for Pran, his wife and their four children. However, Pran insists that he would stay back with Schanberg and help him. Pran’s family is evacuated with the other international diplomats.

The Khmer Rouge move into the capital, seemingly under a banner of peace. During a parade through the city, Schanberg, suspicious of the positive way the Khmer Rouge are being welcomed, meets Rockoff, who tells him that he’d just come from an area where heavy fighting was taking place. They are later met by a detachment of the Khmer Rouge, who arrest them immediately. Pran is not allowed into the APC at first, but is able to bribe the Khmer Rouge leader. The group is taken through the city to a back alley where prisoners are being held and executed. Pran, unharmed because he is a Cambodian civilian, negotiates with the KR officer in command for several hours to spare the lives of his friends. They are set free, joining the thousands of refugees fleeing the capital. They do not leave Phnom Penh, but instead retreat to the French embassy and stay there for several days, awaiting their chance to evacuate.

During this time they are informed that the Khmer Rouge have demanded that all Cambodian citizens in the embassy be turned over. Fearing the embassy will be overrun, the embassy occupants comply. Knowing that Pran will become a prisoner or be executed by the KR, Rockoff and fellow photographer Swain try to forge a passport identifying Pran as a British subject. They use supplies they find in the embassy buildings; however, the picture fades. With no other options available, Pran is turned over to the Khmer Rouge and is forced to live under the oppressive KR regime.

Several months after returning to New York City, Schanberg is in the midst of a personal campaign to locate Pran. He has appealed to many humanitarian organisations and has kept in close contact with Pran’s family in San Franciscomarker. In Cambodia, Pran has become a forced labourer under the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge and their new government, Angkar, that declares “Year Zero”, a return to the agrarian ways of the past. Pran labours in rice fields under the watchful eyes of young children whom the Khmer Rouge hold in high regard as the future leaders of their regime. Pran is also forced to attend propagandist classes where many proclaim their allegiance to Angkar through re-education. Pran’s voiceovers reveal that those who do so disappear. Pran feigns simple-mindedness to avoid the same fate that befalls intellectuals like himself. Eventually, Pran tries to escape, but is recaptured. Before he is found by members of the Khmer Rouge, he stumbles upon the infamous killing fieldsmarker of the Pol Pot regime, where millions of Cambodian citizens were murdered by the new order.

Sydney Schanberg receives a journalism award for his coverage of the Cambodian conflict. At the acceptance dinner he tells the audience that half the recognition for the award belongs to Pran. When he visits the men’s room he is confronted by Rockoff who harshly accuses him of not doing enough to locate Pran and for using his friend to win the award. Schanberg defends his efforts, saying that he has contacted every humanitarian relief agency possible in the four years since Pran’s disappearance. Rockoff suggests that Schanberg subtly pressured Pran to remain in Cambodia because Pran was so vital to Sydney's work. This accusation hits close to home, and Schanberg begins to wonder whether he put his own self-interest ahead of Pran's safety. He finally admits that Pran "stayed because I wanted him to stay."

Pran is assigned to the leader of a different prison compound, a man named Phat, and charged mostly with tending to his little boy. Pran continues his self-imposed discipline of behaving as an uneducated peasant, despite several of Phat’s attempts to trick him into revealing his knowledge of both French and English. Phat begins to trust Pran and asks him to take ward of his son in the event that he is killed. Angkar are now engaged in a new war with Vietnam over territory in eastern Cambodia. The conflict reaches Pran's region and a battle ensues between the Khmer Rouge of the compound and two jets sent to destroy the camp. After the skirmish has ended, Pran discovers that Phat's son has American money and a map leading to safety. When Phat tries to stop the younger Khmer Rouge officers from killing several of his comrades, he is ignominiously shot.

In the confusion, Pran escapes with four other prisoners and they begin a long trek through the jungle with Phat’s young son. The group later splits and three of them head in a different direction; Pran continues following the map with one of them. However, Pran’s companion steps on a hidden land mine while holding the child. Though Pran pleads with the man to give him the child, the mine goes off, killing them both. Pran mourns for a time and continues on. One day he crests the escarpment of the Dangrek Mountainsmarker and sees a Red Crossmarker camp near the border of Thailand. The scene shifts to Schanberg calling Pran’s family with the news that Pran is alive and safe. Soon after, Schanberg travels to the Red Cross camp and is reunited with Pran. He asks Pran “Do you forgive me?” Pran answers, with a smile, “Nothing to forgive, Sydney, nothing to forgive.” The two embrace. The scene is set to the song “Imagine” by John Lennon.

Cut scenes

According to John Pilger, scenes which show the communist Vietnam People's Army liberating Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge and distributing food aid were cut from the film.


It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture, director, actor, supporting actor, adapted screenplay, film editing and cinematography.

The film won the Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (for Haing Ngor), Best Editing, and Best Cinematography (for Chris Menges). Bruce Robinson's screenplay received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. The film also won the BAFTA Award for Best Film.

The film is 100th on the BFI Top 100 British films list.

The film also ranks 30th on the 100 Greatest Tearjerkers.

Related work

In 1986, actor Spalding Gray, who had a small role in the movie as the American consul, created Swimming to Cambodia, an acclaimed monologue (later filmed by Jonathan Demme) based upon his experiences making The Killing Fields.


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