Friday, May 22, 2009

Greatest War Movies No 7, The Killing Fields

Made in 1984 The Killing Fields depicts the nightmarish events in Cambodia during the horrifically brutal and bizarre rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. The basic plot revolves around the true story of New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg, who is in Cambodia to cover the conflict, and his efforts to protect his Cambodian assistant Dith Pran from the brutality of the Khmer Rouge. As the Khmer Rouge come to power following a bloody power struggle in 1975 all westerners are preparing to leave the country. Schanberg, played by Sam Waterson and fellow journalist Al Rockoff, played by John Malkovich are held up along with Dith Pran in the American and later French embassies in Phnom Penh. It soon becomes clear however that it will not be possible to evacuate Pran along with the rest of the journalists he has befriended and that he will have to be left behind to take his chances with the Khmer Rouge. The second half of the film then goes on to depict the unimaginable horrors Pran witnesses as he tries to survive life under one of histories most tyrannical regimes.

Dith Pran, played by Cambodian actor and actual survivor of the killing fields Dr. Haing Ngor

Year Zero
After Hitler's Germany and Stalin's USSR, Pol Pot's Cambodia was probably the most brutal regime of the 20th century. The Khmer Rouge had the strictest interpretation of communist doctrine ever conceived and surpassed even the North Koreans in their ruthlessness in implementing it. Once in power Paul Pot began the process of agrarian collectivisation. He did this by evacuating the entire urban population of civilians and putting them to work in the fields on massive collective farms. In what became known as year zero the dictator began to "re educate" the population on the evils of the past. Anybody who failed to adequately break from the past was executed in the killing fields. This could mean displaying any signs of materialism, individuality or intellectualism. During the four year reign of the Khmer Rouge malnutrition, poor medical care, and executions resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people, approximately 26% of the Cambodian population. This is an almost unbelievable statistic. But for some reason the utter madness of it all is not particularly well known or understood in the west. The brutality of other cruel but less tyrannical regimes such as Chile, China and Serbia appear to be much better documented. I believe I know why this is.

In 1969 the Soviet Union and red China had a series of military clashes along the Ussuri river. This was the climax of a deterioration in relations between the two former communist allies. One result of the Moscow Beijing split was that the two counties began to fight wars by proxy in the same way that the US and USSR did throughout the entire cold war. One such war was the Cambodian Vietnamese war that lasted the duration of Khmer Rouge rule. In this war the Soviets backed the Vietnamese where as the Chinese weighed in behind Pol Pot's Cambodia. This is illustrated in one scene in the film when we see the Khmer Rouge aggressively expelling the staff of the Soviet embassy.

The map above shows how the communist world was divided into Soviet (red) and Chinese (yellow) allies.

In the wake of the communist split the United States had to decide how best to handle this dramatic geopolitical shift. President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger concluded that the USSR was the greater enemy and that it was in Americas interest to generally favour China in all disputes between the two. This culminated in a policy where the US would in war back a Chinese ally over a Soviet one. Therefor in the 1975 to 1979 war between Vietnam and Cambodia, the US wanted China's ally to defeat Moscow's. A side effect of this cold and mechanical foreign policy was that the sheer evil of the Khmer Rouge and the horror of the killing fields was played down in the west.

This is one of the reasons that The Killing Fields is such a brave and powerful film. It was made merely five years after the fall of Pol Pot's regime. In fact in 1984 the Khmer Rouge were still in control of some parts of Cambodia. But it is also worth noting that 1984 was an election year in the United States and at the time many were criticising President Reagan's support for dictatorial regimes around the world. The United Sates did not support the Khmer Rouge as such but Washington did in some ways protect the regime in the international arena. When a movie causes controversy and makes powerful people feel uncomfortable you know its doing something right.

Movie Myth
I want to briefly address a widely believed myth I heard involving the story of Dith Pran. When I first saw the movie the person watching it with me told me that Dith Pran who eventually escapes from the killing fields and makes it to America would later die in a bungled street robbery in Los Angelas. When I was told this it was utterly gut wrenching to think that a man could survive such horror only to later die so pointlessly. It is however untrue. Dith Pran died last year of natural causes. However the actor who played him, Dr. Haing Ngor, who won an Oscar for best supporting actor was in fact murdered in a mugging. Apparently he handed over his Rolex but refused to do so with a locket which contained a picture of his family who had died in the killing fields. The thieves then shot him dead.


Anonymous said...

Good article dude. I should be studying for my exam in 4 hours but then again....

I remember watching the Killing Fields years ago and not really taking in the magnitude of the story being told. I think another viewing is necessary.

Ted Leddy said...

Thanks Aido Man

Good luck with the exam. You can watch the whole movie on youtube strangely enough. Best wait until after your exam though.

zaki said...

Great choice of war movie. The Cambodian Pol Pot insitigated genocide. The movie is really not about war (Nixon US led invasion of Cambodia) but rather the effects of the invasion and the ravages of war. The Cambodian actor was superb and exceptional.

Two things emerge from my point of the view about this movie and its aftermath. First, is the sad story of the actor murdered in the streets of LA for things. Death become meaningless...

Second, the silly and unfathomable WHY the Cambodians were willing to commit genocide against their OWN cambodians fellow citizens. Genocides are usually framed in terms of one group who is totally different (who perhaps thinks so) annihilating the other because he is different..... The case of Cambodian genocide is trully beyond comprehension... I do not beleive that political ideology is the key to understanding this case, or a factor.... Well perhaps humans are capable of the worst atrocities for no apparent reasons....

Ted Leddy said...

Thanks Zaki

I agree that as a piece of history it really is incomprehensible. Of all the history and wars that I have become familiar with I feel I understand the thinking behind most of it. But I cannot figure out the killing fields. As you rightly point out, there was no ethnic hatred, it was Cambodians killing Cambodians because of perceived class difference. But as you say, maybe in some cases humans are capable of mass murder for very little reason.