Visually Speaking, a critique and analysis of the 1984 film, The Killing Fields
A photographer is trapped in Cambodia during tyrant Pol Pot’s bloody “Year Zero” cleansing campaign, which claimed the lives of two million “undesirable” civilians.
Bruce Robinson (screenplay)
VISUALLY SPEAKING: 3 OCTOBER 2015 – THE KILLING FIELDS
To start a movie set in Pol Pot’s Cambodia with the background prattle of the worst of the worst in American politics, the Watergate bugging and ensuing constitutional crisis, Nixon’s approval rating – it’s all in stark contrast, the American crisis and the politics of foreign war, to the abrupt explosion at the beginning of the film, which has the effect of ruining breakfast for the main protagonist, a reporter and his translator – and you see the chaos, the fire and the panic, and to think of the American’s back at home, listening to their crisis over breakfast, discussing it, nodding in approval or shaking their heads dismissively, it shows the comfort at a distance we often have when approaching horrors of this magnitude. To the people in Cambodia as depicted in this film, there is no such distance, this distance was not an option for those in the Killing Fields, when you didn’t see fire in a fuzzy, black and white television set in the safety of your home. In the Killing Fields, the fire was bright red and close enough to lick your face.
The journalist responds by snapping pictures of the chaos, a dead body in the tangled metal of a wiry bicycle frame, until he’s whisked away by his translator to a plane. As they are about to take off, a military man is poised to stop them. The New York Time’s reporter responds by reminding him by the Cooper/Church amendment – and because of its protection, the military man agrees to let them go. Rules and treaties, amendaments, these things still could have saved him, but didn’t. That’s a part of a less savage world, despite the savageness of it, his plane leaves him in this country, at the moment when America has bombed Cambodia. This is the conflict that sets the film in motion.
The reporter still uses threats in political terms, with the implied exposure of his future story (which would become the basis of his story) the most polite type of violence. Back at the hotel, the reporter learns that because of a computer malfunction, a B-52 bomber dropped its entire payload on Neak Luong, leaving a homing beacon in the middle of town. When asked about casualties, a man at the hotel replies in cold, political terms: ‘You’ll be briefed tomorrow.’ He is told: ’55 military, something like 35 civilians,’ the casualness underscoring the prevalent attitude of the west at the time. When pressed, he changes his story: ‘We hear it’s in the 100s – but don’t quote me on that.’
The question seems to be for a different time when Sydney, our reporter, asks, in Hollywood tal, ‘Will there be a bloodbath when the Khmer Rouge come to town?’
“Americans take themselves so seriously.”
With the Yanks still out at sea, the song finishes.
The next short is memorable: the reporter with his translator sitting in a row-boat beside the rusted ruins of a sailing ship – possibly a war ship. The Yanks are still at sea. The outrages are superficial, as are the fears and happiness of the culture he represents, the culture he is a part of, the culture he helped to cultivate and establish. When Sydney finds a woman whose ship was destroyed, her husband killed, his motivation remains largely political, asking: ‘How many bombs?’ He doesn’t seem to register the question put to him, about justice: ‘Was the pilot arrested?’
When a prison truck shows up, Dith Pran, his translator, tells Sydney about the Khmer Rouge soaking rags in gasoline and stuffing it into the mouths of POWs and setting them on fire; he continues pretending to snap photos until a soldier points at a gun on him. He takes it lightly, saying twice: ‘It’s alright’ He is then taen away in a jeep as two prisoners are kicked to the ground, presumably to be executed, and the camera pans away, to a lone man walking among the rubble to the sound of American rock and roll.
When Sydney and Dith Pram are taken to a building under the guard of a man loading a pistol, Dith Pram confides his worries about being arrested to Sydney, and being responsible for their being there. Sydney tells him he wants cigarettes. He’s still a part of the soft war; when he’s told he can’t take a piss, a common comfort not really considered a luxury in America, that’s when he declares: ‘I’ve had enough of this bullshit,’ and gets up, as if to leave. It’s only when he’s stopped, the barrels of rifles filling the scene, does he seem to understand. The rifle barrels are frozen, mid-frame, making a profound, albeit silent point. Sidney promises his translator and friend Dith Pram, ‘I won’t leave you.’
This all changes when the sound of halicopters is heard, realizing a press corp has been brought in to ‘sanitize the story.’ The demands to leave, and is referred to a higher officer, who refuses his passage out, saying: ‘You came in on a boat.’ Sydney is still there for the story, and that’s all he seems to care about; that is, until he sees a dead woman, up-close and personal on a scretcher, covered in blood. The fire is no longer black and white, and he no longer has the comfort of the distance afforded by a television screen: the fire has licked his face. The camera hangs on his expression, his eyes, and dissolves to 10 March 1975.
When he’s told he has made ‘the front page’ he says, ‘We must be doing something right,’ earning the uneasy smile of his translator, whose wife has become increasingly worried about the Khmer Rouge. This is the dramatic conflict, the difference between the gimmick conflict, the telling of the story, and the story as it unfolded to the unwitting participants in this great drama, much of which remains unknown in the west. It is handled in speeches to the press, as 2 million refugees are taken from the capital. As usual, the aggressors blame the opposition for the fight, but only when they feel they may be defeated, when there is dignity in defeat – but only if you lose while still being right.
The following scenes are disorienting: there’s typing, tourists from South Carolina coming in, Gerald Ford and his concerns with the politics of Cambodia, and at the embassy – the French embassy, which was a relic from the French colonial rule that Pol Pot so despised – people are flooding in asking for Asylum, as Sydney becomes desperate in his search for Dith Pram, who, out of sheer chance, doesn’t get through the gates. [Gerald] Ford – politically – agrees that America ‘shouldn’t get involved in Cambodia’ – Millions die.
The Killing Fields is a movie about real fear and real need versus superficial fears and needs, short courage versus real, moral and physical courage. Pram loses his entire family in the evaculation, and in their first moments alone, Syd has Pram smile for a photograph [keep in mind, the actor playing Dith Pram was a real life survivor of the Cambodian Killing Fields – who would go on to win an Oscar, an oscar that would be dull and drained of color by the time of his death, as he had held onto it so much.] Always obliging, Pram smiles for the camera, and does so with a very understated sadness, expressing the mute, inner turmoil of being involved in the largest cultural suicide in human history.
The Khmer Rouge arrive victorious and celebrated. Syd is shaving, contrasted with the scenes outside of the embassy, with a razorblade to his throat, illustrating the false sense of comfort there is to be found in such empty routines. The parade outside is contrasted by scenes of a children’s hospital, where children are victims, and outside, where children – who must be younger than 15 – are the villains, clearly put forward as such, as the Khmer Rouge tank rolls in. Chaos: Pram gives away his water just to join Syd and the other correspondents on the helicopter. Syd loses it temporarily, eating the yellow flower – a common decal for the Khmer Rouge – in stupid desperation, knowing it won’t help him or anyone in his company. Murder: and Dith Pram prays. ‘A prayer I didn’t understand, but I hoped it was in my favor.’
After seemingly being freed, Syd and Pram leave to find alsbolute mayhem: tanks carying boisterous, gun-hoisting Khmer Rouge soldiers, fires everywhere, photojournalists taking photographs out of habit in a daze, all leading to the giant march, a huge crowd, thousands and then millions, moved by unseen hands to a place they know only they must go, as the capital Phnom Penh becomes a ghost town, eerie monoliths of the modern world emptied as Pol Pot’s experiment to take civilization back to Year Zero begins. In Washington, this mass exodus, this symphony of fear and terror, is a talking point, a new’s story, another issue to be discussed and dissected, while people are fed to the machine of mechanized terror.
What do people do in the face of such fear and horror? The reporters collapse into the humor, like memento mori, the kind of humor that developed during the black plague in Europe. At the same time, a roll of film is desperately being sought to save Dith Pram’s life, to keep him in the Embassy instead of being forced on the long death march into the country, a march that would claim the lives of 1 in 4 Cambodians, the saddest parade imaginable. The story remains personable, and all of this has taken place by the half-way point, the role of politics and war is experienced by most coldly at the French embassy, while listening to calm reports inside while, just outside, a taxi has just arrived only to drop off his cargo, cargo consisting of two dead pigs, large and bloated and pale, on the steps outside.
The subplot surrounding the photo manipulation and passport fakery amount to nothing, and is perhaps the most subtle comment on the nature of images and press in a world of such horror, unimaginable to the comfortable, debating the ethics of wiretapping. Their wizardry with cameras and storytelling serve to engender real change or security for Dith Pram, who has so far been one of the few wholly innocent characters in the story. The next scene is one of the most tragic and beautiful in the film: Pram’s depature in the rain, walking along the road toward The Killing Fields, contrasted with Syd’s return to America, and his on-going seach for Pram in the countryside of Cambodia is set to contrast Syd’s discovery of the difference between real war and a soft war, and this was his way to fight a real war with that same soft war of politics and journalism, in the gamble of a hope to save on good man among millions thinking, perhaps, to save one good man among millions will somehow allow dignity to be preserved, the dignity of life, friendship, and decency.
Syd may have escaped The Killing Fields, but the naive reporter who began the story died a long time ago, and there’s one thing about death that will forever hurt the living: the dead don’t have to live with their passing. The search for Pram becomes the defining characteristic of his character, a part of who he became. And ge goes through the motions, sifting through photographs, making calls, listening to reports on the ongoing conflict in Cambodia – when the bombing, the bombing that sat the events of the film in motion, wasn’t an accident: it was intentional and intentionally a secret, and the film does well to put a human fac on what would be, for most people, a faceless, unrelatable mass, and when we connect with a person, we, through this, connect to some aspect of the struggle, caught between opposing forces of powers, each seeking to impose their will on a (mostly) innocent population, the will of the named few upon the often nameless, lost multitudes that history hasn’t so much forgot as history never really knew. Those are the bones Pram stumbles over as he walks lonely through the desolated landscape of a world reset, the Pol Pot doctrine, Year Zero has become the most profound example of cultural suicide in known history, and very few films show war without making some part of it exciting, the violence especially, but in this film, the violence doesn’t excite you: it grabs you by the throat and forces you to numb yourself or become a more acutely feeling, empathetic human being, to abandon cynicism as an excuse to do nothing and embrace, foolishly or not, the optimism of sentamentality, delusional or not, for there is hope in that.
The third act of the film begins with Syd’s acceptance speech for an award bestowed upon him for his coverage of the conflict in Cambodia. He addresses the pervasiveness of abstraction in the political language of war, and the reality and contrast between this way of talking about war and violence and how it really is, bringing it home with him, to hope that if someone can see – like the audience – and know someone, the character of a person who was forced to live through this, maybe they will move past the polemic of condemnation or support when it comes to military force in support or in opposition to foreign armies, especially when not fighting a direct enemy of America. He implores the largely indifferent crowd to stop clapping for themselves long enough to realize the way this very performance only perpetuates the theatre of war as a background to the mechizations of power and the conscious, meticulously crafting and selling of war as a point of pride to the American public.
There are many different ways to wage war: there is a cowardice to the soft war approach, the kind based very much on superficial, as opposed to super-fears; but there is a nobility in the soft war when the battlefield is the human conscience, the fight to expose corruption and by fighting and opposing rally others to this fight, and with this soft war in the real, much more horrific wars. Pop Pot’s experiment with Year Zero was a fight to justify the rebellion of the oppossed with the response of more an philosophically ratonalized cultural suicide, but it remains to this day a distant outrage among the western, civilized wold, which, though capable of fighting the soft war nobly and non-violently, sell fear as hope and war as peace instead of peace to end war and hope to negate that fear. When the people of compassion and kindness are pushed to obscurity, out of positions that would afford them the power to make decisions for a genuine and lasting good, to sway for good or ill the tipping point of a country into a chosen war, a more tangible apocalypse, where dissenting opinons aren’t tip-toed around or heresy, or treason among rivals in the culture war. In the Killing Fields you tip-toe around the bones of generations lost, engineered by someone who very much prefers the skeleton to the organism, the labor of animals to the development of character and education.
It has been said that the first casualty of war is truth. Then it must follow that the greatest of war criminals are the most seductive of liars, whose charisma is expended with the intent to sway others to toward an imagined, false ideal of honor or glory, or even in victory, the heroism is in spite of the makers of war, not because of it, and the ultimate message of a film which seeks to contrast the different wars we all must fight is the danger of suffering and tragedy’s inherent attraction and marketability. In the end, Syd is trying to save Pram, an innocent child of war, while Pram, still alive, is himself trying to find a way to save an innocent, making the parallels between the characters more poignant and sharp, in that when faced with such obstacles, the human animal becomes its most pure form of good or its most pure form of animal and the victory for the soldiers and journalists is moving the needle towards a moral exorcism, if only slightly, to allow us, as viewers and citizens of the global community, to remember what has always been one of the very few reasons to fight: to protect those who cannot protect themselves.
In The Killing Fields, the main characters, like we the audience, start as bystanders to a movement we don’t quite understand, giving us a sideline view to one of the most profound human dramas of the 20th century. But, not content to leave us mere bystanders, we’re allowed the true measure of the various struggles within ever greater struggles, letting us be a part of the search for dignity and nobility and warmth in a world that is ever colder, ever crueler, with many Pol Pot’s looking to do very similar things, and standing between them, sometimes, is not the heads of state in the most powerful nations on the Earth, but the people who risk their lives to get the story to the public, hoping that it will connect with the most empathetic centers of our character and soul and move us toward action in the name of peace and goodwill, with the motivation being consolation and comfort, instead of conquest and destruction. In the war between life and death, our guides are sympathetic and relatable, never exaggerated beyond what they were: decent men in indecent times, trying to survive with their lives and, if possible, their capacity for love. By one conflict or another, large or small, our capacity for hope and empathy may be the only true moral compass when navigating The Killing Fields.