“The Killing Fields” premiered 30 years ago as more than the first major film to explore the atrocities of Pol Pot’s reign of terror in Cambodia in the 1970s.
The film “changed my life,” said actor Sam Waterston, who earned an Oscar nomination playing New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg, one of the few American journalists left in Phnom Penh when the city fell to Khmer Rouge guerrillas in 1975. Added Waterston: “I think it changed the lives of every single person involved in making it.”
That would include Haing S. Ngor, who won the Academy Award for supporting actor portraying Dith Pran, Schanberg’s translator and journalistic partner, as well as director Roland Joffé, who remains involved with Cambodian charities.
Warner Home Video offers reminders of the film’s storied creation and lasting legacy with the recently released the 30th anniversary Blu-ray edition of “The Killing Fields,” which earned seven Oscar nominations, including wins for Ngor, Jim Clark for editing and Chris Menges for his documentary-style cinematography.
British producer David Puttnam, who had won the best picture Oscar for the 1981 film “Chariots of Fire,” explained that “The Killing Fields” was the movie “I had been waiting to do.”
As a teenager, he had been gobsmacked by Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 semi-documentary-style war film, “The Battle of Algiers.” The film, Puttnam said, “changed my attitude toward cinema. It was the first film I saw that allowed me to believe that cinema could be something more. You didn’t know you if you were watching a movie or not.”
He felt the story of Schanberg and Dith would have the same effect on audiences. Though Schanberg and other journalists were allowed to leave Phnom Penh, Dith was among the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians forced to leave the cities and work in the labor camps of the communist Khmer Rouge.
Puttnam first read about them in a small piece in Time magazine. “It was the photograph of the two men hugging in the refugee camp, and it said an American journalist is reunited with his interpreter,” the producer recalled.
The article and Pulitzer Prize-winner Schanberg’s subsequent New York Times Magazine piece, “The Death and Life of Dith Pran,” piqued the interest of several filmmakers.
“I went with the British group,” said Schanberg, now 80, who still works as a freelance journalist. “These people who were making it were really good people. They weren’t doing it to make a buck. They didn’t make a lot of bucks. I never found a way to thank them for what they did.”
Bruce Robinson’s script for “The Killing Fields” attracted attention from top-line directors, but Puttnam eventually chose Joffé, who until then had directed mostly theater and TV movies. Puttnam gave Robinson’s dense script to Joffé.
“Three days later, I got this long, three-page letter detailing the strengths and weaknesses of the script,” Puttnam said. “It was absolutely brilliant.”
Joffé, who earned an Oscar nomination for his work, realized “The Killing Fields” wasn’t just a war drama but a love story between Schanberg and Dith.
“If you make it a story about friendship and how that exists among men, you will make something indelible,” Joffe recalled in a recent interview.
Though they felt pressure to cast a Hollywood star as Schanberg, Puttnam and Joffé went with Waterston, who they felt not only resembled Schanberg but also captured the spirit and passion of the journalist.
Waterston, who remained friendly with Dith until his death in 2008, remembered that Dith had hoped — before the cast was decided — that Schanberg might be played by an actor like Kirk Douglas.
“When I first met him, he said something about the fact that Sydney had a very big heart, and then he hit me really hard in the chest,” Waterston said. “It was literally like he was trying to put Sydney’s heart into me.”
But the real casting gamble turned out to be Ngor, a doctor in Cambodia who suffered the same horrors as Dith under the Khmer Rouge, eventually escaping to Thailand and arriving in the U.S. in 1980.
Ngor had never acted before. Casting director Pat Golden spotted him at a Cambodian wedding in Long Beach.
“I talked to Pat Golden and said I think we should do an improvisation with Haing,” Joffé said. “He didn’t want to do it at first, but I kind of lulled him into doing something — mainly getting him to describe a few things, and he basically began to act them out. I realized this man was a born actor.”
But Ngor didn’t want to be in the movie.
“I had to do a lot of arm twisting to get him to be in it,” Joffé said. “I said, ‘You have to play this part. You have to do it for your country. It will be difficult, but I’ll be there.’”
Emotions ran high for the Cambodian refugees who worked on the film. Ngor broke into tears during the scene in which a young girl playing a soldier for the Khmer Rouge pulls out a tomato plant Dith had been growing.
“He suddenly stopped in the middle of the scene,” Joffé said. Ngor couldn’t do it any more. The cold expression on the young girl’s face hit too close to home. In the moment, Ngor thought she really was a Khmer Rouge soldier. But Joffe eased his fears and eventually he completed the scene.
Rounding out the cast were John Malkovich as photojournalist Al Rockoff and Julian Sands as British journalist Jon Swain. Sands said the director sent the actors to Thailand a month before shooting started so they could become immersed in the place and the truth of the story.
“I remember the profound impact of visiting the Khmer refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border and talking to survivors about their experiences with Haing Ngor as translator,” said Sands from Puerto Rico, where he is filming the NBC pirate series “Crossbones” with Malkovich.
Eleven years after winning his Oscar, Ngor was shot to death outside his apartment near Dodger Stadium. Waterston recalled that beyond his costar’s “tremendous spine,” one could also see an “unbelievable gentleness of spirit.”
After completing the film, Waterston and Joffé became involved with Cambodian charities. Joffé still visits the country often and with friends started the Cambodia Trust, which makes artificial limbs and operates a prosthetics school. Waterston, who followed his long stint on NBC’s “Law & Order” with HBO’s “The Newsroom,” has lent his support to an American advocacy organization Refugees International. Puttnam frequently visits Cambodia as the prime ministerial trade envoy to that country as well as Vietnam and Laos.
Before “The Killing Fields,” Schanberg said, Cambodians “never knew during their time under the Khmer Rouge whether anybody in the outside world knew about what was happening to them. The truth was, that was pretty true. The movie changed that.”
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