Year:                         1984

Director:                    Roland Joffé

Producer:                   David Puttnam

Script:                       Bruce Robinson

Cinematography:         Chris Menges

Editing:                     Jim Clark

Production Design:      Roy Walker

Art Direction:              Roger Murray Leach and Steve Spence

Costume Design:                 Judy Moorcroft

Original Music:            Mike Oldfield, John Lennon (song Imagine) Francisco Tarrega (song Memories of the Alhambra).

This adapted  screenplay is based on the true story written by Sydney Schanberg, a New York Times reporter in Cambodia who had to leave his Cambodian friend and colleague Dith Pran behind when the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975. Dith Pran is forced into a worker’ scamp, where he endures unspeakable agonies until he finally escapes.

After twenty years, it looks like this film is the only big-scale cinematic commemoration the Cambodian holocaust will receive. The savage ideologues of Angka Leu are shown in all their arrogant, social-engineering cruelty: turning children against their families, murdering all former bourgeois who will not be "reforged" and quite a few who would. The leaders of the Khmer Rouge were educated in France, soaking up Sartrean nihilism with their progressive Marxism. We see grim recreations of how those ideas, which were just so much academic prattle in the universities, put a whole country to the sword in practice. The terrifying scenes are bravely re-enacted by the late Haing Ngor, who in his autobiography described his even more horrible ordeals in Cambodia.

The film itself, taken on its own cinematic terms, has a good story and is visually stunning in the Asian scenes. John Malkovich is agreeably funky as the photographer. Sam Waterston gets in some great scenes as the american newshound, digging out the story, looking down M-16 barrels, doggedly trying to save his friend Dith Pran. There's an agreeably chauvinistic scene with some scummy Frenchmen and another with some comical Russians. But the heart of the film is the chilling Cambodian labour/extermination camps, disconcertingly set in lush tropical countryside. Seeing the horror of what left-totalitarians are capable of completely crushes the overt message of moral equivalence the rest of the film tries to preach. Even the gaffe of ending with a fade-up of John Lennon's "Imagine" can be forgiven (The Khmer Rouge's victims didn't need to imagine no possessions, no religion).

The movie won three well-deserved academy awards. One was best for cinematography. Cinematographer Chris Menges excellent effects created the sense of doom which permeated the quiet, humble country of Cambodia and its war-stricken victims, portraying the despair and suffering of the civilians. Close-up shots of congealed blood, rubble and ultimate devastation of the nation truly drove home the essence and appreciation of the film. Even though the movie was shot in Thailand, the feeling of Indo-China and the area along the Mekong display its great beauty as well as the countryside. Then there are the killing fields themselves, with bones and rotting corpses that Dith Pran discovers. Anyone who has ever seen this film will never forget this scene.

The second award was for film editing. That was a job of real artistry. It is always a choice of what tiny segments of a scene to emphasize and the editors got it exactly right. There was the terrified child holding her hands over her ears to shut out the bombing sounds. There was the tiny vegetable that Dith Pran plucks off a plant with relish when he is in the prison camp. There is the wash of blood on the floor in the hospital where people were dying.

Dr. Hang S. Ngor won an Oscar for his role of Dith Pran, one of the few non-professional actors to ever win an Oscar. He was especially suited to the part because he, himself, had endured 4 years of torture and imprisonment in a Cambodian work camp. He had to hide his identity of physician and watch his young wife die in childbirth while there. No wonder he was able to play the part so well. He was murdered in his garage in his home in Los Angeles in 1996 during a robbery in which he tried to protect a memento from his wife.

It is surprising that it was not more successful at the American Academy Awards, notably for David Puttnam for Best Picture and Roland Joffe for best director. It did however sweep the British Oscars and quite rightly so.

But the entire cast was wonderful, each actors performance outstanding. Sam Waterson played Sydney Schanberg with passion and realism. John Malkovich played his photographer sidekick. Julian Sands had a small role as journalist Jon Swain who was one of the three westerners saved from execution by the intervention of Dith Pran and who tried unsuccessfully to forge a passport to help Dith Pran escape.

The character development is absolutely brilliant. This clearly focuses on the friendship which developed between the two men in the film and illustrates the fact that amidst the guns, bombs and bullets, glimmers of humanity and empathy still existed, and was capable of being brought forth-- hence, the uncanny comradeship between these two individuals.