Reporting from the front line...
“Neak Luong, Cambodia — The destruction in this town from the accidental bombing on Monday is extensive. Big chunks of the center of town have been demolished, including two-story concrete buildings reinforced with steel. Clusters of wood and thatch huts where soldiers lived with their families have been erased so that the compounds where they once stood look like empty fields strewn with rubbish.”
Those were the opening lines of Sydney Schanberg’s story for The New York Times on August 9th, 1973. American military planes had erroneously dropped a twenty-ton load onto Neak Luong, with Time Magazine reporting that "at least 137 Cambodians were killed and 268 wounded. A mile-long string of more than thirty craters, running down the main street, had completely wiped out one-third of Neak Luong and heavily damaged another third.” As The United States continued its involvement in the Vietnam war, Schanberg, a Jewish American journalist for the New York Times, was there covering the civil war launched between the Communist Party of Kampuchea (the Khmer Rouge) and the government forces of Cambodia, a brutal clash of extremism resulting in sweeping civilian casualties.
Haing S. Ngor & Sam Waterston in The Killing Fields
The Killing Fields (1984) - the debut film by acclaimed British director Roland Joffé - is a biographical drama depicting the arrival of Schanberg (played by Sam Waterston) in Cambodia as he’s joined by Dith Pran (played by Haing S. Ngor) a Cambodian photojournalist acting as Schanberg’s guide and interpreter. The film takes its name from Pran’s description of execution remains as the Khmer Rouge regime carried out the Cambodian genocide led by Communist leader Pol Pot. While exact numbers may vary, between one and two million Cambodian citizens are estimated to have been killed by the regime between 1975 and 1979 as a result of torture, work camp detention, starvation, and execution.
Roland Joffé with Haing S. Ngor on the set of The Killing Fields.
Schanberg wrote of Pran’s memory of the unmarked graveyards containing the remains of those killed under Pot's genocidal tyranny: “One day soon after I came back,” Pran recalls, “two women from my village went looking for firewood in the forest. They found bones and skulls everywhere among the trees and in the wells…” So Pran went to see the killing fields. "Each of the two main execution areas alone," he says, "held the bones of four to five thousand bodies, thinly covered by a layer of earth."
“In the water wells, the bodies were like soup bones in broth...and you could always tell the killing grounds because the grass grew taller and greener where the bodies were buried.”
Haing S. Ngor as Dith Pran in The Killing Fields
The Killing Fields depicts the start of a lifelong friendship between Schanberg and Pran, now both deceased, in 2016 and 2008 respectively. It was a friendship forged amid violence, horror, and extremism, yet with an unlikely happy ending. When Pran bravely decided to stay in Phnom Penh to help Shanberg’s reporting of the Communist takeover, he did so without the protection Schanberg and other foreign correspondents received. Schanberg was deported from the country, while Pran, like many Cambodians, was denied any way to leave, and was captured and sentenced to work in the labor camps. Schanberg was left to assume Pran's death as the most likely outcome.
Pran’s survival and eventual reunion in New York with Schanberg are at the emotional core of the film — the two were from vastly different worlds, yet united by the call to put their education and journalistic careers to use in order to bring the atrocities in Cambodia to international attention. The two actors who portray them in the film came from equally disparate backgrounds.
Left to right: Dith Pran with Sydney Shanberg, Sam Waterston with Haing S. Ngor.
Sam Waterston was a Sorbonne-education Shakespearean actor with many notable New York runs on the stage (including Shakespeare in The Park’s Measure for Measure at the Delacorte with Meryl Streep), and who starred as Nick Caraway in Jack Clayton’s The Great Gatsby (1974) with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Waterson received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his role as Sydney Shanberg, one among many accolades The Killing Fields received, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.
Haing S. Ngor was not an actor, but a Cambodian surgeon and gynecologist whose own life mirrored Pran’s hardship through the '70s. Ngor too was imprisoned in a gulag by The Khmer Rouge. Unlike Pran, who was able to evacuate his wife and children out of the country with Schanberg’s help, Ngor was sentenced to a labor camp with his pregnant wife, who died there under harsh conditions.
Even as an untrained actor, Ngor also won acclaim for his first film role and became one of the few Asian actors to be recognized by the Oscars. In the past few years, there have been strides in the Academy’s acknowledgment of the artistic efforts of Asian actors and filmmakers, with Ang Lee winning Best Director (twice, Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Life of Pi (2012), Bong Joon-ho as the first Asian director to win Best Picture for Parasite (2019) and Chloé Zhao as the first Asian female director to win Best Picture for Nomadland (2020). Steven Yeun was also the first Asian American actor to be nominated for Best Actor for his work in Minari (2020).
Yet to this day, Haing S. Ngor remains the only Asian actor to win the category of Best Supporting Actor, and the only Cambodian actor nominated for an Oscar. Ngor was shot and killed outside of his home in Los Angeles in 1996. In the news report of the murder that appeared in The New York Times on March 3rd, 1996, Kenneth B. Noble wrote,
“Told of Dr. Ngor's death, Mr. Pran, now a photographer for The New York Times, said he felt he had lost a twin brother.”
See The Killing Fields, the penultimate film in our series to celebrate 125 Years of The Lakeville Journal, at The Moviehouse on Saturday, September 10th at 6:30 PM. Guests are encouraged to arrive at 5:30 and enjoy a drink at the bar. Before the film: Special Guests Sam Waterston and veteran journalist Richard Schlesinger will discuss the experience of making the film and the rigors of reporting from a war zone. Information & Tickets
Alexander Wilburn is on the Fundraising & Development team for the Lakeville Journal Foundation’s 125th Anniversary Events. He acts as the senior associate editor for The Lakeville Journal, and his film essays and interviews with directors and writers have appeared in Compass Arts & Entertainment.