The Killing Fields (1984) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • A journalist is trapped in Cambodia during tyrant Pol Pot's bloody 'Year Zero' cleansing campaign, which claimed the lives of two million 'undesirable' civilians.

  • Sydney Schanberg is a New York Times journalist covering the civil war in Cambodia. Together with the local journalist Dith Pran, they cover some of the tragedy and madness of the war. When the American forces leave, Dith Pran sends his family with them, but stays behind himself to help Schanberg cover the event. As an American, Schanberg won't have any trouble leaving the country, but the situation is different for Pran; he's a local, and the Khmer Rouge are moving in.

  • In 1973, NYTimes reporter, Sydney Schanberg's sent to Cambodia, where Dith Pran's set up as Schanberg's interpreter/guide. Over the next few years, the men and their families, become friends. When the US forces pull out, Schanberg's able to get exit visas for Pran's family. Soon, the Khmer Rouge take control, and Schanberg and other western journalists are evacuated. Once in New York, Schanberg and his colleagues attempt to evacuate Pran, as his life's in even more danger from the Khmer Rouge, and so begins Schanberg's 4.5-year campaign to get Pran out of the country,



The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • The film opens in May 1973 in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. The Cambodian national army is fighting a civil war with the communist Khmer Rouge, a result of the Vietnam War over-spilling that country's borders. Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor), a Cambodian journalist and interpreter for New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterson), awaits the arrival of Schanberg at the Phnom Penh airport when he leaves suddenly. Schanberg arrives after his flight is delayed for three hours in Bangkok, Thailand, and, irritated that Pran is not at the airport, takes a taxi to his hotel. There he meets Al Rockoff (John Malkovich), his photographer. Rockoff doesn't know where to find Pran and suggests they go to a nearby cafe to eat. While they sit and talk, an explosion happens nearby. Al thinks a passing scooter's passenger threw a grenade, though the target isn't actually revealed. Pran suddenly arrives and tells Schanberg that an incident has occurred in a remote town, Neak Leung. Allegedly, an American B-52 has bombed the town by mistake.

    After talking to the United States Consul at the American embassy and finding out that the reports about Neak Leung are true, Schanberg and Pran try to find transport to the site. Pran is able to sneak himself and Sydney onto a police boat that takes them to Neak Leung. When they arrive, they find that the town has indeed been bombed and hundreds of local civilians have been killed, with many more wounded, including women and children. Schanberg and Pran are arrested when they try to photograph the execution of two Khmer Rouge operatives by Cambodian army officers. They are eventually released and Schanberg is furious when the international press corps arrives with the U.S. Army to report a sanitized version of the story.

    The story moves ahead two years, to April 1975. The international embassies are being evacuated in anticipation of an invasion of the capital by the Khmer Rouge. Schanberg manages to secure evacuation papers for Pran, his wife and their four children. However, Pran insists that he stay with Schanberg and help him continue his war coverage. Pran's family is evacuated with the other international diplomats.

    On April 17, the Khmer Rouge move into the capital, seemingly under a banner of peace. During a parade through the city, Schanberg, suspicious of the positive way the Khmer Rouge are being welcomed, meets Rockoff, who tells him that he'd just come from an area where heavy fighting was taking place. At a makeshift hospital they see the result of the fighting; many children and other citizens are injured by shrapnel and gunfire. As they leave the hospital they are met by a small unit of Khmer Rouge troops, who arrest them immediately. Pran is at first not allowed into the armored personnel carrier with Schanberg, Rockoff, Swain and their driver, but he is able to bribe the Khmer Rouge officer with his wristwatch. The group is taken through the city to a hidden courtyard where prisoners are being held and executed. Pran, unharmed because he is a Cambodian civilian, negotiates with the Khmer Rouge officer in command for several hours to spare the lives of his friends. They are set free, joining the thousands of refugees fleeing the capital. Schanberg, Rockoff, Swain and Pran do not leave Phnom Penh, but they all instead retreat to the French embassy and stay there for several days, awaiting their chance to evacuate.

    During this time they are informed that the Khmer Rouge have demanded that all Cambodian citizens in the embassy be turned over. Fearing the embassy will be overrun, the embassy occupants comply. Knowing that Pran will be imprisoned or killed, Rockoff and fellow photographer Swain vainly try to forge a passport identifying Pran as a German citizen. Without a current picture of Pran, they use supplies they find in the embassy buildings; however, the picture fades because of the poor quality and age of the paper and chemicals they use. With no other options available, Pran is turned over to the Khmer Rouge and is forced to live under their totalitarian regime. All of the foreigners whom include the French, American, and most others are then expelled from Cambodia.

    Several months later, Schanberg returns to New York City where he is in the midst of a personal campaign to locate Pran. He has appealed to many humanitarian organizations and has kept in close contact with Pran's family in San Francisco.

    In Cambodia, Pran has become a forced laborer under the Khmer Rouge's "Year Zero" policy, a return to the agrarian ways of the past. Pran labors in rice fields under the watchful eyes of armed young Khmer Rouge children of both sexes, whom the Khmer Rouge hold in high regard as the future leaders of their regime. Pran is also forced to attend propagandist classes where everyone undergoes re-education. As intellectuals are singled out and murdered or made to disappear, Pran feigns simple-mindedness. Eventually, he tries to escape from his work camp, but is recaptured. Before he is found by members of the Khmer Rouge, he stumbles upon the infamous "killing fields" of the Pol Pot regime; endless acres of bones and blue plastic bags (used for suffocation executions) where millions of Cambodian citizens were murdered by the new order.

    Flashing forward four years later to January 1979, Sydney Schanberg receives a journalism award for his coverage of the Cambodian conflict. At the acceptance dinner he tells the audience that half the recognition for the award belongs to Pran. In the men's room, he is confronted by Rockoff who harshly accuses him of not doing enough to locate Pran and for using his friend to win the award. Schanberg defends his efforts, saying that he has contacted every humanitarian relief agency possible in the four years since Pran's disappearance. Rockoff suggests that Schanberg subtly pressured Pran to remain in Cambodia because Pran was so vital to Sydney's work. This accusation hits close to home, and Schanberg begins to wonder whether he put his own self-interest ahead of Pran's safety. He finally admits that Pran "stayed because I wanted him to stay."

    Back in Cambodia, Pran is assigned to be the assistant to the Khmer Rouge leader of a different prison compound, a man named Phat, and charged mostly with tending to his little boy. Pran continues his self-imposed discipline of behaving as an uneducated peasant, despite several of Phat's attempts to trick him into revealing his knowledge of both French and English. Phat gradually begins to trust Pran and asks him to take ward of his son in the event that he is killed.

    By this time, the Khmer Rouge are now engaged in a war with Vietnam. The conflict reaches Pran's region and a battle ensues between the Khmer Rouge of the compound and the invading Vietnamese troops which are supported when two Vietnamese fighter jets are sent in to destroy the camp. After the skirmish has ended, Pran discovers that Phat's son has American money and a map leading to safety. When Phat tries to stop the younger Khmer Rouge officers from killing several of his comrades, he is ignominiously shot.

    In the confusion, Pran escapes with four other prisoners and they begin a long trek through the jungle with Phat's young son. The group later splits and three of them head in a different direction. Pran continues following the map with one of them. However, Pran's companion steps on a hidden land mine while holding the child. Though Pran pleads with the man to give him the child, the mine goes off, killing them both. Pran mourns for a time and continues on, alone.

    One day, Pran crests the escarpment of the Dângrêk Mountains and sees a Red Cross camp near the border of Thailand. The scene shifts to Schanberg calling Pran's family with the news that Pran is alive and safe. Soon after, Schanberg travels to the Red Cross camp in Thailand and is reunited with Pran. Asking Pran to forgive him, Pran answers, with a smile, "Nothing to forgive, Sydney", as the two embrace.

    John Lennon's popular song, "Imagine" plays over the scene and during the end credits, which show actual photos of the real Pran and Schanberg.

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