Complex & historically rich, THE KILLING FIELDS is closely based upon New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg's 'The Life And Death Of Dith Pran.' Schanberg was a stringer for the Times during the Vietnam War, and was stationed in Phnom Penh in the early 1970s as once-neutral Cambodia was overrun by outside interference (US and North Vietnam), and collapsed into an explosively violent civil war.
Schanberg reported extensively on this war, assisted by Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran, and this film does an adequate job of introducing the complexities of it the rightist government (which was nominally US-backed - not touched upon during the film) quickly became paralyzed by inaction, stunning levels of corruption and ineptness. Simultaneously, the mysterious other side (deemed Les Khmer Rouges by the deposed Prince Noorodom Sihanouk) fought with near-incomprehensible ferocity, maintaining an impenetrable veil of secrecy about their ideology and future plans for Cambodia.
With the Cambodian government(the Khmer Republic) soon in a swift free-fall, the American embassy was closed on April 10, 1975 and Americans along with some Cambodians were airlifted out. After painful debate, Schanberg and Pran opted to remain, in an attempt at covering the now-imminent fall of Phnom Penh. Seven days later, the Khmer Rouge (K.R.) captured the city the dying government shuddering to a surrender, and Schanberg and Pran went into hiding in the French embassy.
The finest moments of the film are the depictions of the chaos, desperation and crowding at the French compound the intent and future behavior of the K.R. were not well-known at this point (right up to, and for a considerable amount of time after their victory they operated in absolute, cult-like secrecy), and the sense of oncoming apocalypse is perfectly expressed with a subtle, seemingly-throwaway line delivered at this point by a French diplomat: "Adieu, ancien regime," as an official from the now-overthrown Khmer republican government was lead away at gunpoint, and the sound of massacres could be heard all over the city.
Pran was stranded in the country as the K.R. immediately launched one of the most infamous revolutions in world history, ordering cities emptied of their populations in an attempt at creating an isolationist agricultural utopia, and dismantling 'bourgeois' institutions. The ideology of the K.R. (critical to understanding the tragic depths of the story, and skimmed over in the film) was essentially a blend of the most extreme theories of Mao and Stalin, mixed with a strand of nationalism rivaling any variant of fascism in its ferocity. In this harshly reconstructed society, urbanites and the educated (like Pran) were automatically considered enemies of the people, likely to be killed as potential counterrevolutionaries. Forced into a gulag in the countryside, Pran camouflages his background, but is still subjected to the brutalities inflicted upon many of his comrades.
Upon hearing that Vietnam has invaded Cambodia, Pran flees into the bush, gradually making his way to the Thai border. Word reaches Schanberg, who has been searching for Pran for nearly four years (Cambodia had been sealed off from the outside world), and the two are reunited in a refugee camp in Eastern Thailand. KILLING FIELDS is a gripping film, successful on many fronts. Filmed in Thailand, the performances seem very authentic, and the period setting is painstakingly recreated. The cinematography has an impressive John Ford grandeur. Thus my main problems with the film amount to hairsplitting: the Mike (ugh) Oldfield score is abysmal, and at least one otherwise great scene (the US embassy evacuation) is ruined by it. A little more digging into some of the political ideologies swirling around the actual events would give the later scenes (Pran in one of the KR collectives) needed context. Other commentators here have already noted the inapproriateness of Lennon's 'Imagine' at the films' end, and the mercifully brief Schanberg-at-home scenes during the latter half of the film are a bit much.
Very intense - as doctor-survivor-actor Haing S. Ngor who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Pran stated in 'A Cambodian Odyssey,' - his own autobiography: "Had the film portrayed the actual severity of what had occurred, no one would've been able to sit through it." This is easily among the most harrowing tales of friendship and loyalty to have ever made it to the big screen; even with minor problems, a film very much worth seeing.