In the terms of the Pran-Schanberg relationship in “The Killing Fields”, what do you think ‘friendship’ really means
“The Killing Fields” (1984) directed by Roland Joffe is THE most haunting and emotional film I have ever seen. Basically, it tells the story of love, friendship and loyalty between New York Times correspondent in Cambodia, Sydney Schanberg and his Cambodian translator and guide, Dith Pran, in the face of an uncertain future and in the midst of horrible violence, during, and after the takeover of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. The performance of the two actors, Sam Waterston as the protagonist Schanberg, and doctor-survivor-actor Haing S. Ngor as Dith Pran, are incredible in their verisimilitude. Sam Waterston is at his self-righteous best, while Ngor delivers a riveting and emotionally wrenching performance.
Friendship, to quote Dr. Sadler (“The Mind at Mischief”, page 64), “is the first and basic human conviction. It is more than emotion, it is greater than impulse, it transcends a sentiment.” Aristotle defines it as: ““Friendship is a single soul dwelling in two bodies.” The friendship that develops between Schanberg and Pran goes from strength to strength amid scenes of high emotion, tension, drama and horror. The background is tragically and graphically conveyed; the magnitude of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge is perfectly captured; this regime, probably one of the most vicious and barbaric regimes ever to grace this planet, led by the tyrant Pol Pot and his hordes, in a bloody “Year Zero” ethnic cleansing campaign, exterminated nearly 40% of Cambodia’s population numbering around 2 million “undesirable civilians”. The strength and depth of the friendship between Schanberg and Pran is fuelled by the fire that consumes them both to cover and publicize the tragedy and madness of the war depicted in scenes of incomprehensible genocide.
When the American embassy is closed on April 10, 1975 and Americans, with some Cambodians are airlifted out of Phnom Penh, Dith Pran sends his family along with them. He himself remains behind with Schanberg in an attempt at covering the now imminent fall of Phnom Penh. This is the true value of friendship, as a ‘friend in need is a friend indeed’. Given the terrible situation in which he prefers to remain in, rather than go to safety with his family, Pran is literally forsaking his family for his friend Schanberg. Pran thus shows that his friendship with Schanberg transcends the feelings of love and protection he feels even for his own family.
Seven days later the Khmer Rouge captures Phnom Penh; Schanberg and Pran go into hiding in the French embassy. Their friendship shines like a beacon amidst the scenes of chaos, desperation and crowding at the French embassy compound with the sense of the oncoming apocalypse looming dangerously closer. The scene of the failed attempt by Schanberg to forge a passport for his friend Pran is heart wrenching. The friends are forced to part; Schanberg returns to the U.S while Pran remains behind in Cambodia where he is soon captured by the Khmer Rouge and sent to a prison camp.
Somehow Pran manages to survive in the prison camp – where he is starved, brainwashed and tortured. He survives because his unshakeable faith in his friend Schanberg keeps the fire in him steadily burning. He is sure that his dear friend is taking care of his family and doing his best to find and get him out of Cambodia, certain that, in the words of Dag Hammarskjold, “Friendship needs no words – it is solitude delivered from the anguish of loneliness.” Pran’s situation exemplifies man’s will not to simply survive, but to rise above, as long as there is love and friendship in his heart. Schanberg at that time, is in the U.S where life is good to him. The scene when he watches some T.V program about the Cambodian war while listening to Puccini’s opera is very moving. You can see and feel the great love and friendship for Pran reflected in every feature of his face as he agonizingly wonders about the welfare of his dear friend.
Pran meanwhile ignores the terrible experiences in the prison camp that have stripped him of his dignity. He clings to the strong threads of hope and Schanberg’s friendship, and finally manages to escape by crawling through corpse-ridden paddy fields, making his way to the Thai border. Schanberg, meanwhile, undertakes all possible efforts to locate Pran, searching for him for nearly 4 years (Cambodia had been sealed off from the outside world). He does not despair but continues on doggedly, the fire of love and friendship for his Cambodian friend never diminishing. These feelings are strengthened by the tinge of guilt he feels for not insisting that Pran escape with his evacuated family before the fall of Phnom Penh.
Schanberg’s perseverance in searching for his friend is at last rewarded when he gets word of Pran’s escape to Thailand. The two friends are re-united in a refugee camp in Eastern Thailand, exemplifying the words of Arnold H. Glasow: “A true friend never gets in your way unless you happen to be going down. He is the one who comes in when the whole world has gone out.” Very fittingly, John Lenon’s “Imagine” poignantly celebrates the stirring union of the two friends. As Henry W. Longfellow puts it: “Ah! How good it feels! The hand of an old friend.”
I like it better than other such category films like Hotel Rwanda, Saving Private Ryan, Cry Freedom, The Quiet American, and The Pianist, all films seen through the eyes of simple men in extraordinary circumstances.
“The Killing Fields” has left a searing imprint in my mind, long after viewing it.
- The Killing Fields (1984), Retrieved from U.R.L on 11/23/2005, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0087553