The Killing Fields

Warner Brothers, produced by David Puttnam; rated R.

In the final scenes of The Killing Fields, John Lennon’s “Imagine There’s No Heaven” plays in the background. It would have been a good song with which to start, not finish, the story.

At the outset, the Khmer Rouge are about to topple the Lon Nol government. Believing that there was no God, heaven, or, as another line from the Lennon tune has it, “no religion too,” they proceeded to put this belief into practice. The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, proclaimed “year zero” and proceeded to kill some three million people out of a population of seven million, confirming Dostoevsky’s dictum that “if there is no God, all things are permitted.”

One function of art is to be an aid to memory. Since statistics don’t bleed, one would expect that the first film dealing with Cambodian genocide would be something of a work of justice. But Killing Fields disappoints, especially coming from even-handed David Puttnam, producer of Chariots of Fire.

Based on a New York Times story, “The Death and Life of Dith Pran,” the film attempts to chart the relationship between Times correspondent Sidney Schanberg and his Cambodian colleague Dith Pran. However, the adversary relationship between Schanberg and American military and diplomatic officials receives more attention, hence Dith Pran’s character is poorly developed. Foul-mouthed, dope-smoking foreign journalists steal his scenes.

While the horrors of war—especially abandoned children—are effectively depicted, more gory footage is devoted to an accidental American bombing than to the unparalleled atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, shown mainly by Dith Pran stumbling on a pile of skulls, which, like statistics, don’t bleed or cry. The ...

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