Dith Pran managed to sit through the entire showing of the movie "The Killing Fields" at its world premiere in New York. The film is about him: his life as a journalist during the war in his native Cambodia, his survival through the murderous revolution that followed, and above all his fateful friendship with New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg.
At a second screening the following night, Pran ducked out of the theater shortly after the movie began. "The Killing Fields" is too true to the agonies he endured and he could not relive them two nights in a row. I met him in the lobby. He was misty-eyed but terribly proud. "Finally I've accomplished something," he said. "With this movie, I've accomplished something. I can tell the story of Cambodia."
The statement is vintage Dith Pran. He is rightfully the hero of the movie. He repeatedly paves the way for Schanberg to pull off journalistic coups (and win a Pulitzer Prize) in the middle of the bloody war. At the war's end, Pran saves the lives of Schanberg and two other western journalists and then is refused permission to leave the country with them. He survives by his wits and willpower in a revolution that would rather kill off his type of Cambodian than keep them alive.
But Pran does not have the temperament of a public hero. He does not enjoy watching his life flicker by on the screen, seeing his own close calls with death. The audience bursts into tears when Pran finally comes out alive. What is not so obvious -- and what is so wrenching for Pran -- is that Cambodia does not come out alive. Pran, like countless other Cambodians, cannot go home. And Cambodia is no longer the society that produced men like Pran. It is occupied by a foreign country -- Vietnam -- and the Khmer Rouge, who were responsible for Pran's near-death, are the main army fighting against the Vietnamese.
So we sat in the lobby together, listening to the muffled sound track, trying to keep up with the story. The film, which opens in Washington on Friday, is emotionally draining, even if you know nothing about Pran, Schanberg or Cambodia.
During the war, I lived in Cambodia, where I was a reporter and a friend to both men; I have been pretty much caught up by the country ever since. I cried a lot the first night, but thought a second showing would be easier to sit through -- in fact, instructive. But the second time I didn't make it past the siege of Phnom Penh. When the camera focused on a helpless little girl, sitting atop an ammunition crate, plugging her ears to block the sound of bullets and mortars, the sound of her inevitable death, I got up. That's how it was. Those two filmmakers got it. For the first time, there is a movie that captures the war in Indochina, and it is very hard to watch.
Needless to say, few Cambodians thought it could be done. Other films have shown war -- the blood, the dust, the heat, the claustrophobia of fear and death. But the producer and the director of "The Killing Fields" wanted to go beyond that -- they wanted to depict the catastrophic aftermath of war as well, the effects on Schanberg, who nearly went mad with guilt when he was allowed to leave Cambodia but Pran was forced to stay. On Pran, who had even more brushes with death than are shown on the screen. And, indirectly, on Cambodia. It is a miracle that the producer David Puttnam and the director Roland Joffe' brought back the vividness of the war. None of the overreaching abstractions or metaphors of "Apocalypse Now" and "The Deer Hunter." None of the sensationalism, either. But an accurate, and therefore far more moving, glimpse of the awful price of that war. And it is nearly all true.
About two years ago, Schanberg telephoned me and said matter-of-factly that a film was being made about him and Pran and asked if I would cooperate with the director. My first reaction was to say no. This was the second time a major producer had wanted to make a film about the war and the press corps, and the first attempt, which fell through, had soured a number of us, especially Schanberg.
This was different, Schanberg said. The man who made "Chariots of Fire," David Puttnam, had promised to be faithful to the story. And the director, Schanberg said, was a documentary filmmaker by training -- nothing Hollywood. It was, of course, also different because Schanberg himself so enthusiastically endorsed the project. Ultimately, Joffe' got me and nearly everyone else he asked to cooperate -- dozens of western writers and journalists, Cambodian politicians and refugees -- no small accomplishment in the netherworld of Cambodia veterans.
Schanberg has as many enemies as one might expect of a fiercely competitive New York Times reporter who made a habit of screaming with profound moral outrage at the U.S. Embassy and regularly ignored or dressed down most of his colleagues in the press corps. The movie certainly portrays Schanberg this way, but it goes far beyond one man. "The Killing Fields" is also about writers who had to make judgments and explain the inexplicable during the war and after. Since the subject was one of the cruelest catastrophes and revolutions in the 20th century, there are strong feelings and bad blood everywhere. There are real blood debts; people have nursed resentments, convictions of betrayals and dark motivations as their only connection to sanity. Others have fierce if unproven ideas about what happened in Cambodia and why, and no amount of evidence to the contrary will ever change their opinions.
Joffe' walked into this swamp and came out with a movie. And I saw how he did it. After talking with friends, I found my experience with him was typical.
He came to Washington and showed me the script, asking for comments. The first draft was not great and was filled with so many historical errors and inconsistencies I couldn't believe it was based on Schanberg's powerful magazine article that was the movie's inspiration. Joffe' wanted to know more. He took notes. He asked me to summarize my research into the origins and motivations of the Khmer Rouge. He even added footnotes.
Then he asked for my impression of the script. When I said it sounded a bit like a Cambodian "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," he didn't flinch.
Then he asked for personal stories -- about Schanberg and Pran, about other friends. Hours passed. Story followed story. I felt as if Joffe' was the first person to really want to know about Cambodia. There were tears, I was a wreck and Joffe' was ready to catch his plane. He made us all feel that he was the one official scribe of those years -- a first-rate interviewer.
Weeks later he came back with a revised script that included a new minor character named after me -- Beth. She barely survives in the final version -- she has one line yelled from the back of a darkened truck -- but it is the thought that counts. This time Joffe' wanted photographs and other artifacts of those years. It turns out I have one of the more complete collections of snapshots of us all. Joffe' copied nearly every one. He also borrowed a 1973 Khmer-language newspaper I had saved, again a fairly rare item since no proper newspaper has been published in the country since and many were destroyed during the revolution.
That was Joffe''s bind. He had to depend on our faulty memories and incomplete libraries, our cartons in the attic and stacks of research in our studies, because he had no access to the real thing. The current government in Cambodia refused to let him in. And the revolution destroyed most of the historical record. He had to look at all the photographs, film and television news clips he could find.
He had one other trick. He asked many of us to act out what it was like in the country. I had to carry on conversations I had -- or could have had -- with Pran, Schanberg and other characters. Some lines were incorporated verbatim into the script.
A Cambodian friend told me Joffe' had asked him to do the same thing and he got so carried away with his "play-acting" that he began to scream at Joffe' for all the cruelties and destruction that befell Cambodia.
After the script came the actors. Joffe' asked me to brief some of them before they went off to Thailand for the filming. Sam Waterston plays Schanberg. My first reaction was that Waterston resembles Schanberg about as much as Robert Redford resembles Bob Woodward. My second thought was, so what?
They listened patiently to my "brief" and then asked very different questions about their characters. Waterston wanted to know how Schanberg and Pran acted together -- how could Schanberg be Pran's boss and call him his best friend, how did Schanberg exhibit his legendary temper, why did he care so much about Cambodia?
John Malkovich, who plays the erratic, surly free-lance photographer Al Rockoff, wanted to know about Rockoff's daily routine. (He had none.) What did he eat, what did he wear, why did Schanberg and all the rest of us put up with his insults, and give him money and a bed when we believed he would never pay us back? Did he have any saving graces?
The actor who seemed the longshot was Spalding Gray, a veteran of one-man performances in experimental theater who was selected to play the consul at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh. He said he knew nothing about politics, and had trouble imagining what an embassy does, what it means to be a political officer, how a sophisticated, intelligent person could take part in a war. He had the Big Questions. My only recourse was to introduce him to a Foreign Service officer who served in Indochina -- a living example of a good man who survived the system and the experience.
For me, Gray's performance turned out to be the most dramatic example of the actor's craft. He was the one furthest removed from the role and consequently had to alter his personality radically to become his character. He did it. It was hard to connect the embassy official on the screen to the otherworldly actor I had briefed and who had asked if diplomats acted more like "jocks" or like intellectuals.
There was now a film. Joffe' had hired journalists in Bangkok to act as extras. He hired Cambodians in Thailand -- mostly refugees, but some residents -- to play themselves. Friends who worked with Joffe' in Thailand were impressed. It had become "the movie"; everyone was enthusiastic.
The rough cuts were ready for viewing in London. News reports were on the gossip wire. One friend reported that he sat through a screening smoking an entire package of cigarettes and crying nonstop. He was with a Cambodian friend who remained dry-eyed. They had gone through much the same experience as Schanberg and Pran and they thought the movie superb.
Another friend called and said he was disappointed. "Hollywood won out" was his judgment. But this man had not been in Cambodia during the war. Unfortunately I think this mixed review may hold true for a general audience -- "The Killing Fields" is so faithful to the story it may seem unbelievable.
Then Schanberg called. He had been up until midnight for the past few weeks preparing for the premiere. He was excited; he said the movie worked.
Haing S. Ngor, who plays Pran, has to carry the movie, and he does so with grace and dignity. The story begins at the airport. Pran and the driver of a hired Mercedes are waiting for Schanberg to arrive from Bangkok. They are idly reading a newspaper (the one Joffe' borrowed from me and copied) and listening to the car radio, wearing down the battery. From that point on, I felt as if I had been thrown into a time machine, back to the war.
The later scene at Neak Luong is devastatingly accurate. Schanberg arrives in the midst of destruction, the war continuing in earshot, and he tries to interview people in the middle of this bewildering hell. He asks Pran to tell him what a distraught woman is saying to him even though his eyes and instincts have already registered the truth. There is the sudden, unpredictable execution of an enemy soldier. There is the girl soldier from Phnom Penh, disconnected from it all, a cassette player to her ear, listening to American rock 'n' roll. That's what it was like covering the war.
Not everything rings true, however. I winced whenever the movie tried to explain away the atrocities and horrors of the war and its aftermath by blaming the U.S. bombing. As awful as the bombing was, the origins of the war and the revolution are complicated, rooted in Cambodia itself as well as in Vietnam and the U.S. intervention. I am afraid such simplifications will put off people who otherwise would be moved by the film.
What works is the close-up view of the war and the revolution. The dark humor of the press corps is reproduced perfectly. Rockoff, nervous and idle in the French Embassy, ridicules a radio reporter talking authoritatively about Cambodia from Bangkok. He suggests that maybe a hen nearby is the radio reporter's secret carrier pigeon. It may not have happened, but it is true.
The same can be said of the portrayal of Pran surviving through the revolution. One moviegoer thought the Khmer Rouge characters were too much like stick figures, but that was the way those I met in Cambodia behaved. Fortunately, the filmmakers do not try to place Pran's experience into the larger picture of the revolution. The progression of events does not tally entirely with history, but it does not matter. By then the movie so belongs to Pran that the questions have ended and one looks at the screen with disbelief. How could one man go through this descent into hell and come out alive?
For those of us who wondered whether Pran would survive, it is an especially wrenching sequence. Watching it, I thought of Pran's kindnesses during the war. He did not literally save all of our lives, but he helped most of us. When I first arrived, broke, Pran lent me his car until I got on my feet. He acted as translator and charged me half his rate because I had no money. Even after Schanberg made him The Times' exclusive stringer, Pran remained a friend.
When we were sitting in the lobby, he asked me if I remembered my moped. Of course I did. I'd saved enough to buy one just like Pran's. He showed me where to buy the purest gasoline-oil mix (purchased on the street corner in glass wine bottles stuffed with cloth -- many of the little boys selling the gas were killed instantly when the city was under periodic attack and their explosive wares were set afire).
Pran continued. "We'd drive around together." Yes, when the work was done, Pran and I would go off on our mopeds to watch the American bombers blow up the landscape.
We talked about the Khmer Rouge and the stalemate in Cambodia. Pran got angry, like most Cambodians do nowadays, wondering why no one, especially Cambodians, has come up with a solution for his country. This was when he said he was proud, proud that through the movie he could tell Cambodia's story. "Maybe it will get people to talk about Cambodia again. I think so."
I hope so. Elizabeth Becker's book on the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia will be published this fall by Simon & Schuster. CAPTION: Picture 1, The aftermath of a 1974 attack on Phnom Penh; Picture 2, Waterston and Haing S. Ngor in "Killing Fields". Copyright (c) 1983 Warner Bros. Inc.; Pictures 3 and 4, SCHANBERG; DITH PRAN, Photos by John McDonnell -- The Washington Post; Pictures 5 and 6, Free lance photographer Al Rockoff and Malkovich as Rockoff in "The Killing Fields"; Picture 7, Scene from "The Killing Fields." Copyright (c) 1983 Warner Bros. Inc.