The film was a success at the box office as well as being an instant hit with critics. At the 57th Academy Awards it received eight Oscar nominations; including Best Picture; it won three, most notably Best Supporting Actor for Haing S. Ngor, who had had no previous acting experience. At the 38th British Academy Film Awards, it won eight BAFTAs, including Best Film and Best Actor in a Leading Role for Ngor.
In the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, during May 1973, the Cambodian national army is fighting a civil war with the Khmer Rouge, a result of the Vietnam War overspilling that country’s borders. Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist and interpreter for The New York Times, awaits the arrival of reporter Sydney Schanberg at the city's airport but leaves suddenly. Schanberg takes a cab to his hotel where he meets up with Al Rockoff (John Malkovich). Pran meets Schanberg later and tells him that an incident has occurred in a town, Neak Leung; allegedly, an American B-52 has bombed the town.
Schanberg and Pran go to Neak Leung where they find that the town has been bombed. Schanberg and Pran are arrested when they try to photograph the execution of two Khmer Rouge operatives. They are eventually released and Schanberg is furious when the international press corps arrives with the U.S. Army.
Two years later, in 1975, the Phnom Penh embassies are being evacuated in anticipation of the arrival of the Khmer Rouge. Schanberg secures evacuation for Pran, his wife and their four children. However, Pran insists that he would stay behind to help Schanberg.
The Khmer Rouge move into the capital, ostensibly in peace. During a parade through the city, Schanberg meets Rockoff. They are later met by a detachment of the Khmer Rouge, who immediately arrest them. The group is taken through the city to a back alley where prisoners are being held and executed. Pran, unharmed because he is a Cambodian civilian, negotiates to spare the lives of his friends. They do not leave Phnom Penh, but instead retreat to the French embassy.
Informed that the Khmer Rouge have ordered all Cambodian citizens in the embassy to be handed over and fearing the embassy will be overrun, the embassies comply. Knowing that Pran will be imprisoned or killed, Rockoff and fellow photographer Jon Swain (Julian Sands) of The Sunday Times try to forge a British passport for Pran; the deception fails when the image of Pran on the passport photo fades to nothing, as they lack adequate photographic developer. Pran is turned over to the Khmer Rouge and is forced to live under their totalitarian regime.
Several months after returning to New York City, Schanberg is in the midst of a personal campaign to locate Pran. In Cambodia, Pran has become a forced labourer under the Khmer Rouge's "Year Zero" policy, a return to the agrarian ways of the past. Pran is also forced to attend propagandist classes where many undergo re-education. As intellectuals are made to disappear, Pran feigns simple-mindedness. Eventually, he tries to escape, but is recaptured. Before he is found by members of the Khmer Rouge, he slips into a muddy cesspool filled with rotting human corpses; in doing so, he stumbles upon the infamous killing fields of the Pol Pot regime, where as many as 2 million Cambodian citizens were murdered.
In 1976 Sydney Schanberg is awarded a Pulitzer prize 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. Later in the restroom, 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 time since Pran's disappearance. Rockoff suggests that Schanberg subtly pressured Pran to remain in Cambodia because Pran was so vital to Schanberg'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 confesses that Pran "stayed because I wanted him to stay".
Pran is assigned to the 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 begins to trust Pran and asks him to take ward of his son in the event that he is killed. The Khmer Rouge are now engaged in a border war with Vietnam. The conflict reaches Pran's region and a battle ensues between the Khmer Rouge of the compound and two jets sent 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 the fourth man. However, Pran’s companion activates a hidden land mine while holding the boy. As Pran pleads with the man to give him the boy, the mine goes off, killing the pair. Pran mourns for a time and continues on. One day he 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 and is reunited with Pran. He asks Pran to forgive him; Pran answers, with a smile, "Nothing to forgive, Sydney", as the two embrace.Sam Waterston as Sydney Schanberg
Haing S. Ngor as Dith Pran
John Malkovich as Al Rockoff
Julian Sands as Jon Swain
Craig T. Nelson as Military Attache
Spalding Gray as U.S. Consul
Bill Paterson as Dr. MacEntire
Athol Fugard as Dr. Sundesval
Graham Kennedy as Dougal
Patrick Malahide as Morgan
Nell Campbell as Beth
Joanna Merlin as Schanberg's Sister
In an interview with The Guardian in November 2014, Joffe said:
"David Puttnam asked to see me, which in those days was a bit like being invited out to Hollywood. He gave me Bruce Robinson’s script, which was enormous, but it was so full of passion and energy I couldn’t put it down. I’d heard about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge, but didn’t know much until I read it. I wrote to David saying that whoever made the film would have to be careful because it wasn’t just a war story: it was about human connection, how friendships are born and what they do to us. I didn’t hear from him for six months, then we bumped into one another and he said he’d interviewed most of the directors in the world – including some very big names who would make the studios happy – but no one had really understood it. “You’re the only man who has,” he said."
In the same interview actor Julian Sands said:
"Roland’s audition process was extraordinary. I was 24 and I’ve never come across anything as rigorous since. He was looking to put together a troupe of actors without much film experience, because he wanted the freshness of everything to resonate with us. He would gather lots of us in his office to improvise scenes. After about a month, he had a group he found interesting. John Malkovich, Sam Waterston and Haing S. Ngor weren’t subject to that, but their meetings with him were still pretty intense. A lot was made of the fact that Haing hadn’t acted before, but John put it differently: he said Haing had been acting his whole life – you had to be a pretty good actor to survive the Khmer Rouge."
The Killing Fields holds a 93% rating at the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, based on 40 reviews from notable publications. Critic Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times: "The film is a masterful achievement on all the technical levels—it does an especially good job of convincing us with its Asian locations—but the best moments are the human ones, the conversations, the exchanges of trust, the waiting around, the sudden fear, the quick bursts of violence, the desperation."
Academy AwardsBest Picture (David Puttnam) - Nominated
Best Director (Roland Joffé) - Nominated
Best Actor (Sam Waterston) - Nominated
Best Supporting Actor (Haing S. Ngor) - Won
Best Adapted Screenplay (Bruce Robinson) - Nominated
Best Cinematography (Chris Menges) - Won
Best Film Editing (Jim Clark) - Won
British Academy Film AwardsBest Film (David Puttnam) - Won
Best Direction (Roland Joffé) - Nominated
Actor in a Leading Role (Haing S. Ngor) - Won
Actor in a Leading Role (Sam Waterston) - Nominated
Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles (Haing S. Ngor) - Won
Best Adapted Screenplay (Bruce Robinson) - Won
Best Film Music (Mike Oldfield) - Nominated
Best Cinematography (Chris Menges) - Won
Best Production Design (Roy Walker) - Won
Best Editing (Jim Clark) - Won
Best Sound (Ian Fuller, Clive Winter, Bill Rowe) - Won
Best Special Visual Effects (Fred Cramer) - Nominated
Best Makeup and Hair (Tommie Manderson) - Nominated
Golden Globe AwardsBest Motion Picture - Drama (David Puttnam) - Nominated
Best Director (Roland Joffé) - Nominated
Best Actor - Motion Picture Drama (Sam Waterston) - Nominated
Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture (Haing S. Ngor) - Won
Best Screenplay (Bruce Robinson) - Nominated
Best Original Score (Mike Oldfield) - Nominated
OtherEddie Award (Jim Clark) - Nominated
Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Film - Won
Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actor (Haing S. Ngor) - Won
Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actor (John Malkovich) - Won
Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Cinematography (Chris Menges) - Won
British Society of Cinematographers Award for Best Cinematography (Chris Menges) - Won
César Award for Best Foreign Film (Roland Joffé) - Nominated
David di Donatello for Best Foreign Producer (David Puttnam) - Won
David di Donatello for Best Foreign Director (Roland Joffé) - Nominated
David di Donatello for Best Foreign Film - Nominated
Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Director - Feature Film (Roland Joffé) - Nominated
Guild of German Art House Cinemas Award for Best Foreign Film (Roland Joffé) - Won
London Film Critics Circle Award for Director of the Year (Roland Joffé) - Won
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actor (John Malkovich) - 2nd place
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Cinematography (Chris Menges) - Won
National Board of Review: Top Ten Films - Won
National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actor (John Malkovich) - Won
National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Cinematography (Chris Menges) - Won
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Cinematographer (Chris Menges) - Won
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Film - 2nd place
Political Film Society Special Award - Won
Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (Bruce Robinson) - Won
Besides its place as 100th on the BFI Top 100 British films list, The Killing Fields is also 30th on Channel 4's list of the 100 Greatest Tearjerkers, and 60th on the AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers list.
The Killing Fields was released on DVD by Umbrella Entertainment in Australia in March 2010. The DVD includes special features such as the theatrical trailer, audio commentary with Roland Joffé, an interview with David Puttnam and a BBC documentary titled The Making of The Killing Fields. In April 2013 Umbrella Entertainment released the film on Blu-ray in Australai.
In the UK, the film was released on DVD and Blu-ray by Optimum Releasing and was released in North America on DVD by Warner Brothers, as part of their Warner Archive Collection.
Haing S. Ngor, who plays Pran, was himself a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime and the labour camps. Prior to the Khmer Rouge's 'Year Zero' he was a doctor based in Phnom Penh. In 1975, Ngor was one of millions who were moved from the city to forced labour camps in the countryside. He spent four years there before fleeing to Thailand.
Haing S. Ngor had never acted before appearing in The Killing Fields. He was spotted by the film's casting director, Pat Golden, at a Cambodian wedding in Los Angeles.
Of his role in the film, he told People magazine in 1985: "I wanted to show the world how deep starvation is in Cambodia, how many people die under Communist regime. My heart is satisfied. I have done something perfect."
The screenplay is adapted from a Sydney Schanberg story in The New York Times Magazine entitled "The Death and Life of Dith Pran: A Story of Cambodia".
In 1986, actor Spalding Gray, who had a small role in the film as the American consul, created Swimming to Cambodia, a monologue (later filmed by Jonathan Demme) based upon his experiences making The Killing Fields.
A book of the film was written by Christopher Hudson.