Cambodian Doctor Haing Ngor Turns Actor in the Killing Fields, and Relives His Grisly Past
There is no more harrowing scene in any film today: Under a mild blue sky lies a landscape of murder. The rotting jumble of human bones seems to stretch for miles. A Cambodian man stands alone amid the carnage and does nothing. He doesn’t scream, he doesn’t cry. Nothing about his face changes except his eyes, which mirror the death of his people and his culture. He walks, then trots, then runs over the killing field, and the audience knows he’s left behind his soul.
The Killing Fields chronicles the true friendship between relentless New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg, played by Sam Waterston, and his Cambodian assistant, Dith Pran, played by Dr. Haing S. Ngor, 34. The film details Pran’s and Cambodia’s suffering under the brutal Khmer Rouge. Ngor, who is on screen for much of the film’s 139 minutes, gives a performance of such shaded power that he is considered a shoo-in Oscar nominee. He had never acted before. Critics were astonished, but he is not. “After all,” he says, “I spent four years in the Khmer Rouge school of acting.”
A physician by training, Ngor drew upon his own torment in Cambodia to play Dith Pran (now a New York Times photographer), whom he did not meet until the film was finished. His own experiences were so horrifying that the movie seems to Ngor, by comparison, “not strong enough, not bad enough, not cruel enough, not violent enough.” His own story bears him out.
It began on April 17, 1975 when the Khmer Rouge troops, led by the geno-cidal Pol Pot regime, sprang from the countryside and rolled into Phnom Penh, determined to destroy all things Western and traditional. Ngor was operating on a wounded man when Khmer Rouge soldiers burst into the hospital. “Are you the doctor?” demanded one. Recalling that the Khmer Rouge were rumored to kill anyone with an education, Ngor responded, “Oh, the doctor just left by the back door.” As they hustled out, he laid down his medical tools and planned a quick escape. “What about the patient?” questioned his assistant. “Forget him,” said Ngor. “Don’t care.” They fled out the front door as the man bled to death. “Sorry about that patient,” Ngor says remorsefully today.
The Khmer Rouge marched Ngor—and everyone else in the capital—into the countryside to work as slave laborers. Ngor first smashed stones from dawn until midnight—”crazy, very, very hard,” he says—and then was pushed toward the west coast, where he discovered that life was worse. His neck bowed under a yoke, another worker pulling alongside him, Ngor plowed the earth like an ox while armed guards lashed them forward.
Since the Khmer Rouge killed anyone who spoke a foreign language or came from an educated background, Ngor pretended he was an illiterate taxi driver. “If you know only ABC,” says Ngor, “Khmer Rouge say, ‘You CIA!’ They want to wash your brain.”
Hunger drove him to eat whatever he could forage: snails, leaves, mice, grasshoppers. Ngor at least survived; an estimated three million Cambodians did not. Some starved, others were bludgeoned to death.
“The Khmer Rouge catch me up three times to kill me,” he says. “The first time, someone had told them I stole something to eat, so they cut off my finger.” He punctuates his story by thrusting forward his right hand. There is an inch missing from his little finger. The second time, a former associate at his medical school identified him as a doctor. “They hang me like Jesus Christ, tied to a post, and they put fire at the bottom.” Ngor rolls up his pant leg, revealing a long brown scar seared into his shin. “He screaming at me, ‘You tell the truth—you have one big bowl of rice and two pieces of fish,’ Still I keep in my mind that I was taxi driver. He didn’t believe me. He uses the plastic bag to put on my head and tied it around my neck. Two minutes only, you die. This time we have 15 prisoners all tied up. I’m around 12. First die, second die, ten people die. I am shaking, then he takes off the bag and throws water on me. I’m still saying I’m taxi driver.” He was released.
In the final attempt on his life, the same person fingered Ngor. For four days and three nights, Ngor and 180 people were thrust into a hut of stinking filth and feces. Then the Khmer Rouge set fire to the hut. Those who fled were mowed down by a fusillade of bullets. The remaining 30, among them Ngor, huddled against the smoking thatch—and were released.
The greatest agony came on June 2, 1978. In the arms of Ngor, his fiancée, Chang My Hoa, died of starvation. “I still think about her. She saved my life and I couldn’t save hers. I am a doctor, but I have no medicine for this. She gave up her clothing for a couple of mice for me to eat. She walked five kilometers for them.” His fiancée’s photograph was all Ngor carried when he escaped from Cambodia in 1979, after the Khmer Rouge had been overthrown by Vietnamese forces. With his niece, Sophia Ngim Ngor, and a friend, Ngor trekked through the mountains into Thailand. Walking for four days, Ngor knew that any step might kill them: The lushly overgrown terrain was laced with mines.
Ngor spent 18 months in Thailand working as a doctor in the Cambodian refugee camps. Then, in September 1980, he emigrated to the U.S. and settled near a brother in Los Angeles. Except for another brother who remains in Cambodia, all of Ngor’s family—his father (a well-to-do sawmill owner), mother, two sisters and two brothers—were killed by the Khmer Rouge. “If I had been living with my family at the time, I would be 100 percent gone already,” he says.
Now doing social work for Los Angeles’ Asian community, Ngor hopes to pass his medical boards in March 1986. Scooting about in his VW, Ngor says happily, “I am very comfortable here.”
Four years after leaving Thailand, Ngor returned there to begin filming The Killing Fields. His involvement with the film began at a Cambodian wedding he attended near L.A. in 1983. The film’s casting director, Pat Golden, spotted him there and took several Polaroids. “He just had it,” says Golden. Convinced this was a lark, Ngor says, “I acted like I do normally.” As one of many Cambodians presented to director Roland Joffé, Ngor took a screen test, the first acting experience of his life. Says Joffé: “I obtrusively placed a camera about a foot away from his face. Then I asked him to pretend to persuade Pat Golden, reading for Pran’s wife, to leave the country. He cried, and he made Pat cry. He did it five times, and he cried five times. At that point, I knew this was an actor, not a gifted amateur.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, his suffering, Ngor tends to see the positive side of most situations. “Amazing,” he squeals when asked for an autograph. He revels in the limousines provided to shuttle him from interview to talk show to film opening. No one has to argue him into his tux. “It’s a happy life,” Ngor says with a grin.
Yet the suffering of his people plainly remains with him. He has watched The Killing Fields in its entirety only once; it is too painful for him to watch again, he says. The role of Dith Pran may well be Ngor’s first and last; he is undecided about acting. He believes one thing, though, with absolute certainty: “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.”