November 12, 1984 12:00 PM

If you see no more than one film a year, make this the one for 1984. Based on an article by New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg, The Killing Fields is the story of Schanberg’s relationship with his Cambodian interpreter, Dith Pran, during the war between the revolutionary Khmer Rouge and the U.S.-supported Lon Nol government. Schanberg won a Pulitzer prize for his reporting. Pran, who also risked his life in Schanberg’s service, had to flee into Cambodia’s death-ridden countryside with millions of other refugees after Khmer Rouge troops occupied the capital, Phnom Penh, in April 1975. From then until Oct. 3, 1979, when Pran crossed the border to Thailand, Schanberg, who had returned to the U.S., tried to locate him. Pran’s story—four years of lonely horror—is the heart of this almost unbearably moving film. First-time feature director Roland Joffé and screenwriter Bruce Robinson have made the details of Pran’s life a paradigm for the fall of Cambodia—a lush, cultured country used as battle fodder by world powers. Their film rings with a justifiable sense of rage but avoids Hollywood hyperbole. The superb documentary cinematographer Chris Menges brings the stamp of unflinching reality to every frame. From the faces of 10-year-old orphans in uniform to muffled explosions that result in bloody death, Menges’ camera sees war as it is. The acting is equally authentic. Sam (The Great Gatsby) Waterston plays Schanberg with a piercing intelligence that allows for human flaws. And John (Places in the Heart) Malkovich, portraying a photographer who uses drink, drugs and humor as a support system for living in hell, adds to his reputation as an actor’s actor. But the film belongs to Dr. Haing S. Ngor as Dith Pran. A Cambodian physician, Ngor was tortured when the Khmer Rouge began persecuting the educated class (he pretended to be a taxi driver for four years, finally escaping to Thailand). Ngor had never acted before (Joffé saw his face in a friend’s wedding photos). Perhaps what Ngor does isn’t so much acting as presenting an agonizing human reflection of war. Oscar nominations may be on the way for this haunting and haunted film, shot in Thailand. But what it needs is box-office support from a public that might shy away from such a wrenching workout with its conscience. (R)

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