On July 9th, the American journalist Sydney Schanberg died at age 82 of a heart attack. He was best known for his coverage of the war in Cambodia for the New York Times. He was the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, two George Polk awards, two Overseas Press Club awards, and the Sigma Delta Chi prize for distinguished journalism.
Schanberg was played by Sam Waterston in the 1984 film The Killing Fields, based on the experiences of Schanberg and the Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran in Cambodia. Pran also worked for the New York Times and died in 2008 at age 65 of pancreatic cancer.
My connection with these men was through Dr. Haing S. Ngor, the physician, actor, and author who is best known for having won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1985 for his debut performance in The Killing Fields, in which he portrayed Dith Pran.
Haing Ngor visited my Minneapolis home once, and gave me two autographed copies of his 1988 book, Haing Ngor: A Cambodian Odyssey. After reading A Cambodian Odyssey, I realized that Haing Ngor’s story was every bit as worthy as Schanberg’s for depiction of the genocide of the Cambodian people.
Ngor was trained as a surgeon and gynecologist. He was practicing in the capital, Phnom Penh, in 1975 when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge seized control of the country and proclaimed it Democratic Kampuchea.
He was compelled to conceal his education, medical skills, and even the fact that he wore glasses to avoid the new regime’s intense hostility to intellectuals and professionals. He and his wife My-Huoy were expelled from Phnom Penh, along with the bulk of its two million inhabitants as part of the Khmer Rouge’s “Year Zero” social experiment. They were imprisoned in a concentration camp, and My-Huoy subsequently died giving birth.
Although a gynecologist, he was unable to treat his own wife, who required a Caesarean section, as he would have been exposed and both he and his wife (as well as the child) would very probably have been killed. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Ngor worked as a doctor in a refugee camp in Thailand and left with his niece for the United States in 1980. In America, Ngor was unable to resume his medical practice, and he did not remarry.
In 1996, I was shocked to hear that Ngor was shot dead outside his home in Chinatown, in downtown Los Angeles. It was a bungled robbery by three reputed members of the “Oriental Lazy Boyz,” a street gang which had prior arrests for snatching purses and jewelry. Prosecutors argued that they killed Ngor because, after willingly handing over his gold Rolex watch, he refused to give them a locket that contained a photo of his deceased wife.
After the release of The Killing Fields, Ngor had told a New York Times reporter, “If I die from now on, OK! This film will go on for a hundred years.” Let’s hope it does.
Yet now that everyone but Waterston is dead and cannot defend the film, some brilliant producer will probably want to re-make it. That would be a fate worse than death, but it is the Hollywood way.
99° and Partly Cloudy