In real life, Haing S. Ngor's wife died under the Khmer Rouge regime, hemorrhaging during childbirth (the baby also died). She knew that she couldn't contact her husband as doctors were all being murdered by the regime so by keeping her silence and dying of internal bleeding, she effectively saved his life.
Pol Pot was still mounting an insurgency in Cambodia (after Vietnam had overthrown the Khmer Rouge) when the film was being made in neighboring Thailand. In fact, the Thai authorities were very keen to have the horrors of Pol Pot's regime depicted onscreen as it would bring international attention to the political situation there.
The real Dith Pran went on to work as a celebrated photographer for the New York Times, often speaking out about the Cambodian genocide. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2008 at the age of 65, nursed in his final days by his ex-wife and his best friend, Sidney Schanberg.
Haing S. Ngor became the first Southeast Asian (and the first Buddhist) to win an Academy Award in an acting role.
Of all the real people involved in the story, the only major participant who refused to collaborate in the making of the movie was Al Rockoff, the character portrayed by John Malkovich.
After Haing S. Ngor's murder, his niece went to his apartment to start sorting through his possessions, only to find that his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for The Killing Fields (1984) was sitting on his sideboard with all the gold rubbed off it. Obviously the award meant so much to the doctor-turned-actor that he had felt compelled to hold it continually to the extent that all the gold wore off.
The Coke factory in the movie was originally supposed to be a Pepsi factory, but Pepsi declined to be featured in the movie.
Haing S. Ngor became only the second non-professional actor to win an Oscar, following Harold Russell in William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).
Haing S. Ngor originally didn't want to have any acting involvement in the film as it was all a bit too raw for him. However, Roland Joffé simply couldn't find another Cambodian actor for the role, mainly because one of the Khmer Rouge's policies was to kill all actors.
Stanley Kubrick once considered filming 'The Killing Fields', but a close aide reviewed the book as "un-cinematic", according to notes and letters in the Kubrick archive in London.
One attack scene which shows a girl sitting on the back of a cart with her hands over her ears and crying. In real life, the girl actually had a happy disposition and director Roland Joffé was having difficulty getting her to cry. Finally, the Thai interpreter told her that she and everyone else (cast and crew) would have to stay there and couldn't go home. The girl burst into tears and the shot was achieved.
Roy Scheider, Alan Arkin and Dustin Hoffman all expressed a keen interest in the lead role in the film. However, producer David Puttnam and director Roland Joffé had already decided to use Sam Waterston. The studio were not too happy with the decision to cast a relatively unknown actor in the lead, and Puttnam and Joffe were afraid that with the interest expressed by such well known performers as Hoffman, the studio may actually force them to cast someone other than Waterston. As such, when describing what the shoot would involve, they greatly exaggerated the danger of the location shoots, leading to most of the interested actors dropping out.
There was real film in John Malkovich's camera and he was taking real photographs throughout the production.
Actor Bruce Robinson penned a screenplay which he brought to producer David Puttnam, wanting his opinion on the 300 page draft he had written. Puttnam went off to talk to some directors about it and was particularly intrigued by Roland Joffé's take on the screenplay. Joffe maintained that it wasn't a war story but actually a love story between Dith Pran and Sidney Schanberg. This was enough for Puttnam to offer the project to Joffe.
Although the real Dith Pran's wife did not stay married to her husband, she remained close friends with him, and they both remained friends with Sydney Schanberg well after the events caused by the Pol Pot Regime.
Supporting actor Spalding Gray wrote a monologue about his experiences filming this movie, which was later filmed as Swimming to Cambodia (1987).
The year the film was released, Time Magazine's Cultural Highs and Lows of the Year, had as the lowest point, 'David Puttnam's decision to use John Lennon's Imagine in The Killing Fields'.
In the scene where Pran becomes a servant to the Khmer Rouge general and the village is attacked, the two fighter planes that descend were actually lent by the Thai Air Force and were painted with Vietnamese characters.
At the time of the film's release, Ukraine was a deeply polarized country, with many commentators feeling that Civil War was inevitable. The film was a big success in the country, especially amongst children, and it was used in schools to show the younger generation what happens when a nation implodes. According to producer David Puttnam, during the Orange Revolution, the main reason there was never much of a possibility of a civil war breaking out, was because the generation staging the revolution had been inculcated by the film not to go down that road.
This film was part of a cycle of pictures made during the 1980s that featured journalists covering war. The movies include Salvador (1986), Under Fire (1983), Circle of Deceit [Circle of Deceit (1981)], Witness in the War Zone (1987), Cry Freedom (1987), The Killing Fields (1984) and The Year of Living Dangerously (1982).
Haing Ngor's murder in the open parking garage of his home next to his car is not politically motivated. The murderers wanted the gold locket he swore never to part with because it's where he put his wife's picture after her death.
The scene with Pran's fake passport with the faded photo was pure drama. Though a plot was indeed hatched to smuggle Dith out of the country, it was never materialized at all. Once the French authorities in the embassy caught wind of it, they realized it would jeopardized their exit. They summoned Syd Schanberg and insisted that Pran had to leave.
The real Dith Pran was born on September 27, 1942 at Siem Reap, Cambodia, and died of pancreatic cancer on March, 30, 2008 in New Jersey, USA. He was 65.
Shots with large helicopters (the scene where Pran's family and other international diplomats are evacuated) were filmed in San Diego, California almost 7 months after principal photography in Thailand.
Included among the "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die", edited by Steven Schneider.
Included among the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the 400 movies nominated for the Top 100 Greatest American Movies.
Alain Resnais's seminal documentary Night and Fog (1956) was a touchpoint for both director Roland Joffé and producer David Puttnam when they were prepping The Killing Fields (1984).
Nigel Havers was originally offered the role of the British journalist Jon Swain but had to decline owing to his filming A Passage to India (1984).
Features the only Oscar nominated performances of Sam Waterston and Haing S. Ngor (who won Best Supporting Actor).
The French and Cambodian dialogue spoken throughout the film, especially during the French embassy scene and the scene in which Schanberg, Swain, Sarun, Rockoff and Pran are captured (Pran negotiates with the Khmer Rouge soldiers in both French and Cambodian) were neither dubbed nor subtitled in English during any of the film's subsequent VHS, DVD or streaming releases. Instead, the character John Swain translates some of the dialogue roughly into English throughout the Embassy scene, but not all of it. During the moment when Pran's passport is rejected, Swain says in French, "is there a problem?" and is responded with, "I'm very sorry, Sir", also in French, but much of the other non-English dialogue was more advanced.
In the scene where Sydney and Pran are imprisoned in Neak Leung, Sydney throws open the windows and sees the riverbank with the helicopters, the shot with the riverbank was shot in a different part of Thailand than the rest of the scene.
The film cast includes one Oscar winner: Haing S. Ngor; and two Oscar nominees: Sam Waterston and John Malkovich.
According to the passport that we see at the beginning of the movie, Sydney Schanberg has the same birth date, Nov 15, 1940, as Sam Waterston who plays the part. The historical Sydney Schanberg was born Jan 17, 1934.
Features a brief shot of the Twin Towers in New York City, behind Sydney as he stands there after returning from Cambodia. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center have since been bombed by hijacked passenger jets on September the 11th, 2001, and no longer exist.