In 1984, Patrick Malahide had a brief but highly visible role as Australian journalist Morgan (we later find out his first name is actually “Dennis”) in the major motion picture, “The Killing Fields“. He only has a couple of scenes with dialogue, but he’s prominent in the background of many scenes during the first half of the movie and makes his presence felt.
The film is set in 1973, during the bloody civil war between the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian national army for control of Cambodia. At first, the violence is sporadic, consisting mostly of terrorist bombs being detonated where they’ll do the most harm, like marketplaces. New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) is there to cover events with Dith Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor) as his interpreter and guide. We first see Morgan when Sydney goes to the journalists’ hotel (they all seem to be staying in one place and the Australians especially seem to prefer hanging around together) and Morgan gently ribs Sydney about the welcome appearance of beer at the hotel after four weeks of drought, saying the New York Times must have had it flown in just for him.
Going Into a War Zone
Sydney arranges for some non-U.S. Army-approved transportation to view the site of a recent bombing, which is actually the result of an American bomb drop in the wrong location, as he finds out from “Bob” (Spalding Gray), a U.S. embassy official who leaks bits of information to him here and there. While there, Sydney runs afoul of an unnamed U.S. military attaché (played by Craig T. Nelson) because he won’t follow the rules and take the army-approved tours. However, apparently the Australians do follow the rules, because we (very briefly!) glimpse Morgan in a helicopter, surveying the damage along with the rest of the international press.
The situation deteriorates still further, with violence creeping ever closer to the journalists’ hotel. Refugees are beginning to take shelter in the hotel’s corridors and Morgan, Sydney, and Pran helplessly watch a massive fire across the river. But moments of danger are punctuated with moments of sheer boredom (possibly because the hotel’s electricity is somewhat spotty and the journalists can’t reliably telex their stories out anyway), so we also see Morgan and the other Australians sunning by the (hasn’t been cleaned in a very long while) swimming pool. They’re probably all out of beer by now, too.
The Situation Worsens
As things worsen, other countries begin to evacuate their embassy personnel. Sydney secures passage to safety with the Americans for Pran, his wife, and their four children, but Pran elects to stay, wanting to help Sydney. Eventually, the only embassy left open to foreign journalists is the French one and they all hole up there, anxiously listening to the news on the radio as the Khmer Rouge gradually take over Phnom Penh. The journalists are themselves effectively imprisoned and show it, looking restless as they’re unable to carry out their jobs and report events taking place just outside the embassy walls. We see a lot of Morgan lounging about, looking alternately very tense or bored (leaving some graffiti behind on the French embassy walls) and becoming progressively more scruffy. But even the French sanctuary proves temporary as the Khmer Rouge seize complete power and order the remaining embassies to turn over all Cambodian nationals on their premises.
The French embassy officials arrange to collect the journalists’ passports to surrender for inspection prior to their evacuation, which means that Pran will quickly be identified as a Cambodian and be arrested. Most of the embassy Cambodians opt for a last-ditch escape attempt before that can happen, but Pran stays behind in favour of a hasty scheme to forge a European passport that will allow him to be evacuated with the journalists. Otherwise, he’ll likely end up imprisoned, if not killed, under the new regime. Journalist Jon Swain (Julian Sands) offers up his spare passport and photographer Al Rockoff (John Malkovich) manages to improvise a passport photo under far less than ideal conditions. Unfortunately, either the photographic paper or the developing chemicals are of such poor quality that the image fades away completely and the embassy officials cannot avoid handing Pran over.
Faced with the fact that it’s due to his persuasion that Pran didn’t escape when he had the opportunity – twice – Sydney is racked with guilt and heart-broken at having to send him away. Pran appears to have gained the other journalists’ respect as well; just as he’s leaving for the last time, an emotional, very angry Morgan tears an impressive strip off Sydney:
“For Christ’s sake, Sydney, why didn’t you get him out when you had the chance?? You had no right to keep him here! Funny sense of priorities!”
There’s a lot of pent-up frustration there and Morgan, under severe stress like all the others, is clearly nearing the end of his tether, but at the same time, it does show that he’s become friendly enough with Pran to be very worried about what’s going to happen to him.
The Killing Fields and After
In tears, Pran persuades Morgan not to fight with Sydney, and then leaves for an uncertain fate. Sydney makes it back to New York unharmed, and we have to presume that Morgan makes it back to Australia as well, since that’s the last we see of him. The rest of the movie follows Sydney’s attempts to locate Pran and Pran’s experiences under the brutal Khmer Rouge.
This is a very good, although very heavy-duty, movie with some extremely serious and often visually and emotionally disturbing subject matter. But it’s based on real-life events and certainly deserves to be seen. Sydney and Pran are obviously the main characters, but it was interesting to see the journalists, including Morgan, trying to work as circumstances deteriorated and they were caught in the middle of an increasingly dangerous event. They did manage to come up with an ingenious solution to provide Pran with a passport, even if it was ultimately unsuccessful. This also looked like it might have been a tough shoot; Thailand stood in for Cambodia, and it looked like conditions were extremely hot, humid, and uncomfortable.
I very much enjoyed seeing Mr. Malahide in an earlier role, using an Australian accent for a change. He gave me an impression of Morgan as a generally good-spirited journalist in the midst of a unique state of affairs: unarmed yet under fire with periods of intense, life-threatening action punctuated by long stretches of tense boredom, mixed with a great deal of uncertainty. It would have been even more interesting if we could’ve seen a bit more of journalist Morgan at work, or if he’d turned up at Sydney’s award dinner in New York. But we’ll just have to be content with knowing he made it back to Australia instead.