In April 1970—between the fall of Prince Sihanouk’s government and the American and South Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia—the young Sean Flynn, war photographer and son of Errol Flynn, deliberately drove into a Vietcong roadblock in Cambodia. He wanted to report the war from the communist side but was captured and accused of spying for the CIA. Since the Vietcong army was not officially in Cambodia, they handed Sean over to the fanatical Khmer Rouge. Transferred through several prison camps to avoid American bombs, Sean lasted for 14 months before contracting a severe case of malaria. With no medical aid available in the jungle, he was given a fatal injection, became comatose, and was buried while still alive. His death was horrific. But he avoided the fate of most other prisoners who—forced to kneel and ordered to “Stay still! Heads forward! Do not tuck your neck in between your shoulders!”—had their heads hacked off with several blows of a hoe. No one ever survived the Khmer Rouge, who killed 30 Westerners and several million of their own people —except Frangois Bizot, the only one who lived to tell the tale. He, too, was falsely accused of being a CIA agent, and his story has some eerie parallels with Sean’s.

In March 1969, Bizot had been living in Cambodia for four years and was fluent in Khmer. Lon Nol, who supported American intervention, seized power. The Khmer Rouge and the Vietcong, who also crossed into Cambodia, fought his army in a brutal civil war. Bizot (now a professor of Southeast Asian studies at the Sorbonne) was then restoring ceramics and bronzes at the magnificent medieval Khmer temples in Angkor Wat. In October 1971, while researching the Buddhist state of trance in a monastery 20 miles north of Phnom Penh, he was arrested by the Khmer Rouge, who behaved “no barang [foreigner] comes to Cambodia to study Buddhism and Khmer pottery.” In the detention camp, where he was shackled in leg irons and chained up for two months, 20 Cambodian prisoners were tightly held in a long wooden stock, motionless and side by side. The wasted sick were abandoned and left to die.

The only foreigner among them, Bizot had no books to read and could not speak to the other prisoners. Fed only two bowls of rice per day, he became starved and emaciated. He did not practice Buddhist meditation or achieve a transcendent resignation to his fate, but, during the extremely hot days and surprisingly cold nights, he found various ways to pass the agonizing time. He responded to the beauty of the natural surroundings; the brilliant dawns and sunsets, the colors of the flowers, the sounds of the birds. He bathed in the river, slept near the burning embers of a log, and befriended the local chickens, whose lives were as precarious as his own. He was required to exonerate himself by recording his personal history. He thought about his Cambodian wife and young daughter; devised stratagems to influence his jailers and slightly increase his freedom; and, though he would be instantly recognized in the rural villages, desperately planned his escape.

Bizot also formed a strange bond with a nine-year-old girl, the only child in the camp, who had been separated from her father when he was taken prisoner. At considerable sacrifice, for he was extremely undernourished, Bizot gave her a can of condensed milk with sugar. At first, she refused to eat or speak but finally accepted his gift and seemed to befriend him: “The sight of this child,” he writes, “who was under my protection, filled me with an immense courage.” One day, she slipped her delicate finger between his shackle and skin and skipped away. She returned with a bunch of keys, “unlocked the padlock and, with some difficulty, carefully retightened the chain.” After that, she seemed to hate him. It had taken only a short time for the Khmer Rouge to transform this child into a true revolutionary who betrayed her helpless protector.

Like many prisoners, Bizot also formed a bond, even a kind of friendship, with his captor Ta Douch, whose “light skin and crowded uneven teeth betrayed his Chinese origins.” Douch beat and tortured the Cambodian prisoners. He believed Bizot was innocent, however, and, though under intense pressure from his even more savage superiors, protected him and saved his life. Bizot—who yearned for a decisive verdict, even a death sentence—was finally freed. After his money was returned, he gave a Christmas banquet, and Douch entrusted him with Khmer Rouge documents to deliver to the French embassy in the capital.

In April 1975, three years after his release, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh at the same time the Vietnamese communists captured Saigon. Bizot took shelter in the French embassy. As translator for, and one of the leaders of, the French community, he participated in the first meeting between the French diplomats and the victorious army officers; this part of his memoir is a vivid lesson in how to negotiate from a position of weakness. Able to take command and act decisively, Bizot was allowed to leave the embassy in order to find food and medical supplies for the 2,000 refugees in the compound. He even arranged for a French couple whose young daughter had just died to clean her grave and say farewell to her at the local cemetery. When he tried to recover his Buddhist texts and artistic treasures, however, he was recaptured by a little boy with a rifle. He was lucky to escape once again, but he had to abandon this quest.

During this time, the highly civilized Bizot experienced the destruction of his world, which disintegrated into arson, looting, and murder—”an immense theater of death.” The feral lust for survival in the embassy itself became a microcosmic “breeding ground for all the basest instincts,” just as the “revolutionary fervor, which authorizes all crimes, had suddenly filled [the Khmer Rouge leaders] with the very basest instincts.” The French were forced at gunpoint to hand over the Cambodian refugees for “fair trials”— that is, for certain death. Mass executions took place in the football stadium, which always serves a dual function during revolutionary unrest. “In the blood drenched soil,” Bizot observes, “lay already victim upon victim, for centuries past, down to the deepest part of the earth.”

Despite these horrors, Bizot helped to organize two convoys of 40 trucks that carried the French and other foreigners with passports to the safety of Thailand. (I can well imagine this journey. In 1966, I took a wretched bus, constantly stopped by goons with machine guns, from Poipet on the Thai border to the jungly ruins of Angkor Wat.) Bizot confronted ruthless Khmer Rouge officials, who looked on the suffering of the weak with total contempt. His last-minute pleas for mercy and courageous acts at the border determined the fate, even the very survival, of many stowaways without valid documents.

In 2000, Bizot returned to Cambodia. He visited Douch, then in prison for crimes against humanity, and finally learned that this loathsome executioner had been his liberator. He also saw the “Genocidary Museum” that displays the Khmer Rouge instruments of torture:

the bathtub specially adapted for immersion; the sloping wooden board used for suffocation; the cage of spiders, centipedes, snakes and scorpions; the hooks; the bludgeons; the whips; the stained knives.

In this brave and brilliant memoir, Bizot never fully explains the intractable conflict in Cambodia (also reflected in his ambivalent attitude toward Douch) between the traditional Buddhist gentleness and reverence for life and the inhuman torture and genocide of the Khmer Rouge. He says that “the Communist revolution was a disruption of their age old way of life” but also (and more convincingly) that, in the revolution, he finds

religious themes from the past: taking on a new name, for example; enduring hardships, rather like ritual mortification; even the soothing, enticing words of Radio Peking announcing [amidst all the streams of blood] the advent of a regenerated people.

Sean Flynn was a man of action, though reckless; Bizot was a contemplative scholar, though capable. Sean got captured deliberately; Bizot was taken by chance. Sean lasted more than a year before he was killed; Bizot, luckier in his captor, was imprisoned for two months before he was freed. Both suffered terribly under a brutal regime. Bizot survived to tell his story—as well as Sean’s. As Auden wrote in his elegy on Yeats: “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.”


[The Gate, by Frangois Bizot; translated by Euan Cameron (New York: Knopf) 278 pp., $24.00]