Screenplay : Oliver Stone and Richard Boyle
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1986
Stars : James Woods (Richard Boyle), James Belushi (Dr. Rock), Michael Murphy (Ambassador Thomas Kelly), John Savage (John Cassady), Elpidia Carrillo (Maria), Tony Plana (Major Max)
Salvador was Oliver Stone's first overtly political film, an initial cinematic stab by the now-renowned leftist auteur to shake up the complacency of the American public during the Reagan years. Although the film is primarily a character study of real-life photojournalist Richard Boyle, it is impossible to ignore the film's political concerns, especially in light of Stone's later films such as Born on the Fourth of July (1989), JFK (1991), and Nixon (1995), all of which are, like Salvador, intensely patriotic and deeply critical of the United States at the same time. In all of these films, Stone displays a deep love for what America stands for, but an angry rejection of the manner in which the government often betrays it.
When Salvador was released, Stone was not a well-known filmmaker with distinct political views. His screenplays for Alan Parker's Midnight Express (1978) and Brian De Palma's Scarface (1983) were viewed as well-written, but essentially shallow pulp, and his only feature-length directorial outings were two horror films, the almost unseen Canadian production Seizure (1974) and the awful The Hand (1981). Thus, Salvador was a complete break from the trajectory of Stone's career, as it introduced a political dynamic into his pulp mentality. By outwardly condemning U.S. foreign policy in El Salvador, which allowed for military aid to a vicious right-wing military junta because they were fighting Marxist rebels that the Reagan administration saw as mere puppets of the Soviet Union, Stone took a decisive step forward where many others had feared to tread.
Politics aside, the heart of Salvador is redemption, as the title not only refers to El Salvador, the civil-war-torn Latin American country in which most of the story takes place, but in Spanish it means "savior." The savior in the film is Richard Boyle, but he does not start out as such. In fact, the narrative of Salvador is based largely around Boyle's political and spiritual awakening when, after more than 40 years of living only for himself, he finally learns how to sacrifice. This revelation comes to him in what can only be described as hell on earth during the years 1980-81, when El Salvador was ripped apart by warring faction on the right and left.
When the film opens, Boyle (played in an Oscar-nominated turn by James Woods) is a burn-out, his professional glory days long behind him, buried in booze, pot, and hard living. He lives day-to-day in a tenement apartment with his Italian wife and newborn child, with no money to pay the rent and no job prospects on the horizon. When his wife takes the child and leaves him, Boyle takes one last gamble and heads south of the border, hoping he can exploit the civil war in El Salvador to his own ends by selling some juicy combat shots to the Associated Press.
Along for the ride is his friend and fellow sleazeball, a disc jockey named Dr. Rock (James Belushi). Boyle and Dr. Rock are fueled by dreams of an El Salvador filled with cheap liquor, tons of pot, and $7 prostitutes, all of which are plentiful. Also plentiful is violence and bloodshed--military death squads executing anyone without the proper paperwork, corrupt police, parentless children, and utter confusion over who has the country's best interests in mind and who wants to exploit the people for their own ends.
Once in El Salvador, Boyle hooks up with a few old contacts, including a military leader named Colonel Figueroa (Jorge Luke) and another American photojournalist, John Cassady (John Savage), based on real-life Newsweek photographer John Hoagland, who was killed in El Salvador. Boyle is also reunited with Maria (Elpidia Carrillo), a peasant woman with whom he had previously had a relationship. Maria is portrayed as an innocent, one of the few truly decent people in the film, and it is her destiny to act as the catalyst that jumpstarts Boyle's conscience. It's not a particularly subtle plot development, relying as it does on romantic notions of purity and forgiveness, but a film this relentlessly grim and depressing needs a shot of idealism to keep it from sinking completely.
Stone made Salvador completely outside of the studio system, raising money on his own and from the British film company Hemdale. It was shot cheaply and efficiently in Mexico over 50 days, but the final result seems like it cost much more. Stone orchestrates several major action sequences depicting the civil war raging throughout the city of Santa Ana, with guerilla fighters charging on horseback, tanks crashing through alleyways, and a fighter plane tearing up the streets with machine-gun fire. It has a kind of terrible grandeur to it, and cinematographer Richard Robertson gets us deep in the action with a skillful use of hand-held cameras that give the film a jittery, explosive quality.
Although Stone does tend to privilege romantic notions of redemption in Salvador, he by no means set himself an easy task by making his central character such a complex, repulsive human being. As portrayed by Woods, Boyle is a truly narcissistic jerk, a man whose own interests are so clouded that he couldn't even begin to consider the welfare of others. Stone positions him as a sort of Hunter S. Thompson character whose gonzo journalism is more about the sex and drugs that it is about getting to the "truth."
Yet, it is precisely because Stone takes this risk that Boyle's eventual conversion is so moving. Stone doesn't rush it, and it's hard to pin-point the exact moment when his political sensibilities are awakened to what's around him. There is a humorous sequence in which he goes to confession for the first time in 33 years so Maria will marry him, and even then he tries to bargain with the priest by working in caveats about drinking and smoking pot from time to time. It's wonderfully played by Woods, and Stone lets him control the scene by filming the whole thing in a medium close-up, so we can savor each of Woods' weasely, nervous facial expressions.
But, while Boyle is certainly central to the narrative, the film is as much about El Salvador as it is about him. The film documents several important historical moments during the civil war, including the ruthless actions of the death squads, the assassination of Archbishop Romero (Jose Carlos Ruiz), and the rape and murder of four American churchwomen, a story that made headlines around the world.
However, Salvador is most compelling in the vigor with which it takes its stance on American involvement in Central America, which Stone immediately recognized as being similar to the political and moral morass of Vietnam (soldiers sent as "advisors," policies of supporting anyone, no matter how ruthless, as long as he wasn't communist, etc.). This was a risky stance to take in the conservative-minded mid-1980s, but Stone makes his case clearly, although somewhat awkwardly as he often has to force his own political views into Boyle's mouth, which results in long, self-conscious speeches that spell out the film's theme. Yet, even if it isn't always the smoothest or most cohesive of Stone's films, it is certainly one of his most passionate and fiery.
|Salvador: Special Edition DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by director Oliver Stone|
Into the Valley of Death making-of documentary
Eight deleted scenes
On-the-set photo gallery
Original theatrical trailer
|The new widescreen anamorphic transfer of Salvador looks great. On his audio commentary, even Oliver Stone marvels at how good it looks, as he remembered a muddier looking picture. The image is sharp and clear throughout, without only occasional grain in some of the nighttime sequences. The print used for the transfer was exceptionally clean, as there is hardly a nick or scratch to be found (compare it with how bad the included theatrical trailer looks). Colors are bold and strong, with realistic flesh tones and good saturation. Overall, it would be hard to ask for a better transfer of a movie shot 15 years ago on a relatively low budget.|
|MGM has also done a nice job with the soundtrack, giving it the enhanced Dolby Digital 5.1 surround treatment. While much of the soundtrack is centered on the front soundstage with only occasional use of the surround channels for ambient effects and music, the speakers really come to life during the battle sequence in Santa Ana that brings the film to its violent climax. The surround channels are used very effectively with imaging and directionality, and the low-frequency effects channel kicks in from time to time to give explosions and machine-gun fire a good dose of bass.|
| Director Oliver Stone's audio commentary is engaging, if a bit spotty. He tends to speak in bursts, with long silences of several minutes in between. However, when he does speak, his comments are insightful and interesting, although they tend to stay more with generalities, rather than dissecting what is on-screen at that moment. |
Charles Kiselyak, who also produced retrospective documentaries for Fox's release of Wall Street and MGM's special edition of Platoon, contributes an excellent one-hour making-of documentary titled Into the Valley of Death. Featuring extensive interviews with Stone, stars James Woods and James Belushi, as well as the real-life Richard Boyle among others, this is a no-holds-barred look at the making of the film that eschews the shallow back-slapping that fills so many studio-produced "featurettes." Instead, it is filled with gritty, intriguing stories about the difficulties of production and how many of the principles hated working together even though they had respect for each other (Woods stormed off the set at least once). There's a lot of fascinating information behind the making of Salvador, especially since Stone made it outside the studio system as a kind of guerilla production.
While most deleted scenes included on DVDs aren't of much interest (you can usually see why they were left on the cutting room floor), the eight deleted scenes from Salvador are definitely worth checking out. Although presented in very low-quality transfers in full-frame, many of the deleted scenes give a good sense of how extreme Stone had initilly wanted to make the film (apparently Stone and producer John Daly went head-to-head many times over how explicit the film should be in terms of sex and violence). This is never so evident as in the deleted orgy sequence that includes a bagful of severed human ears. Grisly stuff, to be sure.
The disc also contains an "On-the-Set Photo Gallery" of 46 production photos and the original theatrical trailer in anamorphic widescreen.
©2001 James Kendrick