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Salvador (1986) dir: Oliver Stone Blu Ray (Eureka!)

US-backed war in Central America

Oliver Stone’s film is a biographical account of the real-life experiences of photojournalist Richard Boyle (who co-wrote the script) during his time covering the El Salvador Civil War of 1980-1981. At the start of the story, the unemployed Boyle (played by James Woods) has found himself in serious hot water. Not only is he in the process of being evicted from his San Francisco flat along with his girlfriend and their child, but he also gets himself arrested for driving a car without a license. He is bailed out of jail by his DJ friend Dr. Rock (James Belushi). When he goes back home to pick up his immediate family, he finds that they have left him.

However, he has a backup plan. He decides to drive his clapped-out convertible to El Salvador for three reasons: firstly, to indulge in a hedonistic lifestyle on the cheap with Dr. Rock; secondly, so he can get back together with his other girlfriend Maria (Elpidia Carrillo) and her children; and thirdly, to attempt to find photographic work covering the ongoing civil war.

He manages to get a job working alongside another veteran photojournalist named John Cassady (played by John Savage). However, his work gets him closer to discovering the atrocities committed by the US-backed military junta, led by Major Max Casanova (Tony Plana). This puts him and his girlfriend in serious danger and prompts him to question the morality of US interests in the conflict.

Watch a trailer:

Stone’s true directorial vocation began here

Oliver Stone is an American director most renowned/notorious for tackling heavy subject matter (often critical of his home country) in a forthright and hard-hitting manner. While Salvador wasn’t his first film in the director’s chair, it was the first that set him on a trademark path which would continue through Platoon, Wall Street, JFK, Natural Born Killers and so on (his two films previous to Salvador were the poorly-received horror flicks Seizure and The Hand).

Salvador does feel a bit more uneven than some of his later work, something which could be attributed to Stone still finding his feet. The first half concentrates heavily on the self-indulgent antics of Boyle and Dr. Rock, who spend much of the time taking various illegal narcotics, getting drunk with the locals, womanising, and whizzing past the devastation and poverty in their clapped out red car. They reel from the occasional atrocities they witness (burnt and limbless corpses, shootings and the like) without quite waking up. At times, this part of the film feels a bit too close to the sort of episodic gonzo comedy which James Belushi’s brother John was famous for, particularly when Dr. Rock spikes a rival reporter’s drink with LSD. Despite the somewhat rambling feel, however, it does work thanks largely to the superb fast-talking performances of Woods and Belushi (who have a fantastically edgy chemistry between them), as well as the direction by Oliver Stone who keeps the camera mobile and the background filled with an authentic flurry of grit and local colour.

Salvador (1986)

At just over the halfway mark, the film really jolts both the viewer, and the on-screen portrayal of Richard Boyle, out of their complacency, with the latter character finding redemption and ultimately becoming the story’s main moral compass. Firstly, we get to witness the assassination of opposition figure Archbishop Oscar Romero after a church sermon. Secondly, we’re party to the brutal rape and execution of four American nuns as they make a nighttime drive towards the airport in the forlorn hope of flying home. The latter sequence is particularly harrowing, effectively bringing across the spectacular lack of mercy which the perpetrators show towards their soft, blameless targets. It’s the kind of sheer cinematic kick to the gut which Oliver Stone became famous for.

A de facto tale of redemption

While the transition of the onscreen Boyle from carefree, self-serving douchebag to anti-American foreign policy mouthpiece seems a bit too sudden and contrived (despite the real-life Boyle’s own input into the script), James Woods can pull off both the weaselly and righteously raging sides of the character with real flair. The more focussed second half of the film is very good indeed. It is centred around a rebel cavalry raid on a military junta compound - an endeavour captured in great scale via some superb wide-angle shots by cinematographer Robert Richardson, alternating with more intimate bone-shaking moments amid in the thick of it all with our photographers Boyle and Cassady. It’s a scene which initially seems to afford some catharsis for the audience as the military “villains” are taken down, but then yanks away that particular comfort blanket by showing the rebels carrying out on-the-spot executions with the same dearth of mercy as their adversaries have shown.

While Salvador is a must see once, it’s also one of those films that you may be reluctant to watch again. However, it is so for the right reasons, i.e. it’s a long and frankly ugly stare into the real-life nightmare world of a civil war and, moreover, one fuelled to a devastating degree by a superpower pulling the strings at every turn.

Runtime: 122 mins

Dir: Oliver Stone

Script: Oliver Stone, Richard Boyle

Starring: James Woods, Jim Belushi, Michael Murphy, John Savage, Elpidia Carrillo, Tony Plana, Colby Chester, Cynthia Gibb, Will MacMillan, Valerie Wildman

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

It’s a very vivid looking and sounding print. The spot-on colour grading superbly captures the sunny and flamboyant Latin American background.

Extras

Oliver Stone audio commentary

The director’s commentary here is intermittent but engrossing. He focusses much of his attention on the shoot’s perpetual financial challenges. The budget was small (originally $2.5 million but it ultimately ballooned to around $4 million) and was partially raised by fraudulently using funds which were allocated to an aborted Arnold Schwarzenegger film. At one point, Stone considered casting the real Richard Boyle and Dr. Rock in order to save some cash but canned the idea because the former’s drinking was such that his skin looked too red on camera! They kept running out of money during the Mexico shoot to the point that the local crew started striking because they weren’t paid on time - and on the 42nd day of the 50-day shoot, the production team was finally ejected from the country. Stone had to beg producer John Daly for more funds so that he could film the climactic scenes in America.

Sadly, Salvador was a flop on release but the production which he made hot on its heals - Platoon - was a big success when it was released later that same year (1986). This allowed the former film to gain some belated recognition by association with it. Indeed, while Platoon swept the 1987 Oscars, Salvador still managed to snag a couple of nominations on the back of this new flurry of attention.

Stone also waxes political about U.S. interventions and their suppression of leftist revolutions in Central America (particularly during the Reagan era). For those who still believe the former country to be a force for good in the world, his revelations here are a real lid-lifter on the ugly side of its interventionist policies.

Oliver Stone audio interview

This recording of an on-stage interview and Q & A from 1986 has a few of the usual audio difficulties you would expect; a number of the audience questions are virtually inaudible and a brief appearance by Jim Belushi isn’t much better. Nonetheless, it’s worth listening to for a bit more insight into Reagan-era politics, his own political views (which shifted from right to left over the years), various aspects of Salvador’s production and a few bits and bobs about some of the other films which the director was involved with up until then. Stone originally wanted to shoot in El Salvador and did indeed initially have cooperation from the country’s government. However, safety issues soon became apparent (their military attaché was shot dead) and the authorities also decided to turn against the idea because they wanted to cultivate a more tourist-friendly image for the country. As a result, they decamped to Mexico.

He also discusses the indifferent reception that the film initially faced. The shot-callers at Cannes snubbed it because they felt that it was too much like Rambo (even though it’s frankly the polar opposite in terms of its politics and general approach). No major distributor wanted to pick it up for a U.S. release because two earlier acclaimed films dealing with Latin American revolutions - Missing (1982) and Under Fire (1983) - flopped at the box office. Hemdale handled domestic distribution themselves but were unable to reach as wide an audience as the film undoubtedly deserved.

BFI interview with Oliver Stone

Some excerpts from The Guardian interview and an audience Q & A with Oliver Stone at the National Film Theatre, London in 1994 to promote the release of his third film about Vietnam, Heaven & Earth. Again, the audience questions are difficult to make out from the recorded audio. However, the interview is of some interest in its own right because it focuses on a different stages of his career than the previous one from 1986. He also mentions that the producers of his then-forthcoming Natural Born Killers were pushing for him to get involved in the reboot of Planet of the Apes (while the disappointing Tim Burton-directed end results were released in 2001, Stone’s mooted involvement never transpired).

Into the Valley of Death

If you indulge in only one extra on this disc, make it this one. Clocking in at just over an hour in length, this documentary pulls together behind-the-scenes footage, harrowing real-life footage of the El Salvador Civil War, some excerpts from a deleted orgy scene and interview snippets with Oliver Stone, James Woods, Jim Belushi, Richard Boyle and Ambassador Robert E. White to create an engrossing picture of a production which was challenging (to say the least) in just about every aspect imaginable.

Initially, James Woods didn’t want to work in the dirty, unsafe Latin American locations. While filming the aircraft attack sequence, he walked off set and attempted to return home because he was worried that it would fly into the telephone wires and end up crashing into him. He had walked three miles before the crew managed to retrieve him and persuade him to return. At another point, when his character was supposed to be shot in the head with a gun that misfires, he overheard the Mexican crew say the word “blanka”. Since he was concerned that there was a blank in the gun (even a blank bullet can kill a human being when fired at point-blank range), he stopped the scene. It turns out that he was right and thus, narrowly avoided what could have been a fatal injury! A scene where his character reveals that he has stored film reels in the heels of his shoes was an idea that the actor came up with himself. Not only that; he asked the costume designer to make the shoes and improvised the scene on camera without any prior consent from the director.

Woods and Belushi didn’t get on well with their real-life counterparts Richard Boyle and Dr. Rock when they were introduced to each other at a cast dinner. The scene with the numerous dead bodies on the hillside used Mexican actors who lay there for several hours. Woods recalls that some of them were moaning “agua” (the Spanish for water) while shooting.

Deleted & Extended scenes

There are nine deleted scenes here (over 27 minutes’ worth in total) and most of them are more interesting than you might expect considering that they hit the cutting room floor. In some cases, their inclusion may well have resulted in an even stronger film than the one audiences got. Amongst them is an extended take of the meeting between Boyle, Dr. Rock and Colonel Figueroa which features an orgy with prostitutes, as well as the latter character showing off his collection of severed ears (this sequence was cut because of concerns that it would be too strong for an MPAA “R” rating). A less graphic but still fascinating (and somewhat satirical) scene involves Major Max meeting with his American backers who advise him on how to garner public support. There is also a devastatingly lyrical, mournful sequence showing parents lamenting the loss of their children during the aftermath the Santa Ana battle.

A trailer, collector’s booklet and reversible sleeve round out the extras here.

Overall:

While it occasionally rambles, Salvador is a truly harrowing and all-too-realistic depiction of war with a side order of moral redemption. The print and extras are excellent.

Movie: ☆☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆☆

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