BR: Salvador (1986)

November 14, 2014 | By


Salvador_BRFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  September 9, 2014

Genre:  War / Drama

Synopsis: A loose but visceral docu-drama of photo journalist Richard Boyle’s coverage of the war in El Salvador, and his romantic relationship with a young woman.

Special Features:  2001 Audio commentary by writer-director Oliver Stone / Isolated Stereo Music Track / 2001 making-of doc: “Into the Valley of Death” (63 mins.) / 7 Deleted Scenes (28 mins.) / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.





Oscar Nominated for Best Actor (James Woods) and Best Writing (Oliver tone, Richard Boyle)


After taking two unsuccessful pokes at directing with Seizure (1974) and the awful The Hand (1981), Oliver Stone parlayed the success of his script for Scarface (1983) by developing Salvador, based on the writings of photo journalist Richard Boyle.

Over several weeks, Stone and Boyle hammered out a script based on the latter’s adventures as a bellicose, globe-trotting journalist whose experience in El Salvador during the country’s internal struggles between left, right, and America’s invasive foreign policy of funding despots to curtail a perceived threat of Communist control of South America, and possibly the U.S.

More so than the Nicaragua-set Under Fire (1983), Salvador is up-front with its political critiques, and that’s due to Stone’s decision to make not a docu-drama but an agit-prop film inspired by the visuals and aggressive political messaging of Spanish and Russian propaganda films – a tactic that works because while provocative, its message and material is rooted in the experiences reported by journalists and diplomats, but ignored or distilled by major news agencies for want of not upsetting Ronald Reagan’s populist anti-Communist stance.

James Woods’ portrayal of Boyle is truly visceral – it’s a great performance in which a self-styled ‘asshole’ is determined to show the results of bad American foreign policy and earning a living by capturing hot spots and hot events with his beat-up camera and borrowed lenses, but he’s drawn more personally into the conflicts of poor citizens when he rekindles a relationship with local girl / single mother Maria (Elpedia Carrillo).

The original goal – drive with best friend Doctor Rock (James Belushi) to El Salvador for booze, no worries, and cheap pussy – is circumvented by love and a moral shift in Boyle, and while one gets a sense the viewer’s being manipulated by Stone into a state of outrage, the depicted traumas are so horrifying, Stone’s approach is justified; Salvador may outlast period news reports as the most accessible encapsulation of bad foreign policy when a conservative President rekindles Red Menace paranoia.

It’s easy to substitute the Nazi-sympathizing Major Max (a veiled version of El Salvador’s Major Bob) for present day religious extremists because the effects on average citizens are identical: local poor are tortured and murdered, rivals are killed, and western powers outraged with such repulsive behaviour have to cozy with less than ideal regional allies in the hope a western-friendly, democratic government can eventual take control of the brutalized country.

It’s an impossibility, but Stone’s major focus is on depicting the corrupted results of elements within the Reagan administration to support the sale of arms to Iran for money (the Iran-Contra affair), portions of which funded the murderous right wing / anti-Communist regime in El Salvador – a brazen event in U.S. foreign policy that should never be forgotten.

By keeping the film’s central drama so visceral, it ensures the political messaging isn’t lost, and as enhanced as the visuals may be – a large dump site of murdered citizens recalls the surreal, epic imagery of Alejandro Jodorowsky – the point isn’t overblown, nor is the genuine tragedy of a nation scarred by horrible acts.

Stone’s decision to have a characterization of Boyle experience a series of related historical events is perhaps the biggest critique one can levy against the agit-auteur – Boyle was neither present when Archbishop Romero was assassinated in the cathedral, nor present when the bodies of four murdered nuns were dug up – but it’s rather forgivable, perhaps because the ugly details of those killings validated the need for audiences to be provoked and react; as Stone relates in the making-of documentary, the film may have vanished within weeks from cinema screens, but it was seen by members of government, and because of its emotional power, it reportedly instilled more awareness of the Reagan’s dangerous policies.


The Blu-ray

Twilight Time’s BR features a really crisp transfer with strong colours and detail. There’s only one odd shot in the transfer – prior to stepping out of an APC, a nighttime moment between Woods and Belushi has some curious compression on the lower left land of the frame which isn’t in MGM’s 2001 DVD – but the rest of the film looks great, supported by a strong audio mix. New is an isolated stereo track of Georges Delerue’s score, and Julie Kirgo’s fine booklet essay which recaps the film’s production history.

Still unique to the DVD release is a photo gallery, but the rest of the 2001 extras are present, including Oliver Stone’s weak commentary track (most of his statements, about 40 mins. worth, have been tightly edited into clusters, with long gaps of nothing in between); and the deleted scenes to which he alludes in the commentary and hour-long doc.

The doc gathers new interviews with Stone, Woods, Belushi, and Boyle – pity excellent supporting cast members Michael Murphy, John Savage (very good in an unusually understated performance), Elpedia Carrillo, Cynthia Gibb, Tony Plana (effectively menacing as Major Max), and Juan Fernandez (often silent, but a scene-stealer with his placid smile and balletic movements) weren’t included – plus archival on-set footage, plus some of the demo / test footage Stone shot when he fancied casting Boyle as Boyle when no studio or star was interested in the project.

The deleted footage also ties together comments from Woods and Stone in the doc regarding the craziness in the script with which Woods sometimes wasn’t fully comfortable; issues with Woods and co-star Belushi; and a moment when Woods could easily have died on camera. Favourite anecdote: Woods and Belushi’s teasing of Stone’s last directorial stinker – The Hand – which they used in revenge for Stone’s occasional mind games (‘Hey Oliver – do you want ‘a hand’ in this shot?’).

The deleted scenes are fascinating but were largely unnecessary, since they did lengthen the film, and maybe oversexed it as well; Stone laments their removal, especially a scene in a brothel, but that one was too surreal in the way characters make political comments while groping the breasts and crotches of bawdy prostitutes.

Salvador may not have been an initial box office hit, but it is part of a remarkable year for Stone, who followed up with the Oscar-winning Platoon.

The murders of the four nuns were dramatized in the TV movie Choices of the Heart (1983), whereas the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero was depicted in Romero (1989). Other films involving photo journalists caught in South American civil wars include Under Fire (1983) and A Show of Force (1990).



© 2014 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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