Oliver Stone's Salvador is an extraordinarily powerful film which packs such an emotional punch that it is hard to be objective about it. What is clear is that it contains a superb performance from the great James Woods and demonstrates Stone's immense talent as a director. It's also very effective propaganda that reveals the disastrous consequences of US Foreign Policy in Central America without flinching. Naturally, it's pretty one-sided; but it's that political commitment which has always been one of the attractions of Stone's filmmaking.
The film is broadly based on fact and is set during the 1980-81 crisis in El Salvador. Growing unrest among the poverty-stricken peasants (the Campesinos) led to calls for land reform. This was seen by the military (encouraged by American CIA analysts) as a Communist uprising in waiting and so they formed death squads to get rid of any bad influences. Inevitably, the killing extended to women and children and anyone without a Sedjula (identity paper), the bodies of whom were dumped in a huge mound at El Playon. The resistance to the military became stronger until a peasant army was trained. Washington, increasingly hawkish after the arrival of Ronald Reagan as president, saw this as an attempted Communist coup and sent aid to the extreme right wing government in order to stop 'red' insurgency in Central America. Along with the disastrous involvement in Nicaragua, it was this which became one of the most controversial aspects of Reaganite foreign policy; the 1983 film Under Fire addressed this head-on, as does Salvador. Stone calls it agit-prop cinema and I think he's right since these are the most radical mainstream American films since the late sixties.
Woods plays photo-journalist Richard Boyle, a singularly unsympathetic character who we first see being kicked out of his apartment for not paying the rent. Once his common law Italian wife and baby depart for Rome, he borrows some money and decides to head off for Central America with his drug toking friend Dr Rock (Belushi). His dreams of easy sex and drugs while taking a few photos of peasants fighting soldiers are shattered as soon as he arrives at the first military checkpoint and sees the first body burning in the road. Essentially the film tells the story of Boyle's growing conscience about the things he is seeing as he himself becomes implicated in the events through his love for Maria (Carrillo) and their children. The country is in chaos with, as the US Ambassador Richard Kelly says, "A psychopathic killer on the Right, god knows what on the left and a gutless middle". Major Max (Plana) is the presidential candidate in the ascendant (based on the real life candidate Roberto De Bosson), a right wing maniac who poses as a nice family man in his TV commercials and organises the killings of the radical and popular Archbishop Romero and the head of the human rights volunteers. The US Military swan about like thirties playboys blissfully ignorant of the chaos their policies are creating and when four Irish Catholic nuns are raped and murdered by an off-duty team of death squad members, the US government suggests that they were gun runners - "Pistol packing nuns ?" explodes the unimpressed Kelly. Meanwhile, the bodies pile up and no-one seems able to do anything about the inevitable disaster.
James Woods is incredibly good in this part. Boyle is always aggravating and often infuriating but he's also a live wire who is exciting to watch and unpredictable; it really is impossible to tell what he'll do next. Woods doesn't soft pedal the obnoxious side of the character; indeed he revels in it, especially in the hilariously obscene conversations between him and Belushi - regarding the purported delights of El Salvador he comes up with "Where else can you get a virgin to sit on your face for seven dollars ?". But he's also curiously innocent when faced with the horror of the death squads and genuinely moving when he first sees the dump pit at El Playon. It's like he's waking up to the human tragedy of things he used simply to write about. When, towards the end, he turns on the ludicrous military advisor and the CIA agent and spits out a vitriolic rant against US Foreign policy, it's a real stand-up-and-cheer moment. His bloody minded insolence and awkwardness are what make him a hero since he is in such stark contrast to the military killers and he ultimately becomes an unlikely spokesman for the dispossessed - not only the innocent dead of El Salvador but of Nicaragua, Cambodia, Guatemala and Chile.
Oliver Stone's pounding lack of subtlety has been irritating in some of his later work but it is exactly right for this subject and this type of film. He is not only angry, he is furious at what is going on and he doesn't make any pretensions to political balance. Instead, the film seems burned onto the screen; it's full of potent images and passionate feeling. The points are rammed home but perhaps they needed ramming home - US military aid for El Salvador was still ongoing when the film was made - and some scenes are genuinely harrowing, particularly the rape of the nuns. It's also fair to say that this acts as a much needed corrective to the rampant right-wing fantasy being pedalled by Hollywood at the time in films such as Rambo and Rocky IV. Stone's incendiary filmmaking is incredibly effective in scenes such as the Battle of Santa Ana which is staged rather like something out of Peckinpah and also in the gut wrenching attempted escape from El Salvador when Boyle is caught and beaten. The film was shot in Mexico after an attempt to shoot guerilla-style in El Salvador was aborted when the military advisor was killed. The town where the battle takes place also featured in The Magnificent Seven. Substantial portions of the film is shot hand held since a Steadicam proved too expensive, and this gives it a raw documentary feeling. Robert Richardson's cinematography is typically superb and Georges Delereu provides a powerful score, some of it featuring folk musicians from El Salvador who were later killed by the military.
The film does have some flaws. Its partisan style means that the supporting characters tend towards the stereotypical, notably a Yuppie anchorwoman and a US Army Colonel who chews the scenery with abandon. We also don't get much of a sense of the Campesinos as individuals; they are just brave resistance fighters who are less cruel than the military. The leaders of the death squads are cliched baddies, notably Juan Fernandez who is much too extravagantly sadistic to be believable. But the difficult part of the liberal Ambassador is well handled by Michael Murphy and one of the nuns is nicely played by Cindy Gibb, an actress who seemed very promising but never really got the parts she deserved. The film is very intense but often very funny too - Boyle's first confession for 30 years is a wonderful scene - and the exuberant presence of James Belushi as Dr Rock ensures that the tone is never too self-important. It's also very moving and sometimes heartbreaking - the ending is almost unbearably sad but depressingly realistic. I don't think it's quite Stone's best film - I would definitely place Nixon in that position - but it is exceptionally good and worthy to be placed alongside The Battle Of Algiers and Z in the list of great works of agit-prop cinema.
I'm pleased to report that MGM have produced a good disc, for a change, making this a genuine Special Edition. In fact, it's one of the best discs of the year so far.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic picture is always very good and sometimes excellent. There are some small scratches and a few artefacts here and there, but otherwise it is pristine. The detail is superb, far outranking the VHS copy I own and the version shown on TV. Contrast is very good and the colours are gorgeously rich. Deep full blacks too. A very impressive transfer in fact and it does the film proud. On the commentary, Stone mentions a number of times how surprised he is at how good the film looks and I was pleased to share his surprise.
There are three soundtracks on the disc. The most impressive is a newly mixed 5.1 track. The surround channels are not used very often and dialogue and effects tend to come from the front channels, but when the surround is used it is very effective. The use of the subwoofer is very limited but, again, effective when it comes. The music gains most from the new mix and sounds quite gorgeous - when the strings kick in, it is quite overwhelming in fact. There are also French and English mono tracks. These sound fine and not all that different from the 5.1 for much of the time, but lack punch in the action scenes.
Some good extras have been assembled for this disc. Firstly, we get a brand new 62 minute documentary called "Into the Valley of Death", directed by Charles Kiselyak who did the Oliver Stone's America disc. It's a model of the form, providing copious information on the production and providing a nice bonus in the appearance of the real Richard Boyle to put his side of the story. We discover that the film was originally so low budget that Boyle and Dr Rock were going to play themselves and that the shoot was insane even by Stone's standards. Belushi and Woods disliked each other, Woods had a virulent hatred of Boyle and eventually Woods got so pissed off at one point that he attempted to leave not only the set but also Mexico and had to be coaxed off a bus heading for LA. Woods also nearly died during shooting when a gun which was meant to be empty proved to be loaded with a blank cartridge which would have still been enough to kill him if shot at his head. Given these circumstances, and the fact that the shoot was hit by a strike when the crew were not paid on time, it's something of a miracle that the film was ever finished. The real life Ambassador, Walter Kelly, also turns up to correct some of Stone's factual mistakes and to give a valuable and enraging account of the situation in El Salvador during 1980-81. This is a riveting documentary and would be worth buying the disc for if it was the only extra.
Happily, it isn't ! We get a full length commentary track from Oliver Stone that is packed with information. He talks in detail about the background to the film and the political situation in Central America, displaying particular contempt for the Reagan administration. He obviously loves this subject and is crazy about his actors and colleagues. There are occasional pauses but this is an in-depth track that is well worth listening to - it's also less exhausting than his JFK commentary which I had to listen to in 30 minute bursts to avoid my brain exploding. It's not exactly scene-specific although incidents on screen do prompt him from time to time.
There are eight deleted scenes on the disc. These are full frame and in poor condition but all of them are, for a change, worth watching. I liked the extended scene of the orgy in Colonel Fuigeroa's office and the hilarious meeting between Major Max and a PR firm. No commentary is provided on these but the aforementioned orgy scene is discussed in the documentary.
There are 46 production photos provided and the original theatrical trailer. This tends to emphasise what a tough sell the film was back in 1986 when Stone was still relatively unknown before his big break with Platoon (which is, in my opinion, a lesser film). There are 24 chapter stops and the animated main menu features a montage of scenes backed by the score from the film.
This is a superb package and demonstrates that even MGM can push the boat out when they really want to. I strongly recommend it for anyone who has enjoyed Stone's better known work. Fans of the film will need no further encouragement.