Salvador (1986) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Some of the greatest filmmaking occurs when talent and passion collide. Orson Welles not only hated Hearst's smug right-wing journalism, but had met and despised the man himself.

Much like Citizen Kane, Salvador was a semi-documentary work by a youthful filmmaker who was passionate about the subject. In this case, the filmmaker was Oliver Stone and the subject was America's hypocritical policy toward countries with human rights abuses by "anti-communists". In 1984, Stone met Richard Boyle, a journalist who can best be described as Hunter Thompson in the war zone. Boyle was reckless, outspoken, degenerate, living a life totally out of control. At the time that he was introduced to Stone, his only true credentials came from a book he had written 15 years earlier. Purely by accident, Stone spotted an oil-stained manuscript in the cluttered back seat of Boyle's car, asked about it, and found that it was an unpublished collection of stories about Boyle's experiences in El Salvador. Stone volunteered to read it, and determined immediately that he would make a film of it by hook or by crook.

What a great story it was. Down on his luck in 1979, without money or a job, in jail for unsettled traffic violations, abandoned by his wife and unable to pay his rent, Boyle was bailed out by an old crony, San Francisco DJ Dr Rock. Since Rock was similarly down on his luck, the two irresponsible stoners conceived a plan to get in Boyle's beat-up jalopy and take a road trip to Central America. Boyle convinced Rock that they were going to Guatemala to kick back and enjoy some high life on the cheap, but his real plan was to return to El Salvador and use some of his old contacts there to resuscitate his journalistic career. 

Both of them ended up with more than they bargained for. As they drove along, smoking dope and talking shit, their world was instantly changed by the initial signs of Salvadoran reality: badly burned and mutilated bodies on the roadside, their first sight of a peasant shot in cold blood by the military, and a harrowing trip in a tank to their presumed death. They didn't die, but they came close several times. Boyle found a colonel who was an old buddy, and they were suddenly set free in the new El Salvador. Totally penniless at first, they struggled to make some kind of a life there, Boyle trying to get his story, Rock complaining a lot while trying to score drugs and floozies.

The images in the film, and the story behind the film, are spectacular. They managed to get as much of a film out of two million dollars as could humanly be done. It is, in my opinion, very close to masterpiece status. Stone kept it from being a true work of genius by spoiling it with heavy-handedness. Here are three examples:

  • near the end of the film, the Boyle character gets into a couple of long dialogues with some American military and CIA types, all of which was nothing more than an excuse for Stone to speak in his own voice, and was gratuitous, his point having already been clearly demonstrated by the events depicted in the film.
  • those two military/CIA characters were cartoonish examples of pure evil scheming, not fully realized human beings. Stone can't resist placing the devil's horns on these guys.
  • at one point, there is a brilliant scene where Boyle and another journalist (a fictionalized version of John Hoglund) are walking through a burial ground for people killed by the death squads. They are taking photographs of the dead bodies, amid the squalor, the vultures, and the stench, all the while talking shop talk about people they know, and debating journalistic theories. It is such a brilliant scene, spoiled by a word caption that says something like "disposal grounds for death squad victims", as if we couldn't figure that out.


in the theatrical cut
  • beautiful Elpedia Carillo is topless, and briefly flashes her buns.
  • during the rape of the nuns, some breasts are visible

in the deleted scenes, 

  • Juliana Urquiza does a topless scene with James Belushi
  • two (unidentified actresses) of the three hookers are seen topless in a graphic sex scene
In the long run, though, I don't think that Stone's sledgehammer was so very obtrusive, because the film had so many great scenes and so many strengths. The film does an excellent job of showing how cynical Central Americans used the naive U.S. policies and president to promote their cruel and corrupt schemes. I guess you all know this, but the USA was paranoid about Communism back then, and President Reagan tended to measure the worth of men by how ardently they opposed Communism. Mind you, Reagan was not an evil man. He believed in freedom and capitalism, and he opposed the forces aligned against those ideals. Nothing wrong with that. But Reagan was a simple man, and cynical people in the United States and elsewhere knew how to position themselves in order to exploit Reagan's na´vetÚ. It was easy. If you were a US general or colonel looking for a promotion or your own operation, come up with a scheme to defeat Communism somewhere in the globe. If you were a Latin American leader of some kind, just raise the flag of Communism in your opposition's camp, and the USA would come to the rescue with arms, advisors, and money. All you had to do was just tell Reagan you were an anti-Communist, give him your Swiss bank account number, and wait for the deposits to start. The regime that America supported in El Salvador was one of the worst of all the evil regimes America supported during those cold war times, and the American administration insisted on defending its position, against the contrary reports of American journalists. They even stayed in denial after reading the contrary reports of the American ambassador in El Salvador. Here's a minor list of the highlights:
  • at the end of the film, Boyle has his son, his Salvadoran girlfriend, and her baby taken away by INS and deported back to Salvador. This happened to thousands of refugees, even though they were going back to sure death, torture, and rape. Why did the benevolent United States do such a thing? Because we couldn't admit political refugees fleeing from a government that we strongly supported! Political refugees have to be fleeing oppression, and surely the USA wouldn't support an oppressive government.
  • if you remember the rape/slaying of the Maryknoll nuns, Al Haig asked the ambassador to write a statement explaining that the American-supported government was fully investigating the incident. The ambassador refused, since he knew that the government had ordered the murders! Haig not only fired the ambassador, but he and his pals tried to spread various "spin" stories that the nuns were political activists, communist sympathizers, and had run a roadblock! 
  • the film has a good time with the electronic glamour journalists who come to a country, stay in the best hotel, file a report from the rooftop, and essentially report the official version supplied to them by the CIA, a version which ignores the truth unless it happens to coincide with American interests.
  • the killing of the Archbishop was a superior scene. He was killed by a recipient at Holy Communion, right next to Boyle! (Although the archbishop was an outspoken critic of the regime, the government blamed the murder on the insurgents. Many American officials either agreed or pretended to agree, in order to suit their own interests.)

In addition to the serious political analysis in the film, there is also James Belushi to provide excellent comic relief, and a chance for us in the audience to see the situation through his "average Joe" eyes. I loved his first reaction to El Salvador - "there's shit in the streets, dead bodies rotting in public, trash everywhere (as he throws a beer bottle from the window of the car). It's like going to Baltimore"

James Woods won an Oscar nomination for a characterization which still may be the greatest he has ever created. He got a chance to do more than create a real person. He got to create a real person who was a crazy, larger-than-life guy, and a complete weasel despite some good intentions. Stone was quoted as saying of Boyle, "he's a sleazoid, a rake, a no-good really crazy guy, but interesting".

Woods genuinely deserved that acting nomination. The documentary revealed that his famous confessional scene was improvised.

This is a great DVD. Oliver works hard on his movies, and he works hard to create great DVD's as well. Between his commentary and his co-operation with the documentary, he gives us a complete understanding of what it was like to be involved in the film, as well as in the original incidents. In addition to an excellent transfer of the theatrical version in a 1.85 aspect ratio enhanced for 16x9 screens, there is

  • a full-length commentary by Stone
  • a full hour documentary on the making of the film, including interviews with Stone, Belushi, James Woods, the actual American ambassador at the time, and the real Richard Boyle. This was a very difficult film to make, and the stories are fascinating. They originally got permission to film in El Salvador by giving the government guys a false script. Early in the filming, the government's technical advisor was killed by rebel guerillas. This scared the shit out of everyone, and they ended up moving the entire production to Mexico where government censors made them show cleaner, safer streets to give a better impression of Latin America. (Despite the fact that the Mexican streets they used were actually supposed to be Salvadoran streets in the middle of a war!) To top everything else off, Woods and Stone fought the entire time, and Woods even stormed off the set at one point. He was brought back when they caught him hitchhiking back to the States! This documentary is a must-see. Both Stone and Woods are brilliant, outspoken men who "give good interview" and never bore.
  • 25 minutes of deleted scenes, including plenty of nudity
  • a collectible booklet with more insider stories

DVD info from Amazon.

see the main commentary

I don't say this very often, folks, but this package is a must-own for film buffs. Great DVD, important film, Oscar-nominated performance, young director in his first great film, fascinating politics, real story written by a guy who was there ....etc. 

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three stars. Ebert 3/4, Maltin 2.5/4.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.2, 
  • With their dollars ... it has rarely been seen, either in the theaters or on rental. At the time, Woods was shocked by his Oscar nomination, because the film was so obscure.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B-.

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