Director: Oliver Stone
Screenplay: Oliver Stone, Richard Boyle
Starring: James Woods, Jim Belushi, John Savage, Michael Murphy, Elpidia Carrillo, Tony Plana, Cynthia Gibb
Country: USA, UK, Mexico
Running Time: 122 min
Year: 1986
BBFC Certificate: 18

Although it wasn’t his first film, Salvador feels like Oliver Stone’s true debut. It’s where his ballsy, in your face, heavily politicised style came to the fore. It wasn’t a huge success on its first release, but his follow-up, Platoon, came out only a few months later and did very well, picking up four Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director), helping boost interest in its predecessor. Some rate Salvador as one of Stone’s best films, although it’s not as well known as titles like JFK, Wall Street and Born on the Fourth of July. I liked it a lot when I saw it a decade or so ago, so I figured it would be worth revisiting in this new dual-format release by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series.

Salvador sees James Woods play Richard Boyle, an actual war zone photographer on whose experiences the film is based (he co-wrote the screenplay too). Boyle is down-and-out and looking for money, so heads to El Salvador, where he’d lived a while ago, hoping to get some decent shots of the atrocities reportedly being carried out by the US-trained and partly funded military regime. He drags along a friend, Dr Rock (Jim Belushi), who doesn’t really want to be there, but Boyle needs for cash and drug flow. The two of them stick their noses into local troubles in an attempt to find out where the action is but get into trouble themselves along the way. Boyle also tracks down Maria (Elpidia Carrillo), an old girlfriend he still cares about, and tries to help her but puts her and her family in the firing line. In particular, her brother Carlos (Martín Fuentes) goes missing after mocking Major Max (Tony Plana), the country’s dictator. Boyle attempts to find Carlos, help Maria get her papers in order, get the photos he’s after and manage to stay alive (Max has it in for him), but he can’t help but stick his foot in things and land himself in deep.

I must admit, I didn’t rate Salvador quite as highly this second time around. Largely I think the problem is that I watched Missing quite recently, which was made only a few years prior and is a similarly potent drama about a modern South American conflict in which the North American government were fanning the flames. In my eyes Missing is the better film, opting for a more intimate and subtle focus in terms of the central drama. Salvador, on the other hand, is big, brash and brutal, hammering home its message with graphic on-screen violence and angry rhetoric. Several of the scenes feel overly dramatised (one roundtable meeting with Major Max is particularly hammy) and the music pushes things a bit far at times.

However, this is Stone’s style and he acknowledges this in some of the special features on the disc. He’s aware of his over the top approach and doesn’t apologise for it. Plus, if anyone can pull off big, brutal and over the top, it’s Oliver Stone. Indeed, what the film lacks in subtlety it makes up for in intensity, shock value and brutality. It’s an unflinching look at a conflict that I imagine wasn’t well documented in mainstream media at the time. Stone amps up the drama to wake people up and make them care about what’s going on outside their sheltered existences.

The film is largely about this contrast between North and South America. On a more obvious level there are a few speeches damning US involvement in the conflict, but also the film uses Boyle and Dr Rock as examples/metaphors for typical North American attitudes towards such world issues. Boyle is merely heading into the conflict to make some money off it and Rock is only talked into going down to get some cheap sex and booze. It’s all a riot for them until they get more deeply involved and their own lives become at stake.

Woods is at his nervous, intense best here. It may be a fairly typical role for him, but he’s a powerhouse and this is one of the finest examples of his shtick, if you will. He revels in the gritty, swear-heavy dialogue he has to rattle off. The interplay between his character and Belushi’s is particularly enjoyable if you have a taste for offensive humour.

The film is no comedy though, so although you get occasional respite in the first half, most of the film is pretty punishing. There’s no happy end here as Boyle seems to continually get knocked down. When he makes one lucky escape from a life-threatening situation he falls straight into another. He brings most of it on himself though, as the character isn’t afraid to speak his mind and swindles and weasels his way through everything, so owes money and favours to everyone. Indeed, Boyle is an admirably flawed protagonist, which is particularly notable given he is, in reality, the film’s writer.

Overall then, it’s an angry, unflinching and visceral indictment of US involvement in El Salvador, as well as a commentary on US indifference to world affairs in general. It sure as hell isn’t subtle, but certainly packs a punch and the message is still very relevant today. Stone plays it big, but he leaves you drained and furious by the end, which is likely deemed a success in his eyes.

Salvador is out now on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The transfer looks and sounds great, with a robust, damage-free picture that retains the gritty quality of the film.

You get a decent selection of special features too:

– 1080p presentation of the film on Blu-ray (with a progressive encode on the DVD)
– Optional 5.1 or uncompressed LPCM mono soundtracks
– Optional English SDH subtitles
– Feature-length audio commentary with director Oliver Stone
– An extensive archival interview with Oliver Stone at the BFI
– A rarely heard, lengthy audio interview with Oliver Stone from 1986
– Into The Valley of Death (62 mins) – A documentary on the making of Salvador
– Deleted and Extended scenes
– Original theatrical trailer
– A collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by critic and journalist Barry Forshaw; extracts from the film’s original press-book; and archival imagery
– Reversible Sleeve

The commentary is largely very good but intermittent, so can be a frustrating listen as it constantly drifts between the film’s audio and the commentary. The two interviews are great though and provide a good insight into Stone’s career, background and motivations. The feature-length documentary is fantastic too. It’s one of the best ‘making of’s’ out there, displaying brutal honesty about the hellish shoot, although it (along with the commentary) were available on an older DVD release. The booklets included with Masters of Cinema releases are usually excellent, although I haven’t had the chance to see this one, so can’t comment.

3.5Overall Score
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