Blu-Ray Review – Salvador

Salvador was Oliver Stone’s third film, but he had already made a name for himself as a fine screenwriter with a political bent. He had penned the scripts for Midnight Express and Scarface, as well as writing more mainstream films like Conan the Barbarian, Year of the Dragon and Eight Million Ways to Die. Stone’s first stint as a director had been the completely insane horror film Seizure, followed by The Hand with Michael Caine.

Salvador covers the civil war in El Salvador, and is set in 1980, the height of the conflict between socialist rebels and US-backed Contras. The story is told through the eyes of Richard Boyle (James Woods), a boozy, womanising, drug-taking, arrogant photojournalist who heads to El Salvador with his buddy Dr. Rock (Jim Belushi) in search of juicy freelance gigs. It soon becomes clear that the conflict is a bigger disaster than they had thought. Boyle had been in the country before, and left behind a child with an old flame, Maria. As things heat up with the assassination of Archbishop Romero and the rape and murder of a group of American nuns, he feels he must rescue Maria and her family.

Based on the true adventures of Boyle, a Hunter S. Thompson type, it was released at a time when most moviegoers in the States had little idea of what was going on. The film got a limited release, and Stone alleges there was an effort to suppress it. Salvador came in a long line of similar films about American journalists in war zones, such as The Killing Fields, The Year of Living Dangerously and Under Fire, which probably helped it to get made.

Woods was still a left-winger at the time, but later switched sides during the Clinton administration. Coming off of Once Upon a Time in America and Videodrome, Woods was at the top of his sleazy best here. The supporting cast, especially Jim Belushi, is also great—it’s one of Belushi’s first big roles, providing both dramatic depth and comic relief. Michael Murphy, who’s been in practically every Altman film, plays the US ambassador, and John Savage plays a fellow journalist.

Salvador definitely ushered Stone in as a director: when his films work the best, they are true-life political dramas, often ridiculously patriotic yet very critical of the US government. It’s a more watchable film than Platoon thanks to the good chemistry between the two leads. In addition, it’s one of the very few American films on the topic of any of the US wars in Central America, Alex Cox’s Walker is another around the same time. While a minor critical hit, it didn’t do much business because of distribution problems. Once it had a showing on the near-mythical pay-per-view Z Channel, it suddenly came to the attention of major critics (as also happened with Annie Hall) and members of the Academy, leading to Oscar nominations for Woods and Stone.

The main addition to the disc is a 42-minute archival BFI interview with Oliver Stone, taped after the premiere of Heaven and Earth, one of his most flawed but interesting films (and Stone’s own favourite). It goes over all of his films up to that point, including Salvador, JFK, his various films on the Vietnam experience, and his experiences as a screenwriter. There’s also a lengthy audio interview with Stone from 1986, plus all the extras from the MGM special edition DVD are ported over, including an excellent hour-long making-of documentary, and a commentary by Oliver Stone. Like the US Twilight Time release, it also includes a full complement of deleted scenes. There is also the trailer, and a booklet with new and old writing on the film.

★★★★★

Ian Schultz

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