Oliver Stone’s Salvador makes its début on Blu-ray within weeks of Oscar Romero being canonised.
The archbishop criticised actions by either side that adversely affected civilians in the Salvadoran Civil War, where, to the military, “the Church was the enemy.” His murder by right-wing soldiers is one key event in this film, which tells the stories of several real life characters to show the devastating impact of American funding for right wing militia, which carried out a horrific programme of repression, torture, disappearances and massacres.
The lead character is the hedonistic photo-journalist Richard Boyle (an Oscar-nominated James Woods), whose income from his earlier war coverage has run out – as has his wife, taking their baby with her.
When he hears of developments in El Salvador, he returns there, dragging DJ friend Dr. Rock (Jim Belushi) with him to the country, in the hope of jump-starting his flat career.
The journey is full of alcohol, pills and promises of prostitutes, but when they witness dead bodies and a murder at the border going in, it sets the scene for the fear and tension that ensues to the end.
Boyle is an ideal storytelling lead, as he knows people everywhere. In his earlier spell in the country, he gained contacts among aid workers, peasant farmers (including a girlfriend) and activists on both sides of the war. He also has links at the US embassy, where they cover Ronald Reagan winning the presidential election.
The movie is visually brutal, including a memorable scene with Boyle and fellow photographer John Cassady on a regular early morning round of photographing dead bodies left from the previous night’s violence, many littering a rubbish tip.
The photos give Boyle some leverage, as the rural guerrillas want him to send images out to the US press, while the military try to get pictures of the rebels.
As the militia gain power and the campesinos suffer further, Boyle wants to marry his girlfriend to protect her, which involves him taking confession – something he does with typical Boyle blagging, almost trying to make a deal with the priest. But Boyle’s love for her brings him closer to the people and this time, the violence affects him, reawakening his compassion.
Bonus material: As always with The Masters of Cinema series, this special Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) edition ha a reversible sleeve and is bursting with features.
As well as the usual trailer, audio options and extended/deleted scenes is a collectors’ booklet with a new essay by critic Barry Forshaw; archival imagery and extracts from the film’s original press-book. Oliver Stone gets plenty of airtime, with an interview about his war movies, an audio interview from 1986 and audio commentary during the film.
But most powerful is the 62 minute documentary on making the film that shows just how close to danger Stone and his team lived – or died, in the case of a technical advisor, who was murdered on a tennis court by rogue guerrillas.
It also has devastating political content by Robert White, the American Ambassador of the time. For example, he claims that the film’s importance lies in, “portraying the United States backing a killing machine,” noting that after General Alexander Haig tried to hush up the rape and murder of Catholic lay workers, “High up officials in the Reagan administration would find excuses for any conduct, even killing American citizens.”
Boyle says that his main motivation was reporting truth and that Salvador did more for getting the truth out than several years’ worth of press reports. “When you get the truth out, things do happen – good things, hopefully.”