Between 1980 and 1992, El Salvador was ravaged by a civil war between left-wing guerrilla groups and a right-wing military administration supported by the US government of the newly elected president, Ronald Reagan. Fearful that left-wing prominence would ensure the spread of Communism into North America, Reaganite foreign policy sanctioned both the repression of the people of El Salvador and the use of state death squads led by ‘Major Bob’, aka Roberto D’Aubuisson. These death squads would go on to assassinate and ‘disappear’ anyone they identified as dissenters not aligned to their right-wing cause, often on spurious grounds. By the close of the war in 1992, more than 30,000 people were still unaccounted for, missing presumed dead.
The photojournalist Richard Boyle covered much of the emerging conflict, producing an unpublished memoir that he approached Oliver Stone with in the mid ’80s. Stone knew that he had to make a movie of them and that movie was Salvador, his third feature as director, now released on dual-format DVD and Blu-Ray in Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series. Stone depicts Boyle as a jaded and somewhat frazzled loose cannon. Played on screen by a magnetic James Woods, he’s a glib veteran of Vietnam and the killing fields of Cambodia – he makes many boastful references to being the last journalist out of the country, long after Sydney Shamberg – and a wild and crazy guy whose ego and predilections for wine, women, and song has left him practically unemployable and broke. Determined to score some freelance work reporting on the political turmoil in El Salvador, he somehow manages to convince an equally adrift acquaintance, the loudmouth San Franciscan radio DJ Doctor Rock (Jim Belushi), to accompany him. With such a premise outlined, you’d be right in thinking this isn’t Roland Joffé’s earnest and respectfully sombre The Killing Fields, or indeed any other war correspondent movie you’d care to name. Taking Boyle’s natural personality and the conclusion that no one who makes a living reporting from the middle of war zones can be truly moral or even sane, Oliver Stone creates a Hunter S Thompson style partnership in Boyle and Doctor Rock and, before you can say ‘Gonzo’, we have Fear and Loathing in Central America.
It’s a bold, left-field approach but it is also a winning one. Faced with the appalling horrors of Major Max’s (a thinly disguised D’Aubuisson) regime, the characters are allowed to mature and be seen in an increasingly more sympathetic and new light away from the garish, cartoonish and grotesque excess that we initially see. Like the skin of an onion, various layers of Boyle’s character are peeled back from wacko slimeball to experienced war correspondent, before finally becoming the empathetic, passionate and caring individual we see at the film’s conclusion. Their experiences and ultimately their maturing natures provides a symbiotic touchstone for the audience too, who can learn about what went on in El Salvador – and perhaps most crucially form an opinion – at exactly the same time as the protagonists do. James Woods is the skittish, live-wire embodiment of the whole enterprise and earned an Oscar nod for his performance as Boyle. At a time when the actor has proven to be quite a repugnant right-wing idiot on social media, it’s perhaps a timely reminder that he was once a striking and engaging performer and his scene at the confessional is especially heartfelt and impressive. Equally, Belushi delivers a solid performance as a surprising innocent abroad sidekick whose eyes are opened to the wider world. He may have been more famous for his comic roles at the time, but this really works in his favour here; providing light relief when it’s required and making those moments when he realises the seriousness and importance of the situation all the more resonant.
Is it all true? Well, not really no. Seemingly taking John Ford’s desire to ‘print the legend’ much of Stone’s Salvador is in fact a composite that blurs reality with fiction in order to produce both an accurate character study and a vivid indictment on US foreign policy and the savagery of civil war. Scenes which place Boyle at the centre of pivotal points in the conflict are, to put it nicely, using ‘poetic licence’. These include not only his eyewitness account of man of the people Archbishop Óscar Romero’s assassination at the hands of one of Major Max’s dutiful assassins in a packed church, but also the crucial battle of Santa Ana, as well as the discovery of the horrific crime scene where four American nuns and aid workers had been raped and murdered. There’s also the issue of the characters who are ‘loosely based on’ real people, such as the dedicated photojournalist Cassady (John Savage) whose real-life counterpart was John Hoagland, one of 35 journalists whose name appeared on a Salvadoran hit list of D’Aubuisson’s death squads, and who was killed in the midst of a gun battle in Suchitoto in 1984. Using thinly veiled characters in a movie based on fact is par for the course, but when you’re embellishing the tale in other areas it does make you query the overall authenticity and the reasons for the fictional disguises.
Salvador is a typical Oliver Stone film in that the filmmaker paints his characters with vivid colour and strong brushstrokes onto a broad canvas. Unlike some of his later work, however, Salvador is a more rough and ready guerrilla experience as befits the reality of filming on the hoof in Mexico for seven weeks with a whole lot of passion. It’s also a film that curiously sees Stone pull his punches at a crucial moment; with Boyle condemning both sides to be just as bad as one another after the battle at Santa Ana. It’s a strange choice for a film that starts with the very best of committed intentions to highlight the realities of Reaganite policy to feel the need to suddenly find a fence to sit on, and it’s not one Stone would make now. But overall, the film’s very real and lasting message lies in the scenes of utter inhumanity – such as the mutilated bodies littering the towns and countryside – which remain with the viewer long after in a way that hopefully, will force us all to consider the actions taken in the name of the supposed free world even today.