Oliver Stone cannot make fiction.

This isn’t a criticism.

Look at his three top films as the director on Rotten Tomatoes, Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and JFK (1991). Each of these films is based on or inspired by historical events. Even the fictional elements in these stories and there are a lot in JFK, are rooted in contemporary accounts. He’s dropped the ball a couple of times, with The Doors (1991) and Alexander (2004), but his best movies deal with historical events in a docudrama style.

Coming to Eureka! Films Master of Cinema collection is Stone’s Salvador (1986), on Dual Format and is a semi-autobiographical account of Richard Boyles time in El Salvador

Set between 1980-81, Salvador tells the story of sleazy but talented photojournalist Boyle (James Woods) and his friend Doctor Rock (Jim Belushi) as they navigate their way throughout war-torn El Salvador. With his reputation flagging, Boyle sees an opportunity to return to El Salvador to cover the war, kick-start his career again and connect with his old flame María (Elpidia Carrillo). It’s only on his arrival that he sees first-hand how brutal the U.S backed Military Junta is as students are executed in the streets, thousands become the “Disappeared”, and clergy like Óscar Romero are assassinated. As Boyle tries to cover the war, each picture links him to another stolen life and makes him, María, and their friend’s targets for the Junta’s right-wing death squad, the infamous Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez Brigade.

SALVADOR, Jim Belushi, James Woods, 1986, (c) Hemdale

When you start to watch Salvador, you will think the first fifteen minutes are Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) before violently turning into The Killing Fields (1984). Partly this is due to Boyle, he’s an amoral journalist after money, drugs, and women. It’s only after he sees the violence up close that he regains his compassion. Yet despite this character arc, and with the real Richard Boyle co-writing the script with Stone, he is not the protagonist strictly speaking. Yes, we do follow his journey throughout the war but he’s not the main character. Merely the audience surrogate. His journey from apathy to actual moral outrage and concern is not for himself but one that the audience should be experiencing when seeing dramatized scenes of the war.

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At its heart, Salvador is a docudrama about the war and the U.S participation in it. Throughout the film, references are made to the Regan era policies in South American to stem the tide of socialism, and how the U.S would involve themselves, fearing a victory by the left-wing guerrillas, by providing training and weapons for the Junta.

Each step taking by Boyle puts him, and therefore the audience, in a scene of historical importance highlighting the brutality of the civil war. Such events include the assassination of the human rights and anti-junta campaigner Archbishop Romero during mass, the rape and murder of four U.S nuns at the hands of a government death squad, the landfills that became dumping grounds for the bodies of murdered civilians and the desperate search by families for their disappeared loved ones. Figures and statistics are taken from groups such as Human Rights Watch while the images of the disappeared are photos of the actual slain adding a terrible weight to the films authenticity.

While it is less technical in its production than JFK it is rawer than Platoon and Fourth. Its camera is in close to the action, forcing the audience to watch and to experience the realities of the violence, opening up only in the aftermath to show the result of the devastation.

The Dual Format comes with Audio Commentary with Stone, original Trailer, new sound, archival interviews from the BFI and the full-length making-of documentary Into the Valley of Death.

Platoon gives a face to G.I’s fighting, Fourth of July to the veterans after the return. Salvador gives one to a country and its people during the brutality of war.

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Dir: Oliver Stone
Scr: Oliver Stone, Richard Boyle
Cast: James Woods, Jim Belushi, Elpidia Carrillo
Prd: Oliver Stone, Gerald Green
DOP: Robert Richardson
Country: USA
Runtime: 123 minutes

Salvador is available now.

By Pat Fox