Director: Oliver Stone / Screenplay: Stone & Richard Boyle / Editing: Claire Simpson / DP: Robert Richardson / Score: Georges Delerue
Cast: James Woods / Jim Belushi / Michael Murphy / John Savage / Elpidia Carrillo / Tony Plana / Colby Chester / Cynthia Gibb / Will MacMillan / Valerie Wildman
We’re Not in Kansas Anymore…
Writer-Director in the mould of Fuller and Peckinpah, Oliver Stone could never be accused of pursuing the art of subtlety in his film-making. Consider Salvador, for example. It’s a picture that delights in bludgeoning the viewer with a lurid, over-caffeinated sensibility. Go with it however and, at the moment when you start shaking your head, it’ll have proved the point of its existence.
Beneath the histrionic bluster, there’s an innate intelligence to Stone’s writing that he revels in showing us, like some maths genius when displaying a blackboard crammed with equations. His numerous scripts offer gracefully-framed concepts and positions often rivalling the imagery on-screen, for potent threat.
His first directorial efforts had been disposable, yet essential opportunities, through which to learn the craft of film-making. Natural extensions for the writer of Midnight Express (1978) and Scarface (1983) to name but two early projects as a writer-for-hire, but it was Salvador, Stone’s third film as Director, that set the template for the filmography to-come.
Salvador is, at its heart, a loose biopic of the idiosyncratic, real-life photo-journalist Richard Boyle and his exploits covering the civil war that engulfed the country for eleven years, beginning in 1980. To render Stone’s film to its bare bones alone however, is to mete injustice to a remarkable cinematic achievement, given the circumstances in which it was both conceived and shot.
It opens with a discordant title sequence, with news-camera footage of an actual shooting in El Salvador itself, jump-edited against a jagged score from Howard Delerue. It’s a contrivance, sure, but an effective way of unsettling the audience from the off.
Then we’re in the face of James Woods as a bleary-eyed Boyle, waking in a one-room apartment shared with a wife and young son. The landlord’s at the door, demanding back-rent and before we know it, Woods is left to face the music, alone.
It gets worse.
Boyle calls an old contact at a newspaper, hoping to land a gig covering the situation in El Salvador, but has no favours left to cash-in. He’s washed-up. To compound his misery, a traffic cop then pulls over his battered car and lists a string of unpaid fines that lands him in the local nick. He’s bailed by the one friend he still has left: an amoral local DJ called Dr Rock, played by Jim Belushi. This was Belushi’s biggest gig after leaving a successful run in late-night TV comedy, and you can see him straining at the seams to develop Rock’s character: an effort laudable in purpose, if not execution.
This is the framing device that Stone uses to get these two dope-fiends in-country: neither of them have any ties still worth a damn, to their hometown of San Francisco, nor money for flights South. Yet they apparently DO have sufficient funds to DRIVE through Mexico & Guatemala in Boyle’s mobile-wreck of a Mustang convertible; probably best not to overthink it.
To this point, the tone has been resolutely ‘Gonzo’. It’s as though Boyle & Dr. Rock’s friendship, has been modelled on the writings of Hunter S. Thompson. Watching this pair of dissolute, Rabelaisian drunks goad each other to pharmacological excess, is to be reminded of Gilliam’s later Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) or an uncensored episode of Top Gear.
Two blokes who tolerate, but don’t necessarily like each other. In a battered old car. On a three thousand-mile road-trip to a vague destination and an even-vaguer outcome, in the expectation of recording for posterity, anything and everything that occurs along the way. At least Stone has the decency to whittle this down to a VO, laid over a scenic montage that ends before it outstays its clunky welcome.
Any hint of Cheech & Chong is soon dispelled, as they glide past the burning corpse of a soldier and reach a roadblock. A busload of civilians lay spreadeagled on the tarmac, as troops watch over them: after all, the killer might be hiding in plain sight, amongst the frumpy ladies and gaunt Campesinos…
As Woods starts to burn nervous energy in working the problem, we meet another actor who will imprint himself in our memory; treading the path of Morgan Woodward’s Mirror’d Sunglasses in Cool Hand Luke (1967). Juan Fernández will say little in the picture, but dialogue would only leach his Lieutenant of the gravitas imbued in him, by Rob Richardson’s camera. For make no mistake: this guy means Trouble and Boyle knows it. Woods is at his edgy, snarky best here, as he flexes his considerable powers of persuasion by dropping the name ‘Colonel Figuera’ as being ‘a close friend’. Unwilling to put the claim to the test by shooting these two, pasty Gringos, the Lieutenant puts them in an armoured car and delivers them to Figuera in-person.
Boyle’s reunion with the Colonel, gives Stone further licence to pursue his most indulgent impulses as a Director. In an opulently-decorated office, resides the moustachioed’d Figuera and a bevy of comely hookers. As clichés tumble into each other, this sequence becomes an unintentional parody of how Hollywood has come to depict the typical ‘Banana Republic’: in a blizzard of booze, drugs and ill-advised portraiture…
It’s only when Boyle’s liberty is restored – and he’s inexplicably reunited with his car – that the picture gets into second gear. The man’s now On Assignment, after all and let’s face it: this is all he’s good for. After a reunion with old flame Maria (Elpidia Carrillo), Woods settles into the part with apparent ease, as Boyle catches-up with assorted colleagues from the Press Corps.
Chief among them, is John Cassady, played by the ever-impressive John Savage, as a mystical idealist. A photo-journalist who idolises the purity of vision achieved by past masters such as Robert Capa, the character is actually based on the real-life photographer John Hoagland, who died in 1984, whilst covering the ongoing conflict. Stone wrote the Cassady character as having one thing in-common with Boyle: the luck of the Irish. In Stone’s yarn, both men come alive on a battlefield, be it active or wallowing in the ghostly silence that follows conflict. Nothing seems to touch them, as if validating the true test of a war correspondent: knowing with full certainty, that you’ll not be hit. Until the moment you are…
Then again, take a moment to consider the fact that Stone collaborated on the script with Boyle himself; if Woods’ on-screen depiction of the man himself has at least one grain of truth in there somewhere, then we’re left wondering how much of all this was a hazy recollection of drunken bravado!
This is all just so much window-dressing for Stone’s main event, however. That would be a series of sub-plots involving a CIA spook and a senior American Colonel, who are working behind the back of U.S. Ambassador Kelly (a bland Michael Murphy) to support the ailing regime. Time is of the essence: if the insurgency succeeds as looks likely, it’ll pave the way for a Marxist Government. At the time, under new President Reagan, the hawks were in-charge of American foreign policy and the last thing they wanted, was to see ‘another Cuba’ bloom in central America.
The tragedy for El Salvador is that – as Stone does well to articulate – in the early days of its conflict, a negotiated truce was more than possible. Entire regions of the country had fallen to the rebels and the incumbent junta looked ready to fall; its reserves of fuel & ammunition, exhausted. It was only because the U.S. opted to resume supplies after an interregnum caused by the rape & murder of three American Catholic nuns and an aid worker, that the war dragged on for eleven more years, and led to the deaths of over seventy-eight thousand people…
At the outset, I talked of Stone forging a template with Salvador and it’s there to see when considering his subsequent filmography. Take Boyle, for example . As-written, he’s a drugged, drunk misogynist, yet for the purpose of the script, he’s an everyman, who conveys dark truths to the unwitting audience. Yes, the film’s melodramatic and often offensive in its characterisations (of women, for example), but there’s a kinetic dynamism at-play, as Boyle confronts the Spook and the Colonel at a country club. In a devastating monologue, he dares speak truth to power, in calling-out his country’s involvement in a proxy war.
Coming so soon after the quagmire of conflict in South East Asia, the writing’s even more powerful when you discover that Stone was himself a decorated Vietnam Veteran. In playing the role of the World’s policeman, he’s reminding us that the USA ought to pick its battles – and its allies – with greater care; a theme he’d return to later in the byzantine JFK (1991) and Nixon (1996). It’s even there in his magnum opus Alexander (2004), if you consider its titular hero to be the superpower of his day.
It is of course, a lesson that would be forgotten in-time.
Yes, the production ran out of money – twice – and had to beat a hasty retreat from the shoot in Mexico… The two leads vied with each other for screen time and Stone grew to loathe Woods’ aestheticism (or actorly professionalism, depending on which account you believe), but the film still retains a primal sizzle. It crackles with the potential of a young film-maker who’s off-the-chain and looking to prove both himself and a point.
The film had a limited release and sank without a trace, despite Oscar nods for both the script & Woods, but Stone had little to fear: Salvador would get noticed by the right people and earned him the right to make Platoon.
That film would change everything.
[about Ronald Reagan] Can you believe that a straight man to a chimpanzee is going to be the next President of the United States? I mean, doesn’t that depress you?