“SALVADOR” Means “Salvation” and Other Oliver Stone Musings

Salvador Black Maria

The reason to check out Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray of Oliver Stone’s seminal work, Salvador (1986), is not just to enjoy this excellent piece of Agitprop. Most importantly, it’s to hear Stone’s commentary; a master-class in guerilla filmmaking, working with actors, and rollercoaster side trips into this inspired yet “conspiracy” obsessed neurotic.

Originally recorded in 2001 to accompany the DVD release, it’s rare that Twilight Time’s Blu-rays’ offer up such delightful extras, and having Stone’s commentary along with this pristine transfer in HD is a treasure trove of goodness.

Salvador was Stone’s third time out as director, although most assume it was his first. Throughout the late 70s and early 80s, he had made a name for himself as the “go-to” writer for edgy, dark material. He penned Midnight Express and Scarface, the former; one of the great harrowing nightmares of 70s cinema, garnering him his first Oscar, the latter; every video gamer’s violence obsessed fantasy; resulting in even greater returns overseas, as many from the international market assumed it was a realistic depiction of the immigrant pursuit of the “American Dream.” But little know his first time out as director was a cheap thriller from 1974 called Seizure, and not again until 1981 and the Michael Caine horror (and horrible) thriller, The Hand. Neither allowed Stone the opportunity to delve into politics the way he’d always wanted, until he discovered the source material for Salvador.

Salvador Black Maria

Stone was already friends with Ron Kovic, the paraplegic that would become the main character in Born on the 4th of July, when he was introduced to Richard Boyle, a “sanity” challenged photojournalist who spent an inordinate amount of the last ten years getting kicked out of jobs and countries. By his own admission a “slimy weasel,” Boyle sought out political hotspots, photographing and irritating politicos and journalists to the point of extradition. Most people wanted him dead. An alcoholic, over-medicated blowhard, Boyle was living out of his car when Kovic introduced them at a political rally and Stone found and read Boyle’s stained and worn collection of stories from his time in El Salvador. Stone pressed Boyle to let him adapt them into a screenplay, and three weeks later they had banged one out.

The real hero, according to Stone, was British Distribution Company Hemdale and Head of Production John Daly, who liked the script for Salvador so much, he offered Stone the opportunity to have it and another script that had been languishing in turnaround for years, Platoon, produced together. Stone merely had to choose which film to make first. Because he was so close to Platoon’s material, he wanted to go for it after making Salvador so he could cut his teeth on the latter, which today, he believes, meant Salvador suffered.

At this point, Stone thought Boyle should play himself, and went as far as shooting video screen tests. Those still exist as part of the DVD extras and offer an interesting glimpse into what a bizarre documentary the film could have been. Not an actor, Boyle stammers and stumbles through the proceedings, as does his comrade in arms, the real life Doc Rock, and it’s all just sort of a mess. Luckily, Stone’s other choice for the role, James Woods, was interested, and the rest is history.

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Boyle, however, would not disappear after the script was finished. He haunted the set, trying to “hook up” with actress Elpidio Carrillo, and generally irritating everyone, including James Woods, to the point that the actor, who was attempting to learn all he could about the man he was playing , decided he was “more” Richard Boyle than Richard Boyle was.

Playing Doc Rock (named so because he was once a radio DJ, but now just a barfly friend) was James Belushi, hot off his stint as a regular cast member of the mid-80s Saturday Night Live. Belushi was no stranger to movie roles, though, and did not hit it off with his co-star. The two “Jimmies” (Jim and James) had so much apparent “hostility” that director Stone, ever the puppeteer, played the two against each other, telling Belushi that Woods thought he was inferior to his late brother John, and Woods that Belushi thought Woods was not “leading man material.” Tempers flared so much that the two came to blows on set.

Salvador Black Maria

The production was originally supposed to shoot in El Salvador, but the local fixer was shot and killed during pre-production, so it was moved to Mexico. Financing for Salvador came from Sweden, and it turned out, was raised and laundered in so many illegal ways that years later the executives were imprisoned. During shooting, production was always running out of cash, the crew walked out several times, and even the local vendors were told they were shooting an Arnold Schwarzenegger film. On the final day of production, which also was the final scene in the film, Stone had to find a decent location while cast and crew followed him out to the desert, since the location manager had disappeared with the negative until he was paid.

Structurally, Stone now feels the dialogue is a little overwrought, some of the scenes “too Hollywood” and more fanciful than his current tastes, which is surprising, since the film was considered a docudrama upon initial release, and to the casual viewer, plays believably. As well, when compared to some of his later “over the top” films like The Doors or Natural Born Killers, Salvador seems downright “sober.” But it’s these musings that make viewing the Blu-ray with audio commentary so fascinating.

Out of chaos comes genius, and so was the shooting and the story of Salvador. Woods’ Boyle is always one step ahead of the law. He can’t pay his rent, his wife leaves him and he’s arrested for too many speeding tickets and thrown in jail. His pal Doc Rock bails him out with his last $200, and they take Boyle’s car with a big “TV” taped to the windshield down south. Boyle has been seducing Rock with clichés of Central America, hoping to keep Rock supplying him with money, drugs and tequila, but after witnessing a burning body in the road, and a street execution of a young boy, Rock realizes what they’re in for.

Salvador Black Maria

Boyle has had a life in El Salvador; in fact, he had predicted civil upheaval for years, but now, with the election of Ronald Reagan, it’s a foregone conclusion that the Conservative President will use the country’s struggle to further his own agenda as well as cement US corporate interests. Before long, Boyle has made himself a literal “boil” on the ass of the local junta, and becomes a figurative “mouthpiece” for director Stone, as he has ample opportunity to push his conspiratorial agenda to anyone who will listen.

As distasteful as Woods’ character is, his heart is (sometimes) in the right place. His mistress, Maria really loves him, and he could possibly be falling for her, too. He begrudgingly attempts to convert to Catholicism, and a touching scene has him attempt confession. But as everything in Salvador is layered, his recalcitrance is opportunity for a political backdrop, this time the real life assassination of Archbishop Romero. Chaos erupts, and Boyle reverts back to his true self, snapping pictures however he can.

Several characters continue turning up, and represent real people. John Savage as John Cassady is a stand-in for real photo-journalist John Hoagland. Cindy Gibb (later known as Cynthia) plays American aid worker Cathy Moore, posing as a nun to flee the country, becoming part of a tragedy torn straight out of the headlines.

Salvador Black Maria
James Woods and John Savage

As usual with Stone, the politics, ethics and character objectives are a convoluted mash-up, yet it all seems to work, even by today’s standards. In fact, it’s one of Stone’s more lucid scripts, and he successfully walks the fine line of telling an epic story in a very personal way. The end is heartbreaking, as finally Boyle tries to do something that will make a difference in several lives.

Twilight Time’s Limited Edition Blu-ray also features a “making of” documentary Into the Valley of Death, as well as deleted scenes, making the chaos and insanity even more tangible. Getting inside Stone’s brain may be a dubious odyssey, but this package, and the film, are worth the trip.

Salvador is available as a limited edition blu-ray from boutique label Twilight Time, and is only available at Screen Archives Entertainment and TCM Shop. 

About Wade Sheeler 153 Articles
Wade Sheeler is a Reality TV Producer & Director, Writer, Frustrated lover of film and obscure music. He still makes mixed tapes if he likes you enough. For The Retro Set, he'll be covering the best new releases of classic and hard-to-find films on DVD, with an occasional foray into comedies and comedy teams you should really stay away from.

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