A harrowing drama set during the Salvadoran Civil War, Salvador is a one of director Stone’s most underrated films, a thrilling and violent look at the chaos of war as seen through the lens of an amoral photojournalist.
Even by contemporary standards Salvador is a divisive piece of filmmaking. Co-written and directed by Oliver Stone this visceral piece of cinema is a reminder just how good James Woods can be. Plagued with stories of on-set dispute, heated arguments and even threats of violence, it feels like the subject matter spilled off screen throughout causing animosity and ill feeling. Given the lack of budget, gonzo method of shooting and balls to the wall bravado Stone and company displayed, it is miraculous that Salvador got made at all.
Focused in an unflinching way on the atrocities being committed by the army, militia, local police and government officials in El Salvador, Woods and James Belushi hold this powder keg together with their teeth. There is a palpable sense of uncertainty in this cloyingly humid and starkly depicted carnage, as point blank town square executions are mixed with brutal roadside rape. There is an overwhelming sense of “on the lamb” improvisation combined with rapid fire dialogue exchanges that would make Salvador even less commercial today than it was in 1986. Peppered with Vietnam comparisons both literal and otherwise, only The Killing Fields with its focus on Cambodia comes close to being a companion piece.
Never shying away from showing violence, political manipulation or the effects on local villagers this is the forerunner to Platoon, Born on The Fourth of July and JFK, which would earmark Stone as a radical filmmaker. Films like this would never get made anymore because studio control, rigorous test audiences and flagrant risk taking like filming amid on-going military coups are outlawed on safety grounds. Even in the Eighties when Salvador first came out and lasted two weeks at the box office due to poor distribution, it still got James Woods an Oscar nomination for Best Actor while Oliver Stone got a nod for Original Screenplay. Which sort of gives the middle finger to studios and proves that unsanctioned bravery in filmmaking on contentious topics comes with its own rewards.
Unfortunately what it also illustrates clearly is that if you take actors and camera crews into hot beds of political unrest then things are guaranteed to get dicey. People will get shot, as their technical advisor did, people will threaten to quit amid the insanity, as Woods tried to do numerous times, but from that will sometimes come maverick moments of cinema. For some Salvador not only encapsulated all of the above but now more than ever is deserving of our attention.
Written by Martin Carr
Directed by: Oliver Stone
Written by: Oliver Stone, Richard Boyle
Starring: James Woods, Jim Belushi, Michael Murphy, John Savage, Elpidia Carrillo, Cindy Gibb
Salvador was released on Blu-ray by Eureka on September 17 in the UK.